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Craft Rolls On Into Space in Bid for Prize

Times Staff Writer

The first privately funded rocket to reach space completed the first half of a $10-million flight competition Wednesday by soaring to an altitude of nearly 64 miles -- but only after enduring a white-knuckle series of barrel rolls.

Pilot Mike Melvill appeared to lose control as SpaceShipOne spiraled like a corkscrew near the top of its vertical climb.

“It was a real good ride, but at the top I got a little surprise,” Melvill said, standing atop the squid-like rocket after gliding to a landing here.

“It did a victory roll,” he said of the unintended maneuver.

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Built by innovative aircraft designer Burt Rutan and financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, SpaceShipOne climbed to 337,500 feet, about 10,000 feet beyond what is widely considered the boundary of space.

A second flight, which is required to win the $10-million Ansari X Prize, is tentatively scheduled for Monday, pending a post-launch review to be completed by today.

The flight brought Rutan’s rocket team one step closer to winning the unusual prize created to spur development of commercial spaceflights. It requires a vehicle with a pilot and two passengers or an equivalent weight to reach sub-orbit, about 62 miles above Earth’s surface, twice in two weeks.

Rutan said the rocket was loaded with personal items of his team members, including the ashes of his deceased mother, to make up the required weight of two people, or about 400 pounds.

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“One down, one to go,” said Peter Diamandis, the Santa Monica businessman who created the prize. “If all goes well, we have a beginning of a new era.”

There are 26 teams from seven countries vying for the prize, but SpaceShipOne is in the lead by a wide margin. A team from Canada, the Da Vinci Project, had hoped to launch its rocket Saturday, but postponed the first attempt another two weeks, citing a missing part. The Canadian team hopes to launch the rocket from a high-altitude balloon.

Wednesday’s flight marked the second time that the SpaceShipOne rocket had reached space. In a June test flight, the rocket, under the control of Melvill, climbed to 328,491 feet, or just past the boundary of space.

It was the first time that a privately funded vehicle had reached sub-orbit. The Federal Aviation Administration conferred commercial astronaut wings to the pilot, allowing him to join an elite cadre of pilots who have flown more than 50 miles above Earth.

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Wednesday’s flight came two days after British billionaire Richard Branson, owner of Virgin Atlantic Airways, announced that he was launching a commercial spaceflight service using a larger version of the Space- ShipOne rocket.

Expected to begin service in 2007, Branson’s rocket service would take up to five passengers to about 80 miles above Earth, where they would feel weightlessness and see the blue sky turn pitch black.

The service, Virgin Galactic, would charge passengers about $190,000 each for the two-hour flight.

Taking the space race a step further, a Las Vegas budget motel mogul announced this week that he was establishing the “America’s Space Prize,” which would give $50 million to the first team to build a commercial spaceship that could send five to seven astronauts into orbit.

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The prize is five times more than the X Prize because the challenge would be far greater than sending man to the edge of space. The vehicle would have to dock with an already orbiting craft such as the International Space Station, more than 100 miles above Earth, and then survive a fiery reentry similar to NASA’s space shuttle.

Rutan’s SpaceShipOne rocket, propelled by a mixture of rubber and laughing gas and featuring tiny round windows resembling polka dots, took off from Mojave Airport at 7:11 a.m. attached to the belly of a spider-like plane named White Knight.

Shortly after ascending to 48,000 feet, the plane released the rocket, letting it fall for a few seconds before its engines ignited and propelled it straight up for about two minutes.

As the rocket neared the height of the climb, it began to roll in what designer Rutan called a “flight control anomaly.” The flight director radioed Melvill to shut off the rocket engine, cutting short by about 11 seconds what was supposed to have been 90 seconds of engine burn.

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Rutan said during a post-flight news conference that the team had hoped to reach 360,000 feet, shattering the altitude record set by the X-15 winged rocket plane in the 1960s.

“There was plenty of performance in this spaceship,” Rutan said, adding that the team would be analyzing the flight data to figure out the cause of the roll.

But he added that it did not appear to be a serious problem.

About 5,000 people came out to the see Wednesday’s flight, compared with 27,000 who attended the one in June. But organizers said they expected a much larger crowd when the rocket attempts the winning flight Monday.

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Most in the sparse crowd were die-hard space enthusiasts, some of whom arrived at the airport as early as 3 a.m. and paid up to $100 for prime viewing spots along the airport tarmac.

Roy Mooneyham, a Santa Monica resident and a Verizon telephone technician, brought along a specially made binocular tripod that allowed him to follow the rocket as it climbed.

“I think it’s very exciting. It’s like watching the Wright Brothers,” he said.

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Private race to space

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The $10-million X Prize was announced in 1996 in St. Louis. The rules: Privately build a spacecraft capable of taking three people 62.5 miles above the planet, then make a second successful trip within two weeks, before January 2005.

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Dec. 17, 2003: SpaceShipOne, designed by Burt Rutan and financed by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, breaks the sound barrier on its first powered test flight.

May 5: The X Prize foundation renames the award the Ansari X Prize to honor a multimillion-dollar contribution by Texas entrepreneurs Anousheh and Amir Ansari.

May 13: On a new test flight, SpaceShipOne climbs to 211,400 feet above the Mojave Desert, a new altitude record for civilian aircraft.

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June 21: SpaceShipOne cruises to more than 328,000 feet above Earth and becomes the first privately funded vehicle to carry a person into space.

Aug. 7: A 1,000-pound rocket from a Mesquite, Texas, team crashes on a test flight.

Aug. 8: The $20,000 rocket built by a Washington state team malfunctions and explodes after climbing less than 1,000 feet.

Aug. 14: The Canadian Arrow team successfully tests its space capsule’s landing with a splashdown in Lake Ontario.

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Sept. 23: The Da Vinci Project team postpones its scheduled Oct. 2 launch in Saskatchewan because key components won’t be available in time.

Monday: British entrepreneur Richard Branson announces he is teaming up with Paul Allen to offer passenger flights to space beginning in 2007.

Wednesday: SpaceShipOne climbs to 337,500 feet in the first flight to officially qualify for the X prize.

Oct. 4: SpaceShipOne is tentatively scheduled for a second flight, fulfilling the competition requirement for a second consecutive flight within two weeks.

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Source: Times research

Los Angeles Times


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