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Burt Rutan chases $10m X-prize

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US outfit Scaled Composites is one step closer to its dream of private space travel, after the Federal Aviation Authority greenlighted its "SpaceShipOne" for sub-orbital flights.

Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne

The vehicle is chasing the X-prize - a $10m bounty intended to "jumpstart the space tourism industry through competition between the most talented entrepreneurs and rocket experts in the world".

It's all pretty straightforward. All you have to do to claim the cash is be the first developer who:

  • Privately finances, builds & launches a spaceship, able to carry three people to 100 kilometres (62.5 miles)
  • Returns safely to Earth
  • Repeats the launch with the same ship within 2 weeks

A tall order, even for California-based Scaled Composites, a firm which boasts the backing of MS walking wallet Paul Allen and the skills of Burt Rutan - he of non-stop-round-the-world Voyager fame.

Time will tell if this potent combination of brains and financial brawn will - as many space pundits predict - pull off the impressive feat during 2004. But while we're all waiting for the SpaceShipOne online booking site to open for business, here's some background info from Scaled Composites:

Our goal is to demonstrate that non-government manned space flight operations are not only feasible, but can be done at very low costs. Safety, of course is paramount, but minimum cost is critical. We look to the future, hopefully within ten years, when ordinary people, for the cost of a luxury cruise, can experience a rocket flight into the black sky above the earth's atmosphere, enjoy a few minutes of weightless excitement, then feel the thunderous deceleration of the aerodynamic drag on entry.

Our plan involves flight in a 3-place spaceship, initially attached to a turbojet launch aircraft while climbing for an hour to 50,000 feet, above 85% of the atmosphere. The spaceship then drops into gliding flight and fires its rocket motor while climbing steeply for more than a minute, reaching a speed of 2,500 mph. The ship coasts up to 100 km (62 miles) altitude, then falls back into the atmosphere. The coast and fall are under weightless conditions for more than three minutes. During weightless flight, the spaceship converts to a high-drag configuration to allow a safe, stable atmospheric entry. After the entry deceleration which takes more than a minute, the ship converts back to a conventional glider, allowing a leisurely 17 minute glide from 80,000 feet altitude down to a runway where a landing is made at lightplane speeds.

Our concept design work began in 1996 and some preliminary development began in 1999. Our full development program began in secrecy in April 2001. This extensive experimental research effort is a complete manned space program. It consists of all new hardware including a launch aircraft (the White Knight), a three-place spaceship (the SpaceShipOne), a hybrid rocket propulsion system, a mobile propulsion test facility, a flight simulator, an inertial-nav flight director, a mobile mission control center, all spacecraft systems, a pilot training program and a complete flight test program. All our hardware components are full-scale, full space-capable performance, not mockups or interim vehicles. ®

Related sites

Scaled Composites
SpaceShipOne
X-prize
Voyager

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