UPDATE: Story first posted 2:08 p.m. EDT, July 27, 2004  

They're off and running!

A piloted rocket ship race to claim a $10 million Ansari X Prize purse for privately financed flight to the edge of space is heating up.

Aerospace engineer, Burt Rutan, leader of Scaled Composites of Mojave, California, has formally announced a timetable for back-to-back flights of the firm's SpaceShipOne rocket plane.

Rutan and his team have given its official 60-day notice, with the first X Prize attempt set for September 29 from the inland Mojave Spaceport in California. To win the $10 million, SpaceShipOne will need to make a second flight within two weeks, by October 13.

Hot on Rutan's heels is Brian Feeney, leader of the Canadian da Vinci Project. Feeney also reported today that his team is rolling out on August 5 their completed X Prize vehicle -- the balloon-lofted Wild Fire rocket. The public unveiling will take place at the team's Downsview Airport hanger in Toronto.

The da Vinci Project Team, widely heralded as a contender for the $10 million purse, will pursue its own Ansari X Prize space flight attempts this Fall.

Crack shots

The announcements were made at an X Prize Foundation press briefing, held today at the Santa Monica Airport in Santa Monica, California.

"These teams with their different approaches show real out-of-the-box thinking," said Peter Diamandis, chairman and chief executive officer of the X Prize Foundation, based in St. Louis, Missouri. "That's what the Ansari X Prize is doing...allowing people to innovate and learn how to operate a new class of vehicle," he told SPACE.com .

In order to win the Ansari X Prize, teams must build a safe and reusable space vehicle built to carry one pilot and the weight equivalent of two passengers 62 miles (100 kilometers) into suborbital space. The vehicle must be privately financed and safely launched twice within a two-week period. The first registered Ansari X Prize team to complete this feat will win the $10 million prize and a trophy.

Fuel and go

"We're not seeing any breakthroughs in physics or materials science here," Diamandis said. We've gotten it down to a point where a small group of people can do this routinely over and over again...fuel and go."

Diamandis said that low-cost aviation comes from the robustness of the systems. The experience gained from repeatedly flying aircraft of all shapes and sizes has spurred into being a huge industry.

"And that's what we need to do in the space world to get to that point," Diamandis said. "It's the cost of operations that makes the space shuttle cost three-quarters of a billion dollars per launch. Fuel is one percent of the cost. It's the operations that we have to work on," he added.

Sky-to-space trek

The Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne scored a major milestone June 21 at the Mojave Spaceport, becoming the first private piloted vehicle to streak out beyond the Earth's atmosphere.

Test pilot Mike Melvill flew the rocket ship to 328,491 feet (approximately 62 miles or 100 km). That sky-to-space trek allowed Melvill to become the first civilian to fly a privately-backed spaceship out of the atmosphere and the first private pilot to earn astronaut wings.

The June 21 flight was not without incident. Astronaut Melvill's expert piloting skills came into play as SpaceShipOne experienced a flight control malfunction. The vehicle did not climb as high as planned. Furthermore, the air-launched rocket plane reentered south of the intended recovery point. While not in the flight plan, this suborbital trajectory excursion was well within the vehicle's glide capability, with SpaceShipOne winging back to a normal landing at the Mojave Spaceport.

At a post-announcement telephone press briefing today, Rutan said there will be no shakeout missions of SpaceShipOne prior to shooting for the Ansari X Prize.

For the upcoming flights, Rutan said the rocket plane will be lightened by removing some of the onboard hardware. Also, the vehicle's hybrid rocket motor will be augmented, he said.

"We're working on both increasing the impulse of the motor as well as working on our ability to fly a more precise trajectory," Rutan told reporters.

The heat is on

The offer of a $10 million Ansari X Prize expires as of January 1, 2005. So the heat is on among an international cadre of rocket-to-space groups. More than 20 teams from seven countries have registered to compete for the Ansari X Prize.

The approaches taken to snag the purse are as varied as the number of contestants. For example, the SpaceShipOne Project is backed by billionaire Paul G. Allen, in the range of $20 million to $25 million.

Meanwhile, the Toronto-based da Vinci Project is billed by the group as the largest all-volunteer technology project in Canadian history with some 100,000 people-hours already spent on the project thus far.

SpaceShipOne is toted into the air underneath the White Knight carrier plane. From there, it is released to speed toward space under power of a hybrid rocket motor. The da Vinci effort utilizes the world's largest reusable helium balloon to haul the piloted Wild Fire rocket to an altitude of 80,000 feet (24,400 meters). From that sky-high point, the liquid oxygen/kerosene-fueled rocket ignites for the trip to the edge of space.

Definitely in the hunt

Feeney said the da Vinci Project has taken 8 years of dedication by more than 600 people. "We are going to roll out Canada's first private manned spacecraft and only the second private manned spacecraft in history. This is still history unfolding," he stated at the press briefing.

"Our goal is to compete for and win the X Prize. We are definitely in the hunt and we're contending for it," Feeney said.

Feeney said that roughly $337,000 dollars in cash has gone into the balloon/rocket project, along with some $10 million to $15 million dollars worth of time donated by people, as well as help from in-kind sponsors.

All the way to orbit

For the da Vinci Project to take to the air however, more funds are necessary.

"We need Canada's Paul G. Allen or equivalent to step forward with less than one-half million dollars," Feeney explained.

And what if SpaceShipOne beats the da Vinci effort, grabbing the $10 million?

"We will definitely fly. It's important to the project that this happens," Feeney responded. He said that their team is moving forward with an 8-person, air-launched rocket design.

A long-range goal, Feeney added, is to continue pioneering all the way to orbit. "It's time to give up near Earth space to the private sector and make it happen...and we're going to be a part of that."

Gold Box

Also at today's press briefing was Colonel Rick Searfoss, pilot and commander of three space shuttle missions. He's the Chief Judge of the Ansari X Prize.

Searfoss said the judging team has been working with Scaled Composites for the last several months to gauge their technologies onboard and instrumentation available to clearly validate that Ansari X Prize rules will be met.

An X Prize "gold box" will carry specific instrumentation, Searfoss said. The objective is to make sure "there's no question in anybody's mind that when the data comes in...it is a thumb's up or a thumb's down."

Can-do, home-brew

Paul Allen, sole investor of SpaceShipOne and partner in Mojave Aerospace Ventures, LLC, said in a press statement released today:

"This competition has proven that there are many different ways to attack the challenges set out by the Ansari X Prize. From the start we have approached SpaceShipOne with a 'can-do, home-brew' attitude," Allen said. "We are grateful that our previous flights have brought even more attention to the Ansari X Prize and given more momentum to the groundswell of excitement that is continuing to build for the long-term potential of affordable space exploration."

"In one sense, the X Prize has already succeeded," Diamandis said. "We've sparked a diverse set of vehicles that are being tested and built. Secondly, we've got people excited about this market place."

As the competition speeds up into high gear, Diamandis said there are several additional sponsorships still available for the Ansari X Prize competition.

Corporations or individuals wishing to support the contest and associate themselves with courage, determination, achievement, space, speed, high performance and technology are more than welcome to step forward, Diamandis concluded.

Image Galleries:

SpaceShipOne: Opening the Frontier The da Vinci Project's Wild Fire Edge of Space

The da Vinci Project's Wild Fire

X Prize Contestant Chooses Launch Site
The da Vinci Project, a Canadian team of rocketeers has staked out its proving ground in an international contest to loft humans into space.

Canadian X PRIZE Team Unveils Rocket Prototype
A Canadian team entered in a $10 million commercial launch competition is unveiling a full-scale prototype of its rocket this weekend at the Toronto Aviation and Aircraft Show.

Canadian Team Joins Race For X-Prize
A Canadian team entered in a $10 million commercial launch competition is unveiling a full-scale prototype of its rocket this weekend at the Toronto Aviation and Aircraft Show.

The Rise of SpaceShipOne

SpaceShipOne Data Shows Vessel Took a 'Trajectory Excursion'
June 25: BOULDER, COLORADO - Flight data from the first private vehicle to soar beyond the Earth's atmosphere has been posted by Scaled Composites, designer and builder of the SpaceShipOne. The flight was not trouble-free.

Private Spaceship Encounters Glitches In Record-Setting Flight
June 21: MOJAVE, CALIFORNIA - There were tense times during the flight of SpaceShipOne here this morning. Pilot Mike Melvill wrestled with control problems.

SpaceShipOne Makes History with First Manned Private Spaceflight
June 21: MOJAVE, CALIFORNIA - The first non-governmental rocket ship flew to the edge of space today and was piloted to a safe landing on a desert airport runway here.

First Civilian Astronaut Pilots SpaceShipOne into Suborbit
June 21: MOJAVE, CALIFORNIA - Launch story includes a flight log up until the moment space was reached.