Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne appears to have today claimed the $10m Ansari X-Prize as the first private space vehicle to successfully make two trips to above 100km within a two-week window. The triumph came on the anniversary of the 1957 launch of Sputnik - the first man-made object to leave Earth's atmosphere.
The craft was manned by test pilot Brian Binnie, rather than Mike Melvill who took SpaceShipOne to 102.8km last Wednesday.
SpaceShipOne is the brainchild of aviation pioneer Burt Rutan and was constructed by the Paul Allen-funded Scaled Composites. It has a rocket motor which propels the vehicle vertically upwards after release from its White Knight mothership at around 14km. After skirting the edge of space, it simply "shuttlecocks" back through the upper atmosphere - a technique designed to reduce the craft's velocity and thereby remove the need for substantial heat sheilding - until it reaches an altitude at which the conventional controls become effective. SpaceShipOne then glides back to base.
SpaceShipOne first flew to 64km on 13 June. On 29 September it made the first of its two X-Prize flights, exceeding 100km despite suffering serious roll during its vertical ascent. Today's flight appears to have passed without incident. Although some slight roll could be observed during the boost phase of the mission, it seems that Binnie managed to bring this under control before he got the "tumble dryer" treatment. The as-yet-unconfirmed figures say that the second flight reached 114.64km.
The news of SpaceShipOne's success will be welcomed by all those would-be astronauts prepared to shell out substantial sums for the trip of a lifetime. British entrepreneur Richard Branson recently announced he would buy five scaled-up versions of SpaceShipOne to offer mere mortals a quick jaunt to the edge of space for £100,000. ®
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