Space, The $10M Frontier

CAROUSEL -- Israeli archaeologist Yahiel Zelinger, shows a section of the 14th-century aqueduct near Jerusalem's Old City, Tuesday May 11, 2010. Archeologists say they have uncovered a 14th-century aqueduct that supplied water to Jerusalem for almost 600 years. But unlike most such finds, this time experts knew exactly where to look. Photographs from the late 19th century showed the aqueduct in use by the city's Ottoman rulers, nearly 600 years after its construction in 1320.(AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
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A stubby rocket plane soared off a Mojave desert runway Monday strapped to the belly of a carrier plane, shooting for the edge of the Earth's atmosphere and a $10 million prize, and a short time later, reached space and the history books.

Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen's SpaceShipOne launched Monday morning on the belly of a carrier plane. After about an hour, the plane released SpaceShipOne in an attempt to continue on its own to an altitude of at least 328,000 feet, or just over 62 miles, for the second time since Sept. 29.

About an hour after it landed, Ansari X Prize founder Peter Diamandis announced that SpaceShipOne's team had won the $10 million prize.

The winning spacecraft had to safely complete two flights to an altitude of 328,000 feet — generally considered to be the point where the Earth's atmosphere ends and space begins — in a 14-day span. The record was confirmed about an hour after landing.

A crowd of thousands of space enthusiasts and a throng of news media gathered at Mojave Airport in the early morning darkness to watch the flight.

There was a new pilot for Monday's flight, Brian Binnie, reports CBS News Correspondent Steve Futterman at the Mojave Airport. He is one of four pilots able to fly SpaceShipOne. Officials would not say if the switch from Michael Melvill had anything to do with the unexpected rolls that occurred during last week's flight.

During the first X Prize flight last Wednesday, SpaceShipOne began rolling rapidly 50 seconds into powered flight at a velocity of 2.7 times the speed of sound. Pilot Mike Melvill, 63, shut down the craft's engine 11 seconds early in agreement with advice from the ground, reaching an altitude of 337,600 feet, or 63.9 miles, more than enough to meet the X Prize requirement.

He quickly damped out the rolls using the ship's maneuvering jets and completed a picture-perfect return to Earth.

This time around, the rocketplane remained stable throughout its climb out of the discernible atmosphere, reports CBS News Space Consultant Bill Harwood, coasting to an altitude of roughly 362,000 feet, or 69.7 miles, before falling back toward the Mojave Desert. The previous altitude record for an aircraft was 354,300 feet, or 67 miles, set by X-15 pilot Joe Walker in 1963.

Just before reaching the high point of the trajectory today, Binnie, 51, rotated, or "feathered," SpaceShipOne's main wing sharply upward in a procedure designed to produce enormous aerodynamic drag on re-entry. The feathered wing, another Rutan innovation, caused the spaceplane to re-enter the atmosphere belly first in a so-called "care free" orientation similar to that of a badminton shuttlecock.

The procedure worked flawlessly last Wednesday, helping damp out what remained of SpaceShipOne's unplanned rolling motion, and it worked flawlessly again Monday. After enjoying three-and-a-half minutes of weightlessness at the top of his ballistic trajectory, Binnie endured more than 5 "Gs" as SpaceShipOne plunged back into the denser atmosphere.

He then headed back to the Mojave airport where Rutan, Microsoft co-founder Allen and a throng of X Prize officials, sponsors, VIPs, journalists and well wishers waited.

Binnie, whose fighter pilot call sign was "B-squared," was at the controls last December when he made the first supersonic flight in SpaceShipOne. Encountering a roll oscillation during landing, one of the craft's landing gear collapsed then.

"Let me say I thank God that I live in a country where this is possible," Binnie said Monday after landing and receiving a hug of congratulations from his wife.

Diamandis hoped the multimillion-dollar incentive would have the same effect on space travel as the Orteig Prize had on air travel. Charles Lindbergh claimed that $25,000 prize in 1927 after making his solo trans-Atlantic flight.

Major funding came from the Ansari family of Dallas. More than two dozen teams around the world were trying to win the X Prize, but only SpaceShipOne has reached space.

If Diamandis is right, Monday's accomplishment and the efforts of other X Prize participants will spur the same sort of competition and innovation that fueled the development of the commercial airline industry, except this time around, the goal is outer space.

"We've let the genie out of the bottle," he told Harwood in an interview Sunday. "We're at the beginning of an industry here. We're going to have investors coming in, there's a multi-billion-dollar market that's beginning and Wall Street and the venture capital community can see that.

"When capital comes in, there'll not only be one ship flying, there will be a dozen different ships, the price will go down, reliability will go up and we'll begin an industry. It happened in aviation, it happened in the personal computer marketplace, there's no reason in the world why it's not going to happen here in the personal spaceflight market."

Word of Binnie's accomplishment was relayed from Mission Control to the two people aboard the international space station, astronaut Mike Fincke and cosmonaut Gennady Padalka.

"Fantastic," Fincke said, adding that it was great to learn that for a while Monday he and Gennady weren't "the only ones off the planet."

Only a pilot was on board for both last week's flight and this week's. The total required weight - 270 kilograms, or 595 pounds - was made up of the pilot, video documentation equipment and personal items selected by the staff at Rutan's company, Scaled Composites, and the X Prize foundation, including Rutan's college slide rule, a teddy bear that will be auctioned off for charity and seedlings.

And, on the first flight, the ashes of Rutan's mother. Otherwise, Rutan said, "we are not flying things that will end up on eBay and be sold or dealt with in any commercial nature at all," Rutan said before the first flight. "There's only a couple of things that are charity related, the rest are things the person who flies it has signed an agreement with us that he will not sell it, that it is for him and his family."

CBS News Space Consultant William Harwood has covered America's space program full time for nearly 20 years, focusing on space shuttle operations, planetary exploration and astronomy. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood provides up-to-the-minute space reports for CBS News and regularly contributes to Spaceflight Now and The Washington Post.