X Prize winner spawns space-tourism project

 - December 18, 2007, 6:19 AM

When aerospace designer Burt Rutan rolled out his manned suborbital spaceflight program and its centerpiece, SpaceShipOne (SS1), from its Mojave, Calif., hangar in April last year, reporters asked about his plans for space tourism. Rutan said he himself wasn’t interested in launching a space tourism business, but he hoped others would be able to use his technology “sometime in the future” to begin a new space industry.

Apparently that time is now. Even before Rutan’s SS1 made its two required 100 km-altitude spaceflights within two weeks (September 29 and October 4) to claim the $10 million Ansari X Prize, Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group entered into an agreement with Mojave Aerospace Ventures, a company formed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen that holds the licensing rights to the SS1 technology. Allen spent reportedly more than $20 million sponsoring the development of SS1, which was designed and built at Rutan’s Scaled Composites.

The 15-year licensing deal, worth up to $21.5 million, will allow Branson’s new company, Virgin Galactic, to build spaceships based on the SS1 concept that will carry one pilot and two passengers into suborbital space in the world’s first commercial space tourism operation. Construction of the first ship, named VSS (Virgin Space Ship) Enterprise, is to begin next year. Virgin Galactic anticipates launching its first commercial flights in 2007 with initial prices set at £115,000 ($208,000) per seat.

Passengers who pony up the fee will receive three days of preflight training in preparation for their two-hour flight, of which approximately three minutes are spent in zero-g conditions. Virgin Galactic plans to convey 3,000 people to space’s fringe over five years and to award them Virgin Galactic astronaut wings.

Winning the X Prize
As part of the deal, Virgin sponsored SS1’s X Prize flights on September 29 and October 4, and pinned its first astronaut wings on 62-year-old Mike Melvill, who piloted SS1 on a wild ride to 337,000 feet (63.5 miles) while the spacecraft rolled 29 times. According to a report released by Scaled Composites after both X Prize flights were completed, the rolling occurred after the SS1 had reached such an altitude that aerodynamic stresses normally produced by a rolling aircraft were virtually nonexistent.

“While the first roll occurred at a high true speed, about Mach 2.7, the aerodynamic loads were quite low (120 KEAS) and were decreasing rapidly, so the ship never saw any significant structural stresses,” Rutan said in his report.

Brian Binnie, pilot of the White Knight support ship that carried SS1 on the September 29 flight to an initial altitude of 55,000 feet before dropping the spaceship, finally earned his astronaut wings on October 4. Binnie, 51, piloted the SS1 to an altitude of 367,882 feet (69.7 miles). Unlike previous flights of SS1, the October 4 flight was uneventful, showing SS1’s true capability as it blasted beyond the mark.

Dr. Peter Diamandis, founder of the Ansari X Prize, will award the $10 million prize to Mojave Aerospace Ventures on November 6. The X Prize competition will live on in the form of an X Prize Cup, an annual space race and exhibition to be held annually in New Mexico starting next year.