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Spaceship One @ National Geographic Magazine
By Burt Rutan Photographs by Jim Sugar
Opening photograph (above) by Mark Greenberg
Winning the ten-million-dollar Ansari X Prize for suborbital flight proves that the sky's no limit.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Just before sunrise on October 4, as the launch vehicle White Knight—with SpaceShipOne tucked neatly under its belly—was poised to taxi onto the runway at Mojave Airport in California, I stuck my head inside the tiny graphite-and-epoxy rocket to give pilot Brian Binnie a few last words of advice. I knew that Brian, an avid golfer like me, would get my meaning. "Use a driver," I said. "Keep your head down and swing smooth."

My message: Shoot for the greatest possible performance, but also strive for accuracy. Brian's job wasn't going to be easy. To qualify SpaceShipOne for the ten-million-dollar Ansari X Prize, he had to fly himself and the equivalent of two passengers—a total of 595 pounds (270 kilograms)—to an altitude of at least 100 kilometers (328,000 feet) and return for a safe landing. We'd measured his payload precisely. But nobody had planned on Brian's mother-in-law contributing a last-minute surprise. As Brian got ready to enter the cockpit, she gave him a big hug, spilling a cup of coffee all over his flight suit.

"I got soaked," Brian said. "I later figured those extra 12 ounces probably cost me 200 feet of apogee."

We were used to surprises by then. Five days before, test pilot Mike Melvill had taken SpaceShipOne to more than 337,500 feet (102,900 meters)—the first of the two suborbital spaceflights required within two weeks to win the X Prize. But as Mike had rocketed toward the edge of space, SpaceShipOne had started spinning at an alarming rate. Mike was never in any danger, but the unexpected rolls left us scratching our heads.

For the next two days none of us got much sleep. We eventually hypothesized that the rolls were caused by a lack of directional stability as the rocket left the atmosphere. Mike may also have been pushing a little too hard on the rudder pedal. The incident led me to ask if I might be pushing too hard as well. I gathered the team together 48 hours after Mike's flight to see if they were ready to try again. Their response: a wholehearted yes.

As the designer of both SpaceShipOne and White Knight, I had a lot riding on our team's success. Not only did I hope to bring home the X Prize, I also wanted us to prove that privately built spaceships could achieve what the U.S. government has not: develop technology to make spaceflight affordable and safe for the masses.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.