Beyond the X Prize

Winner already working on tourist spacecraft; contest for orbital flight rumored

3 min read

6 October 2004—If you were looking to divine the intentions of the team that won the US $10 million Ansari X Prize for commercial manned space flight on Monday, you’d have found them written on the side of the spacecraft all along. ”N328KF” is painted on the side of SpaceShipOne, a privately built spaceship that flew over the Mojave Desert in California into history by breaching the boundary of space twice in five days. "N" denotes a craft registered in the United States. But the rest of the sequence is a clear reference to the boundary the team sought to break: 328 084 feet, or 328 kilofeet (KF), the English equivalent of the 100-kilometer boundary of space.

For the last year or so, the team, which is led by Burt Rutan and financed by Paul G. Allen, has been telegraphing its intentions for the post X Prize era, too, and these indicators became even more concrete in the euphoria following the X Prize triumph.

Addressing rumors that the 4 October mission would be the last flight of the current vehicle, Rutan candidly described the evolution of his thinking. ”We do not have any specific plans for what to do with N328KF,” he admitted. "A year ago, my gut feel was we’d go out and make a little money flying payloads for DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] and NASA—we’ve had a lot of requests to do stuff like that.”

But because of the late-September announcement that British aviation mogul Richard Branson would use Rutan’s technology to launch a tourist venture called Virgin Galactic, that view changed. ”[Now] my gut tells me, additional flying should be focused on developing the very best tourism vehicle, SpaceShipTwo,” he continued. ”We may define reasons to fly development missions on SpaceShipOne to do this. That’s where I’ve got to focus all my talents.”

In previous months, Rutan had teased lecture audiences by flashing an image on the projection screen showing a craft looking like an enlarged SpaceShipOne. A viable space tourist vehicle, he suggested, would need to carry up to eight people, with a large porthole for each one, and would allow for twice as much zero-gravity time—hence, it would fly significantly faster and higher than 100 to 110 km.

Without providing design details, he told Monday’s post-flight press conference that such a vehicle was now under development. ”We’re designing SpaceShipTwo,” he announced, adding that ”it will be considerably safer than the original airliners that began flying passengers a long time ago.” Further, he said, ”We’ve identified some major breakthroughs that make us confident that manned spaceflight can be flown at�higher safety levels than current spaceflights.”

Branson added specifics to his recent general forecasts for space tourism: ”Three years from now, we’ll take the first delivery of the vehicle to take lots of people into space.” He has discussed plans to launch such suborbital space tourism missions not only from the Mojave Airport but from elsewhere in the world.

Other launch sites include islands, such as the Bahamas—where shallow waters and islands create what astronauts widely consider the most beautiful region on Earth when viewed from above. Flights above stark geologic features, such as the Grand Canyon or nighttime flights from Alaska to observe stars and the Northern Lights, are also being considered.

Rutan confirmed that both he and Virgin’s Branson would be aboard the first tourist flight of SpaceShipTwo. The funding for five flight vehicles will be provided by Branson.

For the next step—orbital tourist flights—the technological challenges remain daunting, perhaps a hundred times the difficulty of suborbital missions. Rumors of an about-to-be-announced ”orbital X Prize” continue to circulate.

Raising money for such a prize is also a challenge, so backers of that project might take a lesson from the innovative approach of the original X Prize. Reportedly, the project failed to accumulate sufficient cash and pledges to make good the announced $10 million purse, so organizers arranged an insurance policy against mission success. They essentially made a go-for-broke bet against an underwriter that the prize would be won, and paid in all of their cash. The rest, as they say, is space history.

This article was corrected on 7 October.

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