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Science & Space

SpaceShipOne captures X Prize

Privately funded craft reaches altitude requirement

By Michael Coren
SpaceShipOne, attached to the White Knight, takes off Monday.
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Burt Rutan
Ansari X Prize

MOJAVE DESERT, California (CNN) -- SpaceShipOne achieved its most spectacular flight yet, climbing to an altitude of 377,591 feet (71 1/2 miles) to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize on Monday.

X Prize officials said it set an altitude record exceeding the military X-15's top altitude of 354,200 feet (67 miles) set on August 22, 1963.

With a wish of "Good luck and Godspeed," mission control sent the privately funded craft toward space for the second time in a week, the requirements for winning the X Prize.

"Today we have made history. Today we go to the stars," said Peter Diamandis, co-founder of the X Prize Foundation.

The $10 million award is intended to spur civilian spaceflight.

"You have raised a tide that will bring billions of dollars into the industry and fund other teams to compete," Diamandis said. "We will begin a new era of spaceflight."

The craft left a near perfect dovetail of exhaust contrails with the White Knight turbo jet, which carried it aloft, as its rocket ignited for 84 seconds. The rocket burn sent SpaceShipOne on a trajectory that sent it climbing for almost a minute after the engine shut down.

"It looks great," said Brian Binnie, SpaceShipOne's pilot, on his way up to space at Mach 3.

Binnie, now only the second person in history to earn his commercial astronaut wings, reported a shaky flight with "a little roll" but did not experience the 29 rolls Mike Melvill experienced last week.

"The experience is quite literally a rush," he said. "You light off the vehicle and the world wakes up around you."

He said the view from above could not be conveyed in the images.

Paul Allen, who financed the program, Richard Branson, who recently founded Virgin Galactic for space tourism, and Burt Rutan greeted the newly minted astronaut on the runway. Brinnie's family also joined him on the podium.

Space ShipOne and White Knight, featured a new paint job promoting Virgin Galactic, Branson's new venture, which recently announced a deal to license the SpaceShipOne technology for a fleet of commercial spacecraft

Winning the X Prize with SpaceShipOne is only the beginning for Rutan.

"I have a hell of a lot bigger goal now (than NASA)," he said.

He is now determined to supply the craft for Virgin Galactic.

"I absolutely have to develop a space tourism system that is at least 100 times safer than anything that has flown man into space, and probably significantly more than that," Rutan said.

After some unexpected acrobatics during the the last flight, Rutan said Monday's would be a smooth one, but he was prepared for stability issues.

"We believe we have solved these and we don't believe we'll see the rolls tomorrow," he said Sunday. "But if we do, we don't believe they're dangerous. ... After all, what we're doing is research."

The spacecraft was outfitted with a stronger engine and some aerodynamic modifications from its first record-breaking flight into space on June 21.

Melvill flew the craft's first mission to space and reached, just barely, the required 62-mile altitude, passing the internationally recognized boundary of space. Wind shear and a jammed control on the tail meant the craft veered about 20 miles off course, but it returned for a smooth landing. It was only SpaceShipOne's fourth flight using the rocket engine

On Wednesday, SpaceShipOne streaked even higher to 337, 569 feet (64 miles). However, during its ascent, the private spacecraft began a series of rolls that Melvill brought under control only after ending the rocket burn 11 seconds early.

SpaceShipOne's thrust was provided by two innocuous substances that, when mixed together, are explosive: nitrous oxide and rubber.

A fuel tank about six feet in diameter at the center of the craft holds liquid nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas. A hollow tube leading from the tank to the engine nozzle is filled with solid rubber. The combustive combination produces thousands of pounds of thrust, although exact amount remains secret.

The nonprofit X Prize Foundation is sponsoring the contest to promote the development of a low-cost, efficient craft for space tourism in the same way prize competitions stimulated commercial aviation in the early 20th century.

The prize is fully funded through the end of the year.

The Federal Aviation Administration commended Scaled Composites on accomplishment and the prospects for commercial space flight.

"We do see this as the frontier of transportation around the around the world," said Marion Blakely, administrator of the FAA. "We know there will be risks, but those are risks are worth taking."

Branson, chairman of Virgin Atlantic Airways, announced last Monday that he would invest $25 million in a new space venture, to be called Virgin Galactic. The project will license Scaled Composite's SpaceShipOne technology for commercial suborbital flights starting at about $200,000.

Branson expects it could fly 3,000 people within five years.

"The development will also allow every country in the world to have their own astronauts rather than the privileged few," he said.

Copyright 2004 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

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