The Future Ain’t What it Used to Be: The Triumph and Failure of the Ansari X Prize

WhiteKnight with SpaceShipOne on the taxiway prior to the first commercial spaceflight. The authori is at right holding up the video camera. (Credit: John Criswick)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Sixteen years ago today, I awoke very early and joined about 25,000 people at a newly-designated spaceport in the Mojave Desert to watch history in the making.

On that bright sunny June 21, Mike Melvill became the first person to fly to space on a privately-built vehicle by piloting SpaceShipOne to just above the Karman line at 100 km.

Three months later, Melvill and Brian Binnie each flew SpaceShipOne above 100 km within five days to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize.

SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan teamed with Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic to build a fleet of larger SpaceShipTwo vehicles based on the technology.

A new era of commercial spaceflight was just around the corner. Or, so they promised.

Sixteen years later, space tourism flights promised for the 2007-08 time frame are now likely to begin no earlier than late this year.

SpaceShipTwo has flown only two suborbital flights, neither one above the Karman line. There have been no powered flights for 16 months.

A vehicle touted for its safety killed four people and landed four others in the hospital before it made a single suborbital flight.

Project costs originally estimated at $108 million have now likely soared to more than $1.5 billion.

So, what happened? Winning the prize turned out to be a double-edged sword. It saddled Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic with immature technology that did not lend itself to being easily scaled up for the much larger SpaceShipTwo.

It took engineers 10 years to scale up the SpaceShipTwo’s hybrid engine so it could be fired for more than 20 seconds without causing excessive vibrations in the vehicle.

The flight test on which the engine was being tested ended in disaster on Oct. 31, 2014 as SpaceShipTwo broke up in flight. I was in the Mojave Desert to witness that flight as well.

The flights of SpaceShipOne were a great success in inspiring people to think beyond government space programs. The Ansari X Prize achieved its goal of promoting commercial space activity and bringing more investment into the sector.

However, SpaceShipOne was designed to win a prize before it expired at the end of 2004. Deadlines like that are not always compatible with the development of sustainable and scalable technology.

And SpaceShipOne was it. No other competitor came close to producing a winning entry. Not much technology came out of all that effort.

The lesson is there are no shortcuts in human spaceflight. Winning a prize is no substitute for technology road map and the patience to see it through.