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Private spaceship rolles into the space

Compiled by Nabila Quamrun Nahar

SpaceShipOne, what is likely to become world's first "spacebus", has won a 10 million US $ prize. The bounty, dubbed the Ansari X Prize has been announced since 1996, to the first privately funded spaceship, that successfully launches three humans or the equivalent weight to a sub-orbital altitude of 100 km on two consecutive flights within two weeks. The X-Prize is administered by the Missouri-based X-Prize Foundation, and funded by the Dallas based Ansari family. More than two dozen teams around the world are involved in the competition.The intention was to inspire an era of space tourism in which spaceflight is not just the domain of government agencies such as NASA, in other words to boost commercial-space travel.

The SpaceShipOne project cost less than US$30 million to plan, develop and execute, less than a 10th of what it costs the US government space agency NASA for a single, US$500 million space shuttle launch.

The first flight of SpaceShipOne was on September, 29 .63year old South African pilot Michael Melvill was on board . It landed safely in the desert of Mojave airport, north of Los Angeles after a wild corkscrew-like ascent into space. And finally completing the second flight by reaching more than 114 kilometers beyond the Earth's surface ,the spacecraft touched down on a section of the Mojave desert on October 4. The flight was commanded by 51 year old Brian Binnie.The SpaceShipOne team deliberately chose this day as the date of their second attempt because of its role in aerospace history: Forty-seven years ago, the Soviets put the world's first satellite, Sputnik 1, into orbit kicking off the first space race.

The flight plan was similar to that for the past two spaceflights: With SpaceShipOne attached to its underbelly, the White Knight carrier airplane took off from the Mojave Airport and rose to a height of 47,000 feet .Then SpaceShipOne unhooked from the White Knight and fired up its rocket engine for 84 seconds, reaching velocities more than three times the speed of sound.

At the top of the ride, Binnie experienced about three and a half minutes of weightlessness and had time to take pictures as well as play with a paper model of SpaceShipOne for the video camera's benefit. SpaceShipOne's wings were folded into a self-stabilizing, high-drag configuration for atmospheric re-entry, then were folded back into a glider configuration for landing. After an airshow-style fly-by, the White Knight landed as well.

Thousands watched from the Mojave Airport as SpaceShipOne's rocket plume streaked straight up into the morning sky. Among the VIP headliners were Richard Branson, head of the British-based Virgin Group and the world's latest space tourism investor; and Marion Blakey, head of the Federal Aviation Administration.

After Binnie landed, Blakey presented him with an astronaut pin and paid tribute to him as well as Michael Melvill, the only astronauts to earn their wings from the FAA rather than NASA or the military.

Binnie said the space mission was "a fantastic experience," with the "bright pearl" of the California coast visible beneath the blackness of space. "It's a fantastic view; it's a fantastic feeling. There is a freedom there and a sense of wonder that - I tell you what - you all need to experience," said Binnie.

"History was made today, and we begin an era of commercial space travel," Peter Mitchell, director of New Mexico Office for Space Commercialization, told reporters at the Mojave Airport , just a couple of hours after the SpaceShipOne rocket plane's prize-winning flight.

"We are proud to announce that SpaceShipOne has made two flights to 100km and has won the Ansari X Prize," said the X prize Foundation president Peter Diamandis.

President Bush phoned the winning team to offer his congratulations, Peter Diamandis said. "He said that it was great to see the spirit of enterprise alive in America and opening up the space frontier," "What we finally have here, after 40 years of waiting, is the beginning of the personal spaceflight revolution," said Diamandis.

"What's going to happen a few years down the road when space tourism is available for everyone is going to be amazing," said Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. He has sunk more than $20m into this project. "I'm looking forward to that day and hopefully we'll all be in space before you know it."

Aviation pioneer Burt Rutan, who conceived SpaceShipOne and whose company Scaled Composites built the vehicle, said he was "so proud of my team," the BBC said. Burt Rutan, creator of Voyager, the plane that completed the first non-stop, non-refuelled flight around the world in 1986.

So the race has begun for the suborbital passenger business, even before it's truly a business. Today, Mojave Airport certainly has the inside track not only because it's the home base for the SpaceShipOne team, but also because Richard Branson plans to run his "Virgin Galactic flights" from here in 2007.

Branson says he's already sold "a lot of real tickets" for those future flights at $190,000 each including a spot for British advertising guru Trevor Beattie of TBWA/London, who attended the past week's proceedings in Mojave.

New Mexico will be home of the X Prize Cup, the annual rocket festival conceived as a follow-up to the Ansari X Prize. British-based Starchaser Industries already has opened an office in New Mexico and plans to begin flying suborbital space vehicles there as early as 2006.

Oklahoma serves as the home base for two X Prize contenders, Rocketplane Ltd. and TGV Rockets. The Oklahoma Space Industry Development Authority plans to complete its federal spaceport application by next summer, executive director Bill Khourie said. And as of September 29, reservations are being taken for Rocketplane suborbital flights from Oklahoma starting in 2007, said Jane Reifert of Incredible Adventures. List price is $99,500.

Russia operates the only spaceport that has actually taken paying passengers into orbit the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The Russian-based Suborbital Corp. is developing its own analog to SpaceShipOne, known as Cosmopolis XXI, which could be flying by 2007.

Australia already has an agreement to launch Russian spacecraft from its Woomera Range, and Virginia-based Space Adventures the company that helped send millionaires Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth into space on Russian rocket ships says it may select an Australia site for a suborbital spaceport by the end of the year.

"I think you'll see the first Canadian, the first Russian, the first British, the first Romanian -- all the X Prize teams outside the US will continue their work to become the first of their nation to carry out a first private flight into space," said X Prize founder Peter Diamandis.

Brian Feeney, who leads a rival X Prize effort called the da Vinci Group, said that he was determined to continue.

"If we come in second to the most accomplished aerospace engineer of this and the last century, that's not too bad," Feeney said. "We have a singular goal: to fly. If we fly, we win."

Space Transport Corp., another X Prize rival, sent its congratulations to the SpaceShipOne team and announced that it would still go ahead with a test launch of its Rubicon 2 rocket on Oct. 16 or 17 from the Makah Indian Reservation on the coast of Washington state's Olympic Peninsula.

The Ansari X Prize is modeled after the $25,000 Orteig Prize that was won by trans-Atlantic aviator Charles Lindbergh in 1927 .

Lindbergh's flight helped to demonstrate that air travel could be safe and affordable for ordinary people and blazed the trail for commercial airlines - a feat SpaceShipOne seems poised to repeat for space travel. But is this just another firework in hopes of bringing the public into space or the next revolution in flight?







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