Mojave, Calif. — A team of pilots and aerospace engineers on Wednesday took the first step toward a $10 million prize by sending its rocket plane 64 miles above the Mojave Desert.
The team, which includes Kansas University alumnus Douglas Shane, is hoping to claim the Ansari X Prize, a bounty established by the St. Louis-based X Prize Foundation in hopes of inspiring an era of space tourism.
In the first of two planned flights needed to claim the $10 million bounty, SpaceShipOne pilot Michael Melvill ignored a warning to abort the mission and continued about two miles farther than required by the X Prize rules.
Burt Rutan, spaceship designer, said he asked Melvill to shut down the engine as the craft rolled dozens of times at a rate three times the speed of sound during the 81-minute flight. But Melvill -- who said he might have caused the rolling himself -- kept going.
"You know, you're extremely busy at that point," he said. "Your feet and your hands and your eyes and everything is working about as fast as you can work them, and probably I stepped on something too quickly and caused the roll."
The craft's builders were analyzing the problem. They must decide whether to proceed with the next planned flight on Monday. The X Prize rules require the craft to make the trip into space twice in two weeks.
"I've looked at it, and I think we just change out the engine and fill it with gas and let it go," Melvill said.
The crew of SpaceShipOne includes Shane, who graduated from KU in 1982 with a degree in aerospace engineering. He is vice president of business development, director of flight operations and test pilot for Scaled Composites, the Mojave, Calif., company that designed the craft. Shane is a member of the KU School of Engineering Honor Roll.
SpaceShipOne, with Melvill at the controls, made history in June when it became the first private, manned craft to reach space.
Rutan, with more than $20 million from Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, secretly developed SpaceShipOne and is well ahead of two dozen other teams building X Prize contenders around the world.
Rutan said controllers asked Melvill to shut down the engine early because of the rolling, but Melvill kept going until he was certain he would reach the target altitude.
"We actually were asking him to go ahead and abort, to shut it off to where he wouldn't have gone the (62 miles). He stayed in there just for a handful of seconds more," Rutan said.
Melvill said he did shut down the engine 11 seconds earlier than planned after determining the craft would reach its target.
The mission began when a specially designed jet with the ship under its belly took off from the desert north of Los Angeles. At 47,000 feet, SpaceShipOne was released, and Melvill fired its rocket motor and pointed its nose toward space.
A crowd of VIPs watched from below the airport control tower. The mission was televised live.
The Ansari X Prize was modeled on the $25,000 prize that Charles Lindbergh won in his Spirit of St. Louis for the first solo New York-to-Paris flight across the Atlantic in 1927.
Already, the ultimate goal of the X Prize appears in sight: Richard Branson, the British airline mogul and adventurer, announced Monday that beginning in 2007, he will begin offering paying customers flights into space aboard rockets like the SpaceShipOne. He plans to call the service Virgin Galactic.