How SpaceShipOne and X Prize Launched Commercial Spaceflight 10 Years Ago

December 2, 2015 – 06:54 pm

Pilot Brian Binnie stands atop SpaceShipOne, which won the million Ansari X Prize by reaching space twice within the span of two weeks in 2004.Ten years ago Saturday (Oct. 4), the era of commercial spaceflight really started taking off.

On that day in 2004, the privately built SpaceShipOne reached space for the second time in less than a week, winning the $10 million Ansari X Prize for the team that built the suborbital spacecraft and giving a nascent industry a huge shot in the arm.

"That was a very important event, " Michael Lopez-Alegria, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation and a former NASA astronaut, told "I would not be surprised if, 50 years from now, people look back and that will be identified as the moment that the era of commercial spaceflight started." [Now Boarding: The Top 10 Private Spaceships]

Pilot Brian Binnie stands atop SpaceShipOne, which won the $10 million Ansari X Prize by reaching space twice within the span of two weeks in 2004.
Credit: X Prize Foundation

SpaceShipOne takes flight

The Ansari X Prize was the first competition organized by the nonprofit X Prize Foundation, which seeks to spur technological progress by offering big-money purses.

The Ansari X Prize challenged private teams around the world to build a reusable, manned vehicle capable of carrying three people to an altitude of 62 miles (100 kilometers) — the generally accepted boundary marking where outer space begins — and back twice within a two-week span.

Rutan's team came up with a 28-foot-long (8.5 meters) vehicle called SpaceShipOne, which was lofted to an altitude of about 50, 000 feet (15, 000 m) by a carrier plane and then released, using its onboard rocket engine to blast into suborbital space.

SpaceShipOne made history on June 21, 2004, becoming the first privately created manned vehicle to reach space, after flying to an altitude of 62.5 miles (100 km). The spacecraft then won the Ansari X Prize by repeating the feat on Sept. 29 and Oct. 4 of that year, with Mike Melvill piloting the first of these two flights and Brian Binnie at the controls for the second. [SpaceShipOne Pilot Brian Binnie Recalls Historic Flight]

Boosting commercial spaceflight

The Ansari X Prize was designed to help get commercial human spaceflight off the ground, and it succeeded in doing so, experts say.

"I think it was tremendously important, " George Whitesides, CEO of the commercial spaceflight company Virgin Galactic, told "It showed that a small, nongovernment team could carry off a major human spaceflight program. And that was a really important existence proof for a lot of the work that has come in those intervening years."


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