Running With Scissors

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We're going to take a break from the various CNNs (thank heavens, I hear someone muttering in the background) and take a look at some real and interesting news.

One for the Money

Commercial space travel took a big leap forward on 4 October when SpaceShipOne became the first three-person civilian space craft to travel twice to sub-orbital space1 and return safely. In doing so Mojave Aerospace Ventures, the craft's developers, won the Ansari X Prize, a cool $10 million that will help spur further development.

The first flight on 29 September had some tense moments as the craft began to corkscrew as it approached the target altitude, prompting pilot Mike Melvill to shut down the rocket earlier than intended. In fact, controllers on the ground were telling him to abort the flight, but Melvill hung on until he was satisfied that he'd reached the 100 kilometre altitude. Once back on the ground, he made light of the corkscrewing, saying that he'd decided to do a little 'victory roll' and later acknowledging that he'd possibly caused the problem himself by stepping on a rudder. Spectators on the ground, however, were a bit more alarmed. 'That didn't look like a tourist flight,' commented one onlooker afterwards.

'Now that was fun.'
- Pilot Mike
Melvill after the 29 September flight

Later officials announced that the rolling was caused by a known deficiency in the design of SpaceShipOne and at no time was the craft out of control. Test pilot Brian Binnie, who became the second private astronaut in history, was aboard for the 4 October flight, which was smooth and without the hair-raising surprises of the first. Even so, and even for those of us who couldn't see the flights live and had to watch on video, this history-making feat gave us goosebumps.

Interesting factoid: one of the requirements to win the Prize was that the pilot had to return 'in good health'. 'Good health' in this instance means being alive 24 hours after landing, a sobering reminder that making history is often dangerous.

Two days before the first of the history-making flights, Richard Branson, chairman of the Virgin Group, announced an agreement with the designer of SpaceShipOne, Burt Rutan, to license the technology. Said Branson:

Virgin has been in talks with Paul Allen2 and Burt throughout this year and in the early hours of Saturday3 signed a historical deal to license SpaceShipOne's technology to build the world's first private spaceship to go into commercial operating service... Virgin Galactic will be run as a business, but a business with the sole purpose of making space travel more and more affordable.

In fact SpaceShipOne already carried the Virgin Galactic logo on its two flights, announcing to the world that the era of commercial space flight had begun.

Two More To Go

Inspired by the success of the Ansari X Prize, other pioneers are creating incentives for private developers to get us into space. Aviation Week and Space Technology recently reported that Robert Bigelow, chief of Bigelow Aerospace, has established the America's Space Prize, a $50 million award for building a craft capable of carrying seven astronauts to an orbital station. Bigelow Aerospace is currently at work developing habitable space modules and aims to eventually make such modules affordable for corporate customers. And in late August, enthusiasts announced an effort to create an annual prize to be awarded to developers of space elevator technology. Called the 'Elevator:2010' project, this effort is spearheaded by the California-based Spaceward Foundation.

The space elevator, a staple of science fiction, consists of a superstrong cable attached to a terminus orbiting above the Earth. Platforms move cargo and passengers up and down along the cable, drastically reducing the cost of doing so. Lest you think this is just another wacky idea, scientists at organizations such as Los Alamos National Laboratory and NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center have been looking into ways of turning the idea into reality.

So keep a towel handy. We live in exciting times.

Three: Getting Ready...

For more information, check out the following links:

Running With Scissors


07.10.04 Front Page

Back Issue Page

1Defined as 100 kilometres or 62.5 miles above the Earth.2Microsoft co-founder who bankrolled the development of SpaceShipOne.325 September, 2004.

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