Prize Achievement

In Uncategorized on December 8, 2017 by hillermuseum

SpaceShipOne and the Ansari X-Prize
by Jon Welte

Wilbur and Orville Wright first popularized their flying machines in 1908, staging demonstration flights that stunned onlookers and silenced those who had come to doubt that they had been the first to fly. Shortly thereafter millions of people had a chance to see firsthand the astonishing work of engineering first hand at public “air meets”, including ones at Dominguez Field (Los Angeles) and Tanforan (San Francisco) in early 1910.

One of the observers of the 1910 California air meets was publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. Hearst grasped the appeal of aviation and its potential for boosting newspaper sales, and knew that the year before a prize offered by the London-based Daily Mail inspired Louis Bleriot to fly across the English Channel. Hearst developed a prize of his own for a transcontinental flight across the United States. Although the deadline expired before the prize could be claimed, it was the inspiration for Cal Robert’s pioneering cross-country trip in the Wright Model B Vin Fiz in 1911.

Prize purses remained common throughout the first decades of aviation. Perhaps the most celebrated was the Orteig Prize, which inspired teams of aviators in a quest to fly across the Atlantic Ocean between New York and Paris. In May 1927, the prize was famously won by former air mail pilot Charles Lindbergh, flying solo in his Spirit of St. Louis airplane.

With the coming of World War II, prizes fell by the wayside as the pace of aerospace achievement was largely set by government-funded military programs. Wartime requirements inspired the adoption of jet propulsion, and during the Cold War uniformed test pilots flew to the sound barrier and beyond. Yet the allure of privately-funded prizes, competed for by private-funded builders and pilots, remained compelling.

In 1996, engineer and entrepreneur Peter Diamandis rekindled the practice of offering flight-related prizes by announcing the X-Prize, which promised a purse of $10 million for the first privately-funded human spaceflight. Renamed the Ansari X-Prize in 2004 after substantial funding was provided by Anousheh and Amir Ansari, the prize rules stipulated that the spacecraft must be reusable and capable of carrying a crew of three, and must complete two separate flights beyond an altitude of 100 kilometers (62 miles).

One of the speakers at the announcement of the X-Prize was an eccentric aircraft designer named Burt Rutan. Rutan had worked with the United State Air Force as a civilian engineer at Edwards Air Force Base, then designed and built kits for personal aircraft before establishing Scaled Composites at Mojave Airport in 1982. He led the design and construction of a range of innovative aircraft, including the Voyager aircraft which completed the first nonstop, unrefueled flight around the world in 1986. Rutan had long advocated a larger role for private industry in the development of flight, and was intrigued by Diamandis’ idea of a prize to spur new advances in space transportation.

Rutan and a small team of engineers at Scaled Composites worked on the problem of low-cost, suborbital manned spaceflight for several years, with a particular focus on the problem of safe re-entry from suborbital space. In the 1960s the North American X-15 had been tested at Edwards. Funded by NASA and the United States Air Force, the X-15 was carried aloft by a Boeing B-52 as a mothership, igniting its rocket motor only after being dropped at altitude. The X-15 achieved altitudes as high as 67 miles, but was demanding of its pilots. Rutan was on hand at Edwards Air Force Base when Air Force test pilot Michael Adams was killed in a fatal crash in 1967. The X-15 flown by Adams entered a spin near the high point of its flight and re-entered the atmosphere in an incorrect attitude at excessive speed, disintegrating in mid-air. Determined to design a spaceplane with superior stability, Rutan settled on a unique design feature that would “feather” the wings of the vehicle at an extreme angle as it reached its apogee, increasing drag and ensuring a stable descent back into the atmosphere below.

A workable design in hand, Rutan secured funding from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and created a company called Mojave Aerospace Ventures to support construction and testing of the spacecraft. In April 2003 Rutan rolled out what he called the “first private manned space flight program” at his facility in California’s high desert. The vehicles involved were unlike any that had flown to space before, although the mission profile was similar to that used by the X-series research aircraft from the 1940s-1960s. A carrier aircraft with a narrow, high-aspect wing appeared alongside a stubby rocket plane with a split vertical tail. The carrier, named White Knight, would lift the spaceplane to a launch altitude close to 50,000’. The spaceplane, named SpaceShipOne, would ignite a rocket motor when released and initiate a near-vertical climb beyond the edge of the atmosphere.

Captive flight tests began the following month, with glide tests in which SpaceShipOne was released from White Knight beginning that summer. On December 17th, 2003—the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight—SpaceShipOne completed its first powered mission, exceeding the speed of sound under thrust from its powerful rocket motor.

On September 29th, 2004, SpaceShipOne launched on the first of two flights required to win the X-Prize. Piloted by Mike Melvill, SpaceShipOne reached an altitude of 103 kilometers and, crucially, landed safely and successfully back at Mojave. This enabled a rapid servicing and turnaround of the vehicle, culminating in a second launch on October 4th, 2004, with pilot Brian Binnie at the controls. With the successful completion of this second consecutive launch to space, the SpaceShipOne team won the Ansari X-Prize and demonstrated an entirely new means of reaching to the edge of space.

One year after its last historic free flight, SpaceShipOne was placed in the Milestones of Flight gallery at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. The molds and tooling used to construct its composite fuselage has since been used to create several full-scale replicas. The Hiller Aviation Museum is pleased to have one such replica to display through 2018. Now hanging in the Museum’s Atrium, this artifact stands in tribute to the team that designed, built and flew the world’s first privately-funded manned spacecraft.


Aviation Week & Space Technology, “Rutan Aims for Space”, April 21, 2003

How to Make a Spaceship, Julian Guthrie, 2016, downloaded 24 April 2017


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