SpaceShipOne wins $10 million

Private craft could usher in era of commercial manned spaceflights

October 05, 2004|By Peter Pae | Peter Pae,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MOJAVE, Calif. - SpaceShipOne, a privately funded manned rocket, soared into space and back yesterday for the second time in less than a week, claiming a $10 million prize and raising prospects for low-cost, reliable personal spaceflights.

The flight's success brings to the forefront a host of legal, regulatory and business questions that will determine whether the dream of commercial manned spaceflight can become a reality.

"This is the true frontier of transportation," said Marion Blakely, an administrator for the Federal Aviation Administration, as she watched the rocket shoot straight up into the sky.

The small rocket, piloted by former F-18 test pilot Brian Binnie, was propelled by a mixture of rubber and laughing gas to an altitude of 367,442 feet, well past the 62-mile barrier that is widely considered the frontier between the Earth's atmosphere and outer space. It glided safely back to the Mojave Airport before a cheering crowd of more than 10,000 people.

The flight marked the third time that the rocket, built by aircraft designer Burt Rutan and financed by Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen, had reached space.

In June, the rocket climbed to 328,491 feet, becoming the first commercial manned spaceflight. On Wednesday, the rocket completed the first leg of its quest to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize by soaring to 337,500 feet, or about 64 miles up.

To win the prize, a competitor had to reach space twice within two weeks carrying a pilot and a payload with the equivalent weight of two passengers. On Monday, X Prize judges declared that the rocket had climbed nearly 70 miles into the sky.

"We're at the birth of a new era, the age of personal spaceflights," said Peter Diamandis, a Santa Monica, Calif., entrepreneur who created the competition in 1996 hoping to spur privately funded spaceflights. "I've been waiting for this day for a very long time."

Organizers of the competition likened the achievement to Charles Lindbergh's successful flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927 to win the $25,000 Orteig Prize.

The Orteig Prize and Lindbergh's flight spurred the growth of the commercial airline industry. The number of people paying to fly in an airplane rose from 5,800 in 1926 to nearly 420,000 by 1930.

For the X Prize, M&M candy and 7Up soft drink were among several sponsors of SpaceShipOne, which included NASCAR-like logos on its side.

Whether yesterday's flight will prompt a vast expansion in private spaceflights is not clear.

To begin with, there is no precedent for establishing safety standards for manned commercial spaceflight.

Although the FAA has regulatory oversight over airplanes and commercial unmanned rockets to launch satellites, there is no process to license piloted suborbital vehicles such as SpaceShipOne. The FAA can license a location, such as the Mojave Airport, to launch rockets.

Congress is considering a bill that would set FAA licensing regulations for suborbital flights, including provisions that would require operators to disclose the safety record of their spaceship. In return, the passengers on the space flights would have to sign a waiver of legal liability.

The provision is considered critical for the growth of the nascent industry. Without the waiver requirement, investors are not likely to fund such a business out of fear of multimillion-dollar claims after an accident.

The FAA is facing other daunting questions, including how to write regulations for an industry that is still developing. Many of the technologies are so new that there is no certification process to determine if they are safe.

Hoping to sustain public interest, X Prize officials said yesterday they will be organizing an annual competition starting with an exhibition next year with at least a dozen rocket-makers.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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