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Up, up, and hurray: Trip nets record, $10m prize

Ship sees aviation first for altitude

MOJAVE DESERT -- The stubby little rocket known as SpaceShipOne shot into the history books yesterday morning high over the Mojave Desert, clinching the $10-million Ansari X-Prize for private spaceflight and setting a record for altitude.

Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper dead at 77. B7

Fueled by a novel mix of rubber and nitrous oxide, the rocket carried pilot Brian Binnie to 367,442 feet, well beyond the boundary of space, before cruising to a safe landing on a desert runway.

The prize, which will be formally awarded in St. Louis on Nov. 6, has been offered for eight years to the first privately-financed spacecraft to carry a pilot and the weight of two passengers safely into space and back within two weeks. SpaceShipOne, built by aviation pioneer Burt Rutan and financed by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, beat both the time and altitude requirements, accomplishing the two flights in just five days and beating the altitude by more than 7 miles.

That also beat the aviation record for altitude set by National Aeronautics and Space Administration's X-15 plane in August 1963. The $10 million prize will be split between Allen, who was the project's sole funder, and Rutan's 95-person company. Rutan said yesterday that every employee will get a share.

The purpose of the prize, which was inspired by the 1919 Orteig award that led to Charles Lindbergh's epochal transatlantic flight, is to encourage private rocket developers to make spaceflights less expensive and safer.

One step in that direction may have come last week: British airline magnate Richard Branson announced that he was starting a venture, Virgin Galactic, that would buy five new five-passenger spacecraft from Rutan's company and begin commercial tourist spaceflights in three years. The ticket price, he said, would be about $200,000.

The X-Prize foundation's chairman, Peter Diamandis, said that he expects prices will drop quickly as a market develops and competition begins.

"We have one winner here today," he said, "but it's insufficient to have a monopoly again." Comparing the dawn of this anticipated "new space race" to the explosion in computers that began 25 years ago, he said "we need not only the Apple, but also the Dell and the Hewlett-Packard and the IBM."

Yesterday's flight, and any that Branson would run, are a far cry from the orbital flights of craft like the space shuttle. The 90-minute trip barely grazed the edge of space, reaching a peak speed of about three times the speed of sound. In order to go into orbit, a spacecraft must attain seven times that speed -- a far more daunting technical challenge.

With the X-Prize's mission accomplished, the organization will now focus on helping to spur the next series of developments by holding an annual "X-Prize Cup" in New Mexico, where independent rocket companies will compete in a series of events and win prizes for highest altitude, most passengers carried, and other milestones that could help open up a real space tourism industry.

Both NASA and hotel magnate Robert Bigelow have said they plan to offer similar prizes of $50 million or more.

Already, some companies have signed up to compete in the X-Prize Cup, and one major funder announced its partial sponsorship yesterday. That's quite a contrast from his initial announcement of the X-Prize in 1996, when there were no teams ready to compete and he did not have any funding for the prize. The initial funding for the prize, he said, came as a result of a Boston Globe report on the plan.

It remains to be seen whether a flow of investment into startup rocket companies will result, as Diamandis and others anticipate, from the intense public interest in the prize flights. The Federal Aviation Administration, which is responsible for licensing such flights, has been strongly supportive; FAA Commissioner Marion Blakey called yesterday's achievement "the true future of transportation" and compared it to the Wright Brothers' flight. But one potential stumbling block is a bill that would explicitly allow for passengers to sign informed-consent agreements absolving the companies of liability, but which is now stalled in Congress.

Rutan, however, was undaunted. "We have a milestone and a challenge in front of us," he said, "and we've only begun."

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