SpaceShipOne Team Wins the X Prize

The Rutan team (aka Mojave Aerospace Ventures, Scaled Composites, TierOne, or SpaceShipOne ) claimed the $10 million Ansari X Prize victory today with a second flight outside the earth’s atmosphere.

Google SpaceShipOne bannerBut forget the money. You know you’ve really made it big when Google puts you on their search engine banner.

Not only did SS1 claim the prize, but also set several records in process. For one thing, I don’t believe a ship has ever made spaceflights so close together before. Even the X-15 — whose 41 year old 354,200 foot altitude record SpaceShipOne smashed this morning — never made flights less than five days apart. Certainly the space shuttle has never done it. The only other reusable spacefaring craft in the world is the Russian Buran, and it only made one trip into space.

Brian Binnie joins Mike Melvill as the second civilian to join the astronaut corps. I don’t know who’s been responsible for selecting the pilot for each mission (four are trained and qualified), but Binnie was a great choice.

Binnie had a well-publicized problem when he piloted the first powered test flight of SpaceShipOne. On landing, the left main gear collapsed, sending SpaceShipOne sailing off into the dirt next to the runway. The damage was mainly confined to Binnie’s pride and SS1 was easily patched up.

Even so, today’s flight was certainly vindication for him. Especially since Burt Rutan took a moment to clearly state during the post-flight press conference that the landing gear collapse on that test flight had not been Brian’s fault. That didn’t stop a reporter from asking Binnie “if his Navy flight training was a detriment to his ability to fly SpaceShipOne”, though. Sheesh.

These X Prize flights have had tremendous human interest appeal about them. I suppose any manned space flight does, but the sheer size of an organiztion like NASA reduces any individual person to a miniscule cog in a massive machine. The X Prize contestants, on the other hand, are small companies (Scaled employs about 130) competing against that machine for the advancement of space travel.

And they’re winning. Does anyone doubt that a national space agency would be unable to do even a preliminary design study for a similar craft for $20 million? That’s what it cost Paul Allen to fund the design, construction, and testing of SpaceShipOne, White Knight, and the rocket engine. Not to mention crew training, government permits, and all the other anciliary expenses.

But there’s another aspect to the human interest side of this story. I think Brian Binnie captured it when he talked about his preparation for today’s flight. He sought advice on landing SS1 from Mike Melvill, and since Mike’s personal airplane, a Long-EZ, has similar glide and landing characteristics (as well it should — it was designed by Burt Rutan), they duplicated the circular windows in SpaceShipOne by blocking out sections of the Long-EZ’s canopy and starting flying circuits at Mojave with Brian in the front seat and Mike in the back.

That’s the homebuilder philsosphy — it’s all about creative and elegant solutions, not throwing more money at the problem. The NASA approach would probably involve a formal accident investigation, a year’s delay while they redesigned the landing gear, and a billion dollars to pay for the enhancements.

For as long as I can remember, manned space flight has always been about the past. It feels good to be looking toward the future for a change.

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