One Year Ago, the Ansari X Prize Turned 10 It Was an Uncomfortable Birthday
By Douglas Messier Managing Editor
The planes kept coming and coming. One after another, they swooped out of a blue desert sky and touched down on the runway at the Mojave Air and Space Port. By mid-morning there were at least a dozen private jets stretched along the flight line running east from the Voyager restaurant toward the control tower. And even more were on their way.
And to what did Mojave owe this ostentatious display of wealth by the 1 percenters? They had come to the sun-splashed spaceport last Oct. 4 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Ansari X Prize. A decade earlier, Burt Rutan and his Paul Allen-funded team had won $10 million for sending the first privately-built manned vehicle into space twice within a two-week period.
The crash of SpaceShipTwo and the tragic loss of Scaled Composites test pilot Mike Alsbury were stark reminders that despite all the promises about the safety of new space tourism vehicles, space travel is a dangerous business where death can come in seconds.
If outsiders were stunned by the tragedy, it had a sickeningly familiar feel to long-time Mojave denizens. Mike Alsbury was not the first Scaled employee to die developing SpaceShipTwo for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceline. He was the fourth. Three engineers preceded him seven years earlier in a horrific accident at the Mojave spaceport.
The 2007 tragedy was quite different from the one that occurred over Jawbone Canyon on Halloween. The response to it was both different and eerily familiar.