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The Engineer

The Life and Times of Donald F. Simmons

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SpaceShipOne claims the X-Prize

Burt Rutan's X-Prize Entry, SpaceShipOne, won the X-Prize this morning with it's second trip past 100 km in less than two weeks, the first being last Wednesday.

Today's flight (full details here) looks to have gone just about perfectly, reaching an altitude of 112 km, well past the 100 km minimum, and incidentally breaking the old X-15 aircraft altitude record by almost 5 km. This was in contrast to Wednesday flight, where the vehicle went into an unplanned roll 50 seconds into the flight, much to the alarm of the spectators. After 20 full revolutions, the pilot cut the engine 11 seconds short of the full burn time and stabilized the craft, which still managed to poke past 100 km to qualify.

Rutan's team wins the $10 million X-Prize for flying the same vehicle past 100 km twice, with the fights being within two weeks of each other. They are estimated to have spent between $20 - $30 million on the project, but see it as a springboard to bigger things, and have announced a deal with English billionaire Richard Branson (of Virgin Airlines) to build five sub-orbital craft for the tourist trade.

Their only serious competition, the Canadian da Vinci Project originally had scheduled their first flight for last Saturday, but had to postpone it, and have not yet announced a new launch date. I'm certainly hoping they push ahead and get at least one flight in to show that they could do it.

I was rather skeptical of the X-Prize when it was first announced, as a sub-orbital flight is still a long way from getting into orbit (that requires nearly 20 times the power any of these craft can produce) but it's gone a long way towards reducing the giggle-factor commercial spaceflight projects were always confronted with. People now know that this can be done for quite modest amounts of money. Here's hoping it leads to bigger things.