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Reliving SpaceShipOne: The first privately-built craft to enter suborbital space

11/21/2013

Reliving SpaceShipOne: The first privately-built craft to enter suborbital space

11/21/2013

Sixty-two miles above Earth, the view is like none other. It’s a sight that very few have enjoyed, and those who have did so with the help of a government agency. On June 21, 2004, the dream of space travel for civilians made a giant leap forward. That’s the day that SpaceShipOne achieved spaceflight, becoming the first privately-built craft to ever enter suborbital space.

SpaceShipOne began as a conversation between two pioneers in their respective fields: Burt Rutan, the renowned aerospace engineer, and Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft. In 1996, the same year that the Ansari X Prize was announced, Allen flew to Mojave, California to discuss Rutan’s plan for a supersonic jet that would fly above the atmosphere. Allen had his sights set higher. Two years later, Rutan flew to Seattle to propose a new idea with Allen: A manned rocket flight into suborbital space. If the idea came to fruition, it would win the inaugural Ansari X Prize.

By 1999, Rutan had conceived of the right design for the task—a plane that would be ferried to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere by a carrier craft, blasting off from that point into space. In 2000, the partnership that would build SpaceShipOne was born. Over the next few years, Burt Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites in Mojave built the spacecraft. In 2003, SpaceShipOne had its first test flight. In 2004, it was ready to make history.

SpaceShipOne became the first privately-funded craft in space in June 2004, but in order to win the X Prize, it had to achieve spaceflight twice in five days. It accomplished that goal a few months later when the craft, piloted by Michael Melvill on September 29 and Brian Binnie on October 4, successfully claimed the $10 million Ansari X Prize.

Following that milestone, Richard Branson licensed the technology for Virgin Galactic with the goal of shuttling civilians to space, sparking the beginning of an exciting new industry: commercial space travel.

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