Striving Across Sea, Sky and Space

In Uncategorized on March 4, 2011 by hillermuseum

Aeronautical Prizes from Louis Bleriot to Burt Rutan

By Jon Welte

The airplane was born at Kitty Hawk on a cold December day in 1903, but the marvelous invention wrought by the creativity and hard work of Wilbur and Orville Wright was at first little more than a curiosity. The Wright Brothers themselves spent several more years developing their design into an aircraft that they considered “practical”, and even then most who saw it in flight scoffed at the idea that such devices might ever serve a useful role.

In 1906, a new means of expediting the growth of aviation appeared: publicly-announced prizes for achievement in flight. The Daily Mail, a sensation-seeking British newspaper, offered a prize of some £10,000 for the first flight from London to Manchester. Other prizes were offered soon thereafter, some obscure yet others historic. In 1909, Louis Bleriot crossed the English Channel to claim a smaller Daily Mail purse. Ten years later John Alcock and Arthur Brown flew a Vickers Vimy bomber nonstop from Newfoundland to Ireland to claim a Daily Mail prize for the first flight across the Atlantic Ocean.

Often inventors and aviators who pursued these prizes spent far more than the prize itself on the achievement, but the public attention focused on the competition and the fruitful technological advancements that followed each triumph provided ample incentive to pursue the goals, no matter how outlandish. And in the dawn years of aviation, even outlandish prizes were claimed in remarkably short times: flying the English Channel seemed impossible in 1908, yet Bleriot’s flight occurred scarcely a year later.

The popularity of prizes as a tool to advance and promote aviation was directly responsible for the establishment of the Orteig Prize, announced in 1919. The Orteig Prize called for the first nonstop flight from New York to Paris. This prize went unclaimed for nearly a decade, but when young Charles Lindbergh made the journey in a Ryan monoplane in 1927, aviation experienced a worldwide boom the Wright Brothers could scarcely have imagined at Kitty Hawk only a quarter century before.

During and after World War II, achievement prizes fell into disuse as massive government-funded programs overtook entrepreneurial efforts to expand the aviation frontier. Supersonic flight and the first human landing on the moon were among the many achievements of this period, but by the mid-1990s development of space vehicles had reached a plateau. The space race between nations that dominated research and development efforts in the 1950s and 60s was supplanted by peaceful cooperation of former adversaries, and as the Cold War urgency abated some supporters of aerospace development looked again to private industry to take the lead.

In 1996 an organization that would eventually become the X Prize Foundation was formed. Its mission was simple: establish a prize for a reusable airplane able to carry a human being to an altitude of 62 miles (100 kilometers). Such heights had been reached by rocket planes before, most notably the North American X-15 research airplane that flew as high as 67 miles during a 1960s research program. The X-15, however, was a multiyear program funded by NASA and the USAF. The Ansari X Prize was reserved for a privately-funded endeavor. Within a decade, the prize was won by a team headed by maverick aeronautical engineer Burt Rutan.

Rutan was an alumnus of the Air Force’s test program at Edwards Air Force Base in California’s high desert. He founded the Rutan Aircraft Factory and later Scaled Composites, both dedicated to producing highly efficient aircraft of unconventional design. With funding in hand from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Rutan’s team embarked on what was later described as the first privately-financed space program.

The X-Prize required only a brief spaceflight on a suborbital trajectory, less demanding than a flight to Earth orbit. Nonetheless, to reach the required altitude—some 328,000’—required use of technologies never before harnessed outside of a military or civil space program. Scaled Composites developed two separate aircraft to accomplish its mission, the White Knight carrier aircraft and a smaller rocket plane, christened SpaceShipOne. Much like the X-15, SpaceShipOne was carried aloft by a jet-powered airplane. Upon reaching altitude, the rocket plane dropped away and ignited a single hybrid-fuelled rocket engine. The aircraft used traditional aerodynamic controls to pitch up into an accelerating climb.

SpaceShipOne’s rocket motor burned for less than 90 seconds, yet the vehicle achieved maximum speeds in excess of three times the speed of sound. Following this rapid acceleration, SpaceShipOne continued upwards like a cannonball, flying to the edge of the atmosphere as its pilot experienced a few short minutes of microgravity.

To prevent the spaceplane from overheating upon atmospheric re-entry, SpaceShipOne used a “feathering” mechanism in which both stabilizer booms bent at a severe angle, pulling the stabilizers into a position akin to a badminton birdie. The increase to aircraft drag slowed the returning aircraft at a gradual pace, alleviating heating problems. After returning to the atmosphere the pilot returned the stabilizers to the normal position and glided the aircraft to a runway landing.

Test flights of SpaceShipOne began in May 2003, and SpaceShipOne satisfied the Ansari X-Prize requirements with back-to-back flights on September 29th and October 4th, 2004, winning the X-Prize with a final altitude of just under 70 miles.

Since the award of the X-Prize, Scaled Composites has moved on to develop a larger vehicle for use by the Virgin Galactic company to fly paying passengers on suborbital trips to space. The X-Prize Foundation has continued to post prizes for achievements not merely in astronautics but in other research fields as well, continuing the tradition started by The Daily Mail over 100 years ago.

The thrilling pursuit of the Ansari X-Prize is the subject of SpaceShipOne: An Illustrated History by Dan Linehan. Mr. Linehan will speak at the Hiller Aviation Museum on Saturday, March 5th, at 11 AM to share his insights into this remarkable program and the winning of the X-Prize.


Ansari X-Prize Foundation., downloaded 31 January 11.

Dan Linehan., downloaded 31 January 11.

Roger Launius., downloaded 1 February 11.

Scaled Composites., downloaded 1 February 11.


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