Sixty-two miles above Earth, the view is like none other. It’s a sight that very few have enjoyed, and those who have seen it have done so with the help of a government agency. On June 21, 2004, a giant leap forward was made toward the realization of space travel for civilians; SpaceShipOne achieved spaceflight and became the first privately-built craft to 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, Calif. to discuss Rutan’s plan for a supersonic jet that would fly above the atmosphere. But Allen had his sights set even higher. Two years later, Rutan flew to Seattle to propose a new idea to 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 built the spacecraft. In 2003, SpaceShipOne had its first test flight, and, by 2004, it was ready to make history.
In June of that year, SpaceShipOne became the first privately-funded craft in space, but in order to win the Ansari 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 Sept. 29 and Brian Binnie on Oct. 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.
Vulcan Productions partnered with Discovery Channel on a two-part documentary series, “Black Sky: The Race for Space,” that documents Paul Allen's and Burt Rutan's effort to create the first privately-funded spacecraft.