Kick-starting space tourism
Peter Diamandis founded the Ansari X-Prize in 1996. Named for the Ansari family of Dallas, Texas, and funded through private donations and corporate sponsorships, the X-Prize is a $10 million purse aimed at jump-starting space tourism. The goal is similar to that of the $25,000 Orteig Prize, which inspired Charles Lindbergh's 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Organizers hope the X-Prize will spur a new age of commercial space exploration just as the Orteig Prize contributed to the beginning of commercial air flight.
To win the X-Prize, one of the 26 competing teams must successfully launch the weight equivalent of three humans to a suborbital altitude of 100 km (62 miles) in a reusable spacecraft twice within 2 weeks. As part of the challenge, all of this must be accomplished by January 1, 2005.
Wednesday's launch was the first official X-Prize launch to date by any of the 26 teams. SpaceShipOne was developed by the American Mojave Aerospace Ventures team, which is led by aviation legend Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites
and financed by Microsoft cofounder Paul G. Allen. The group has been the developmental front-runner in the competition and needs only one more successful flight to win. The next flight is scheduled for October 4.
Also this week, Sir Richard Branson, chairman of Virgin Group Ltd., announced a licensing agreement with Mojave Aerospace Ventures to manufacturer multiple spacecraft based on the SpaceShipOne design. The new business, dubbed Virgin Galactic
, plans to begin flights as early as 2007. Pricing will start around $200,000 a seat and the company anticipates having at least 3,000 customers during the first few years.
The Mojave team's closest competition for the X-Prize is Canada's Golden Palace.com Space Program developed by the da Vinci Project. The Canadian team last week postponed a flight planned October 2, and a new date has not been announced.
To find out if SpaceShipOne proves worthy of the $10 million prize, watch October 4 in Mojave, California. The event is open to the public for a small fee, which goes to the X-Prize Foundation. For those unable to attend, the flight will be webcast free at www.xprize.org/webcast
and is currently scheduled for 6 a.m.