Space tourism may be closer to reality than you think. A private foundation has put together a $10 million prize with the goal of inspiring commercial space travel. The first team to privately finance, build, and launch a spaceship that can carry three people 62.5 miles out, return safely to Earth, and be launched again within two weeks will win the money. Known as the X-Prize, the award is the latest in a long tradition of using cash incentives to spur aviation advances. In fact, 27 teams from seven nations have joined the race since the contest's inception in May 1996. The X-Prize Foundation expects one of the teams to claim the award by January 2005.
So far, the teams have developed a variety of designs. Some of them are very traditional, like the single-stage, vertically launched Lucky Seven rocket from Acceleration Engineering. Others look right out of a sci-fi movie, such as the Ascender jet/rocket hybrid from Bristol Spaceplanes Limited, which takes off and lands like a regular airplane (Fig. 1). There are some unique approaches, too. The da Vinci Project hopes to launch its Wild Fire spacecraft from the world's largest helium balloon at an altitude of 80,000 feet. And, the blastwave-pulsejet Space Tourist from the Discraft Corporation looks like it should be piloted by little green men.
In December, one of these teams took a giant leap toward commercial space travel. The SpaceShipOne from Scaled Composites broke the sound barrier during a test flight, marking the first manned supersonic flight by a private, non-government aircraft. First, the team's White Knight turbojet aircraft carried SpaceShipOne to 48,000 feet and released the spacecraft (Fig. 2). Pilot Brian Binnie then fired SpaceShipOne's hybrid rocket motor and hit 1.2 Mach (930 mph) on its way to 68,000 feet. At apogee, he experienced near weightlessness before configuring the ship to its conventional glider shape and beginning the 12-minute ride home.
For more information about the contest, go to www.xprize.org.