I woke up early (for me) Wednesday, turned on the TV and saw SpaceShipOne fly to space and back. Very impressive. It looks likely this entry from Burt Rutan will claim the $10,000,000 Ansari X Prize. That’s something I first predicted back in May – though it didn’t take a genius to come to that conclusion.

OK – it cost more than $10,000,000 to develop the ship, but that’s not the point. This venture has commercial potential beyond the X Prize itself.

I watched on CNN because I think Miles O’Brien is not only knowledgeable but he’s connected and often has information others do not. I thought sitting him with Burt’s brother Dick, an aerospace legend in his own right who piloted the first non-stop round the world unrefueled flight, was a bad idea. Either Dick’s mind was somewhere else (excusable under the circumstances) or he just doesn’t have the right makeup for TV.

The plane took off, tucked under another Burt Rutan flying contraption. In this regard it was similar to the early X-15 rocket plane, launched from beneath the wing of a B-52. At about 50,000 feet SpaceShipOne was released and within seconds its rubber burning engine was pushing it toward the heavens&#185.

A minute or so later SpaceShipOne, moving vertically, began to roll. I’ve seen a number of different figures but it was at least 16 revolutions, maybe more.

Watching the roll, I assumed I was watching a disaster in the making. I knew there was no reason for the ship to corkscrew itself into space. Any second I expected to see a wing break off or parts begin to disintegrate.

Obviously none of that happened. On the ground, pilot Mike Melville said it was probably something he had done. I don’t believe that for one second.

With the backing of Richard Branson, SpaceShipOne is the prototype for space tourism. It’s not good for business to say your rocket ship is unstable or difficult to control – but it surely is.

Rutan will figure a way to get around this problem for one more flight, win the prize, and modify this design into a more stable model for commercial work. SpaceShipOne will go to the Smithsonian before it can hurt anyone.

This is a great program. The government’s space program is so top heavy, so money laden, that it has discouraged anyone else to get into the business. Rutan and people like him will change that paradigm.

Under different circumstances I would be very upset about the post-flight claims concerning the spinning. Today, I’ll let it pass.

&#185 – I have read and like to say it’s a tire burning engine. Dave Brody, former Executive Producer of Inside Space (a show I hosted under his tutelage) on the SciFi Channel and now in a similar position at, says it actually burns condoms – a much more romantic thought.

Building a Better Space Program

There’s something about me that’s always surprised my co-workers. They know I’m tuned in to the Space Program and, through my work hosting Inside Space on The SciFi Channel, got to see lots of neat hardware and meet some very bright people. They assume that means I’m a fan of what NASA does.

I am not.

NASA is populated with very dedicated people (and has one of the best websites on the net), but the idea of a bureaucracy leading us into the great unknown is wrong in so many ways. By definition, a bureaucracy wants to take the safe, well marked path to the future. That’s how you end up with a vehicle like the Space Shuttle, which costs a fortune and does hardly anything.

To me, the Columbia Disaster was no real surprise. NASA had stretched very old technology thin… dodging enough bullets that they felt bulletproof. The fact that the mission Columbia was on was a ‘nothing’ trip to space with minimal science, makes it all the more tragic.

The International Space Station is another ‘white elephant.’ What has it accomplished? Even our Russian partners take advantage of us by selling seats on their missions to the ISS to get cash. You can feel NASA seething, but they are incapable of complaining, lest they point out the devil’s pact they made to keep the project going.

Enough NASA bashing.

It’s likely that the current real center of space innovation is with the private companies working toward the X-Prize.

The ANSARI X PRIZE is a $10,000,000 prize to jump start the space tourism industry through competition between the most talented entrepreneurs and rocket experts in the world. The $10 Million cash prize will be awarded to the first team that:

* Privately finances, builds & launches a spaceship, able to carry three people to 100 kilometers (62.5 miles)

* Returns safely to Earth

* Repeats the launch with the same ship within 2 weeks

The ANSARI X PRIZE competition follows in the footsteps of more than 100 aviation incentive prizes offered between 1905 and 1935 which created today’s multi billion dollar air transport industry.

When Lindbergh flew the Atlantic (taking off from the current site of a mall on Long Island), he was competing for a similar award, the the $25,000 Orteig prize. So, there is a precedent for this sort of thing working.

Yesterday, one of the teams working toward the X-Prize made a giant step into space. Carried airborne by a conventional jet, SpaceShipOne separated and then climbed to 40 miles on its own power.

Launch conditions were 46,000 feet and 120 knots. Motor light off occurred 10 seconds after release and the vehicle boosted smoothly to 150,000 feet and Mach 2.5. Subsequent coast to apogee of 211,400 feet. During a portion of the boost, the flight director display was inoperative, however the pilot continued the planned trajectory referencing the external horizon. Reaction control authority was as predicted and the vehicle recovered in feather experiencing 1.9M and 3.5G