SciTech

SpaceShipOne takes second flight after two week break

Today, the frontiers of space travel might once again be shattered. This morning in the Mojave Desert of California, $10 million will rest upon whether one team's efforts and years of engineering can successfully launch a manned ship into space and return it safely back to earth. If not, Burt Rutan and his team's ship, SpaceShipOne, will return to the drawing boards, and 23 other teams will rush to take their place.

Spread all over the globe, these 24 teams have been racing since 1996 to win the Ansari X Prize, a competition modeled after the Orteig Prize. Based in St. Louis in 1919 and finally won in 1927, its challenge was to fly non-stop between New York and Paris. Charles Lindbergh won instant fame and the $25,000 pot when he became the first to "hop the pond." His flight paved the way for passenger travel and, along with other aviation challenges given between 1905 and 1935, led to today's multibillion dollar airline industry.

Today's prize, however, is much larger, and the stakes are potentially much higher than what was once considered the "Mount Everest of flight achievements." Now, $10 million will go to the first team who can privately fund, engineer, and launch a space ship that can carry three people the 62.5 miles (100 km) into the atmosphere where "official space" begins. Two flights must also succeed within two weeks in the same vehicle.

No governments are allowed to participate, and every team is focused on a low-cost approach. The end goal is to help design ships for the "private passenger" market, a suggestion that has made some companies back on Earth leap at the chance. The Virgin Group, for example, broke its silence and announced a partnership with SpaceShipOne's Mojave Aerospace Ventures, LLC, to make the newly-christened Virgin Galactic the first commercial space-faring vehicle, all for only $200,000 a sub-orbital pop.

"The development of space tourism is an astonishing prospect for everyone," said Nick Schurch of Carnegie Mellon's physics department, "offering people the chance to see our planet and the universe like never before. I can't imagine that anyone, from any society of culture, could remain unchanged by such an experience."

Each team competing for the X Prize is following a different approach toward the goal, but they hope to steer clear of the massive expenses that face space travel today. Many of the teams are still implementing vertical liftoff methods used for the past 30 years by NASA and other space agencies, but they are foregoing more costly rocket fuels to experiment instead with hybrid propulsion such as HTPB/Hydrogen Peroxide or LOX/Methane engines. Even John Carmack, the creator of the famed PC Doom game series, has a team competing for the X Prize; dubbed Armadillo Aerospace and based out of Mesquite, Texas, it was attempting both a vertical land takeoff and a vertical powered landing until a rocket failure on August 7 put them out of the race.

However, it is Burt Rutan's Mojave Aerospace Ventures, LLC, that has come the closest to achieving their goal -- and today, they will come one step closer.
SpaceShipOne's first launch was a test run last June. Rutan's efforts involved a two-stage operation: SpaceShipOne was piggybacked to 50,000 feet on the underside of a second ship, White Knight, where it afterwards detached and propelled itself to a height of 67 miles. The method proved successful, and pilot Mike Melvill celebrated by releasing a bag of M&M's inside of his zero-g cockpit during sub-orbital flight.

Last Wednesday, SpaceShipOne flew again and today it will be ready to complete its second run in two weeks. If successful, the Mojave Aerospace team will proceed to the final goal of launching a three-person squad under the same timetable. Two flights later, Rutan and his team will become the next Charles Lindberghs.