Houston, we have a winner: Allen's group claims X Prize

MOJAVE, Calif. — A $20 million, private investment in manned space flight earned a $10 million return yesterday when a stubby, white rocket captured the X Prize by soaring to the edge of space for the second time in less than a week.

SpaceShipOne's jubilant backers predicted it won't be long before that red ink turns black, as the thirst for adventure and exploration fuels a boom in space tourism.

"There are real dollars to be made here," said St. Louis entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, who created the prize to inspire a new breed of rocketeers and move human space travel out of the exclusive domain of government.

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who bankrolled the SpaceShipOne project and tracked the flight from mission control, said it was hard to remain calm even though the craft had performed the same feat twice before.

"When the rocket engine fires, your heart just jumps right into your throat," he said, grinning. "It's pure exhilaration."

Like Diamandis and many others involved in the project, Allen grew up marveling at America's astronauts — and expecting rocket trips to become as commonplace as airplane rides.

That boyish delight was evident yesterday among now-grown men who used personal fortunes and professional skills to bring their dream closer to reality.

"The 9-year-old boy inside me is jumping for joy and waiting to take a flight," Diamandis said.

SpaceShipOne's feat came on the 47th anniversary of the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik, which kicked off a space race between Cold War superpowers.

The carrier plane, White Knight, took off shortly after dawn, looking like a pterodactyl clasping the egg-shaped rocket to its belly. At about 46,000 feet, the rocket detached and pilot Brian Binnie pointed its nose up and ignited its engine.

Thousands of watchers on the ground tracked the bright orange flare until Binnie switched the engine off after about 80 seconds. The rocket coasted to a height of nearly 70 miles, well above the 62-mile target spelled out in the X Prize rules.

SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan said Allen will share the prize money with the team that built and operated the rocket.

To snare the trophy, aviation maverick Rutan had to demonstrate that his rocket could reach the edge of space with at least one person and the equivalent weight of two others aboard. Then he had to repeat the process within two weeks, proving the craft could ferry people to space over and over.

In June, Mike Melvill became the first civilian pilot to earn astronaut wings by piloting SpaceShipOne's inaugural flight. Melvill was also at the controls for the first X Prize qualifying flight Sept. 29, when the rocket unexpectedly rolled 29 times on its ascent.

Yesterday, Melvill piloted the White Knight carrier plane. No explanation was given about why he did not fly SpaceShipOne, but the team has four pilots qualified to fly either craft.

Rutan and his team worked 12-hour shifts for five days to solve the problem of the Sept. 29 flight, and Binnie's flight was virtually flawless.

During the three minutes of weightlessness at the apex, Binnie let loose a paper model of SpaceShipOne and watched it float around the cockpit.

Then the craft dropped into a roller-coaster descent that briefly slammed him with five times the force of gravity.

He guided the spaceship through its long. looping glide back to Earth, with a landing more seamless than those of most commercial jetliners.

Later, he described the view from the top: the blue curve of Earth and the blackness of space.

"It's a thrill everyone should have in their lifetime," he said.

Last week, airline executive and adventurer Richard Branson announced a deal between his Virgin Group and Allen's Mojave Aerospace Adventures to license SpaceShipOne's technology as the basis for a five-person spaceliner to begin shuttling tourists by 2007, for $200,000 a head.

But skeptics question whether space tourism will ever be more than a diversion for the type of elite adventurers who now pay $60,000 for guided trips up Mount Everest.

"Space tourism conjures up the notion of going to Hawaii or the Caribbean, but this is nothing like that," said Henry Hertzfeld, an expert in the economics and laws of space at George Washington University's Space Policy Institute.

"It's a short-term thrill that will appeal to only a few people."

Brad Blake and his 11-year-old son, Zak, were enthusiastic enough about space flight to get up at 2:30 a.m. for the three-hour drive to Mojave from their home in Reedley, Calif.

But neither imagined himself flying in space anytime soon — not only because of the cost but also because a trip that only goes to the edge of the atmosphere is so brief.

"It would be a lot better if you could spend some time up there," Blake said.

Many experts agree.

"I don't think we'll really have an industry until we go orbital," said Dennis Parks, senior curator at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.

But pushing a spaceship all the way into orbit would require speeds in excess of 16,000 mph — eight times faster than SpaceShipOne's top velocity of about 2,000 mph. And vessels would have to be heavily shielded to protect against the fierce friction and heat of re-entry, adding to weight and complexity.

An X Prize goal was to encourage the type of competition and innovation that might eventually lead to affordable orbital flights, Diamandis said.

To keep that spirit going, he is organizing an X Prize Cup for 2005 in New Mexico. Rutan and the other 25 teams that were contending for the original prize are invited to compete for multimillion-dollar purses in categories such as fastest rocket and highest altitude. And, Diamandis said, "maybe even the coolest-looking spaceship."

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.