Brushing off a surprising series of rolls, SpaceShipOne (SS1) pilot Mike Melvill took the private craft,funded by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, to the edge of space and back this morning. It was the first of two flights the team needs to claim the coveted Ansari X Prize.
The team, headed by aviation ace Burt Rutan and his company ScaledComposites, had tested its flights to space twice earlier this year. Now ithas the task of repeating today’s flight within two weeks to win the $10 million X Prize.
Space industry observers have called the prize a successful spur toprivate space endeavors. Other teams are still pursuingthe prize — for the purposes of innovation as much as for money.
More evidence of the X Prize’s successcame as the Virgin Group this week announced a $21.5 million licensing deal with Allen’s MojaveAerospace Ventures to produce reusable SS1 vehicles for private spacetravel.
Roll with It
In the flight to the edge of space — 100 kilometers or 62miles, the goal required by the X Prize — the missile-shaped,winged SS1 craft was first lofted into the sky by a companion craft, then split off and fired its own engine at analtitude of about 50,000 feet.
During the ascent [*correction] the craft rolled several times, causing concern on the ground. Once Melvill made some adjustments, however, he was able to bring the craft true for a successful flightand textbook landing.
When asked about the rolling, Melvill blamed his ownerror as the likely culprit. Control of the vehicle requires hand,feet, eye and overall physical coordination, and he might have pushed too hard on a pedal, Melvill said.
“I think it looks good if you can roll at the top of the climb,” he jokedat a press conference.
Testing To Win
Jeff Foust, editor of theSpace Review,said theeight-year-old X Prize has illustrated that the private sector can developvehicles that can carry people into space for relatively affordable costs.
“It has the potential to open a whole new and profitable market for thespace industry,” Foust told TechNewsWorld.
However, Foust, who watched the SS1 flight in the Mojave Desert, said therolling issues this week and similar bugs with earlier missions show how newthe technology really is.
“As shown today, these are still new vehicles with the potential forsignificant problems that have to be worked out,” Foust said. “They’ll needsome more test flights before they’re ready to carry passengers.”
While another team, The da Vinci Project of Canada, had planned a run atthe X Prize to coincide with SS1’s flight schedule, the team suffered adelay from component fabrication problems, Foust said.
The SS1 team will claim the $10 million if it can repeat today’s flight within two weeks.
Birth of an Industry?
Foust called the Virgin Galactic deal — whereby the SS1 craft andtechnology will be licensed for the creation of spacecraft intended forcivilian tourists — a giant step forward for the space industry.
“This is a great endorsement of the suborbital space tourism industry,”Foust told TechNewsWorld. “And it may compel other people to make similardeals for SpaceShipOne-derived or other vehicles.”
Virgin chief Sir Richard Branson, Rutan and Allen all agreed the VirginGalactic-SS1 deal would lay the groundwork for similar deals.
“Today’s deal with Virgin represents the next stage in the evolution ofthe SpaceShipOne concept, and will likely be the first of a number of dealsthat will utilize the technology developed during its creation,” Allen saidin a statement.
*Correction:When first published, this article incorrectly stated that the rolls occurred on descent.