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Ansari X-Prize : A Brief History and Background

On Monday, October 4, 2004, SpaceShipOne made the second of two suborbital flights in one week, claiming the elusive Ansari X-Prize (formerly the X-Prize). The privately funded, reusable spacecraft earned its team a $10 million dollar purse from the X-Prize Foundation, and its success is rumored to be the herald of a new era of commercial aeronautics. The trip claimed media attention, public imagination, and (in the hopes of X-Prize founders), marked a new era of commercial space flight.

From Orteig to Ansari:
The X-Prize was created in 1996 in the spirit of a long history of aviation prizes, most notably the Orteig Prize. Raymond Orteig, a wealthy hotel owner, offered $25,000 to the first person to fly solo non-stop from New York to Paris. The feat, achieved by Charles Lindbergh on May 20, 1927, spurred tremendous growth in the aviation industry. Within a year of that feat, the number of pilots in the US tripled, the number of planes quadrupled, and airline companies saw their passengers increase 30 fold. Moreover, nearly a quarter of all Americans viewed Lindbergh's plane (the Spirit of St. Louis) in the year following his trans-Atlantic flight.

It is in this spirit that X-Prize founders offered their $10 million prize. Backed by a board of trustees (including Anousheh Ansari), "The New Spirit of St. Louis Organization," and several well-funded supporters, the group hopes to stimulate "the creation of a new generation of launch vehicles designed to carry passengers into space."

The Ansari X Prize originally required that a team privately build, launch, and finance a vehicle capable of carrying three passengers to 100 km (approximately 62.5 miles) and safely returning to Earth. A recent modification in the rules for the prize allowed test flights to be made with a single pilot and added ballast to compensate for the weight of hypothetical passengers. In order to claim the prize, the same vehicle had to repeat this trip twice within two weeks. According to the rules and guidelines of the competition, no more than 10% of the vehicle's non-propellant mass could be replaced between the first and second flights as a demonstration of economic reusability.

SpaceShipOne, winner of the X-Prize, was solely funded by Paul G. Allen, designed by Burt Rutan, and built by his company, Scaled Composites. On September 27, 2004, the vehicle achieved the first privately funded human spaceflight in history. The vehicle cost an estimated $30 million to produce.

Like the X-15 of the 1960s, during trial launches SpaceShipOne used an air-launch system. At a pre-designated altitude of just under 50,000 feet, SpaceShipOne launched from its carrier vehicle (White Knight) and proceeded on its sub-orbital path. A cocking tail section allows deceleration to happen at a higher altitude, thus reducing stress and heat on the vehicle.

The fuel combines nitrous oxide as an oxidizer and hydroxy-terminated polybutadiene (HTPB or rubber). The propulsion system is touted as a hybrid rocket system because of this fuel combination. SpaceShipOne is a lifting body propelled via rocket after launch, and uses a non-powered re-entry. At roughly 150,000 feet the motors stop burning, and the craft continues to coast until it reaches apogee (furthest distance from Earth on its flight path). At this point, the backs of the craft's wings fold upwards in a jackknife-like position to increase drag, and thus slow the airplane as it falls through the second half of its parabolic flight.

  • Flight 1: September 27, 2004
    Piloted by Mike Melvill, and loaded with the cargo equivalent weight of 2 other passengers, the first flight attained a maximum altitude of 337,500 feet. During the ascent, SpaceshipOne performed a series of rolls, the first of which occurred at Mach 2.7. The motor burn lasted 77 seconds, after which the pilot shut down the motor and performed what Scaled Composites (the vehicle's builder) refers to as "care-free re-entry."
  • Flight 2: October 4, 2004
    Flight 2 attained a max altitude of 377,591 feet, breaking the X-15's 41 year-old record. Pilot Brian Binnie allowed the engines to burn for 84 seconds before guiding the plane back to the ground.
Predecessors: The X-15
The X-15 was a government-funded program that was somewhat similar to SpaceShipOne in technical approach. Development of the project began in 1954, and served as an important technological step between human flight within the atmosphere and human space flight. Like SpaceShipOne, X-15 used an air launch system, with a modified Boeing B-52 Stratofortress as its launch vehicle. The X-15 was fueled by liquid oxygen and a non-cryogenic fuel (anhydrous ammonia). The X-15 utilized North American as a primary contractor in a venture that included NACA/NASA, the US Navy, and the US Air Force.

Three aircraft were built, completing between them 199 flights from 1959 to 1968. The X-15 was the first winged craft to achieve speeds of Mach 4, 5, and 6; its record speed was Mach 6.72.

The X-15 program saw the same vehicle launch twice during a two-week period on 38 separate occasions during its testing period. On 10 occasions, the program sent the same vehicle up twice in under a week. The shortest separation period between two launches was the 3 days between the March 29 and March 30 of 1960 launches of the second X-15.

From April 30, 1962 until August 22, 1963, the X-15 set three consecutive altitude records. The first came 11 days after a previous successful flight by the same aircraft. The last, on August 22, was 354,200 feet, a record that was unbroken for 41 years.

Space Tourism:
Space tourism has long been a factor in the aerospace industry, though until recent years no attempt has been truly successful. In the 1960s, Pan Am and Thomas Cook began a register of names for those interested in lunar tourism. In its heyday, the list numbered nearly 93,000. Beyond the suborbital flights made potentially possible by SpaceshipOne, other potential projects in the space tourism field include eventual orbital travel and the development of orbital hotels.
    Dates in Space Tourism
  • 1990: Mission to Mir- TBS pays $12 million for journalist Toyohiro Akiyama to fly to Mir.

  • 1998: US enacts the Commercial Space Launch Act, allowing the commercial vehicles to re-enter and return payloads to earth.

  • 1999: Richard Branson founds Virgin Galactic Airways

  • April 30, 2001: Dennis Tito (American businessman) pays $20 million to travel on a Russian Soyuz rocket to the ISS, becoming the first tourist in space. Mark Shuttleworth (South African businessman) makes the same journey April 25, 2002, making him the second.

  • September 27, 2004: Richard Branson enters into an agreement with Mojave Aerospace Ventures (a Paul Allen company) to license technology for commercial space flight.
Barriers to further space tourism are largely economic, as only the elite few members of the public have thus far been able to afford the multi-million dollar price tags attached to such travel. Additionally, technical difficulties are presented in the need for a re-usable spacecraft in order to make the venture economically viable. Problems of international regulation and concerns for public safety pose further problems for the future of space tourism.

Further Resources:
Ansari X-Prize
SpaceShipOne Wins X-Prize
Charles Augustus Lindbergh Homepage
Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

  1. Hypersonics Before the Shuttle: A Concise History of the X-15 Research Airplane by Dennis R. Jenkins. Monographs in Aerospace History #18, NASA SP-2000-4518

  2. "Space Tourism: An Update" Spaceflight Magazine, Vol 38, March 1996

  3. "Space Tourism: An End of the Century Review" Spaceflight Magazine, Vol 49, February 2000

Rebecca Anderson and Michael Peacock, Authors
Stephen J. Garber, NASA History Web Curator
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