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

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
June 21, 2020
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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.

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

  1. ThomasLMatula says:

    Good article. It might well be argued that the Orteig Prize was also a failure as the Spirit of St. Louis didn’t introduce any new technology to make transatlantic passenger service by aircraft possible. The technology Pan American Airlines used for its first transatlantic passenger on June 24, 1939 was based on the development of large flying boats and actually followed in the path of the NC-4 which flew across the Atlantic in May 1919 two decades before Pan Am’s flying boat. Prizes only generate progress if they are constructed to leverage innovation ideas of the public as the famous Longitude Prize did so successfully.

    • Douglas Messier says:


      I did a series on early aviation safety and regulation.

      It’s complicated, but the upshot is this:

      That Lindbergh’s flight didn’t advance transAtlantic air travel didn’t matter. It didn’t need to. Lindbergh’s flight was a spark that lit a domestic industry that was primed to take off. The U.S. government had just privatized air mail and begun to regulate that sector and commercial aviation as a whole. A lot of people avoided flying because it was unregulated and not particularly safe.

      No suborbital industry existed in 2004. The X-15 retired in 1968. It was a research plane, nothing more. Everything is being built from scratch. Suborbital can’t compete with existing point to point. It can’t take people and goods from one place to another faster or cheaper. So the markets are limited to tourism, research, astronaut training, filming commercials, etc.

      • Robert G. Oler says:

        A good article Doug…what I am saying is my own opinion and has nothing to do with any professional efforts on my part or any company I am part of…but…

        I would argue that the drive to commercial flights with any sort of space vehicle has been harder then most people (not me) thought it would be for three reasons

        1. there is no obvious market driving the improvements.

        2. the technology to do things affordably but also safely has been difficult to develop

        3. the technology needed in large measurehas no counterparts on earth

        I dont agree that CL’s flight did not advance transocean flight. what it proved and proved conclusively is that the technology for such flights was within the grasp of private aviation industry of the time…and fueled by domestic flight travel…the industry would eventually mature that technology to do “routine” or at least common place flight over the ocean…it was just a matter of time

        The DC 3 was only 9 years away after that…but the reason the 3 was built is that commercial domestic air travel was funding it. and domestic air travel was growing because 1) there was internal demand 2) there was enlightened federal subsidies and management and 3) the military and commercial applications of flight were clear

        Space is not like aviation (I use to use the opposite) because none of those things are true in space. it was not necessary for the folks who built the airplanes to build the cities for people to go to…it was not necessary for people who built the airplanes to lift the cities into space so they could build them

        all aviation had to do was build the vehicles, make them safe and there was a market

        what has taken virgin so long (and BO and even SpaceX) is that maturing the technology for reasonably safe human flight…that is also affordable…has proven time consuming…and pretty expensive …with as you point out no obvious market to get the money back

        VG learned a lot from that crash…and in my view has done a reasonable job scrubbing the system. SpaceX seems to have learned a lot from their “blowup” and seems to have scrubbed the system pretty well. Boeing is probably doing the same thing with CST

        its unlikely to me that either CST or Dragon has a wide enough market to make it prosper…but at the very least the federal government should try and help it

        I think it is possible that VGif they fly safe…can generation a continuous market…but we will see

        • ThomasLMatula says:

          You forget, the very first nonstop flight across the Atlantic was by the Vickers Team on June 14, 1919 with pilots John Brown and Arthur Alcock. It won the prize the Daily Mail offered in 1913 of 10,000 pounds (about $645,000 dollars in 2020 money). The Daily Mail Prize was the inspiration for the Orteig Prize, but like it was also a technology dead end as the aircraft they used was merely a modified Vickers Vimy bomber.

          Given the partial success of Commader Byrd’s Fokker C2 Trimotor
          “America” on June 29 1927 there is an indication that it might have been possible to offer transatlantic service in the late 1920’s if there was a real interest in doing so. Since Paris was covered in fog they were forced to return to the Normandy coast where they made an emergency landing on what would later be known as “Omaha Beach” in the invasion. One wonders how aviation might have developed differently if they had not been stopped by fog and had taken off before Charles Lindbergh did so.

          I have also wondered that if instead of trying to follow the rules of the Orteig Prize and trying to do a New York to Paris non-stop flight what would have happened they had made refueling stops in Newfoundland and Ireland. They could have demonstrated a possible commercial route by doing so. The roughly 2,000 mile gap between Newfoundland and Ireland would have been just in reach of the aircraft technology of the era.

          VG SpaceshipTwo is sadly a similar dead end technology as the Ryan NP1 was since its not scalable for either orbital or point to point service. Not even its engine has any potential for use given both the pollution they cause and the other limitations of hybrids. SpaceshipTwo may be useful for a thrill for super rich tourists who want to travel to the edge of space, but that is about it. The rest, including NASA flying astronauts on it, is more make work than anything else.

          • Robert G. Oler says:

            Tom when I wrote what I did I had the Vickers in mind. the Trip although a milestone was useless because the technology of its day was to primitive as was the Trimotor. BUT most important the demand was not there domestically to spill over into something more

            the ability of the technology of VG to emerge to something else is not in my view material. IF the technology at hand is good enough to form a money stream…and a customer stream…the technology to move toward an orbital system is there…but more importantly the money stream to do it is there

          • Robert G. Oler says:

            thought about this a little bit and let me be clear.

            I think that “what” is done in space by private companies and with what technology does not matter. I think that whichever private space company is the first or the next to get a source of constant revenue that they are able to use to maintain commercial human flight of somekind…is going to be one of the big winners in the next 10-20 years

      • 76 er says:

        “Lindbergh ‘s flight was a spark…”

        That was one gigantic spark!

        XCor wanted to do what Chuck Yeager did in his Starfighter – point the nose straight up and zoom, climb as high as possible. I guess that company didn’t have the money or the expertise necessary to build an F104 on the cheap. They lacked an airframe but did (according to their promotional materials) have a nifty liquid fueled rocket engine.

        Today VG has an airframe which uses a hybrid engine that apparently still isn’t up to snuff. If VG had many years ago abandoned the hybrid and bought XCor’s engine tech ( or used a Rocketdyne engine, anyone’s) who knows where they’d be.

        Anyway, like the losing quarterback once said at the conclusion of the SB, “coulda, shoulda, woulda.”

  2. savuporo says:

    The whole X-Prize organization hasn’t yielded much, tbh

    • duheagle says:

      Not directly. But there are several lunar lander startups that were originally organized as Google Lunar X-Prize competitors. Most now have non-trivial NASA contracts under the CLPS program. The next year or two should tell the tale of what the ultimate result of the Google Lunar X-Prize will be. At this point, it seems highly probable that a “failed” prize may well yield appreciably more real-world technology advancement than did the X-Prize that was actually won.

        • duheagle says:

          A belief in the promise of particular NewSpace companies is hardly equivalent to a belief in LGMs and flying saucers however indistinguishable those two things may seem to you.

          The only real entrant the original Ansari X-Prize ever had was the eventual winner, the Allen-Rutan team that built and flew SpaceShipOne. The corporate descendant of that effort, VG, has failed to thrive in the years since and may still fail entirely. If it eventually succeeds, in some fashion, that would still be the only success attributable to the Ansari X-Prize.

          Two companies originally organized as teams pursuing the Google Lunar X-Prize, Astrobotic and Moon Express, still exist and are on the list of CLPS participants. Astrobotic has won two of the four CLPS task orders awarded to-date.

          Firefly Aerospace is also a CLPS participant with a lander based on the Israeli Beresheet after hiring much of the team which developed that nearly-successful lander – said team having also been, at one time, a Google Lunar X-Prize competitor.

          So that makes three Google Lunar X-Prize teams still working on lunar landers. Hence, my completely straightforward conclusion that the failed Google Lunar X-Prize may ultimately be responsible for more working space technology than the Ansari X-Prize which was actually won and paid.

          As neither you nor Oler seem to believe in much of anything NewSpace-related, nor in space settlement as a general concept, I’ll confess I fail to see what it is you two get out of coming here and commenting. As time passes and your erstwhile scorn and snark age increasingly badly, that mystery simply grows.

  3. SteveW says:

    The DARPA Rapid Launch Challenge had a similar outcome. Useful technology advancement?

    • duheagle says:

      Well, Vector is dead and Astra failed to win the prize. But Astra is still around and may belatedly demonstrate its technology to be capable of doing what it wasn’t quite able to do by the original deadline.

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