Students trek to California for space adventure

(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON – About 200 college students flocked to Mojave, Calif., to witness a pilot breach suborbital space in a private rocket plane a second time this week and claim the $10 million “X Prize.”

First-time pilot Brian Binnie took the craft, SpaceShipOne, to the 62 mile height boundary required to win the $10 million “X Prize.” The flight was a repeat performance of last Thursday’s launch. SpaceShipOne underwent its first test flight last June.

Binnie’s team was one of 26 vying for the prize, in the desert, about 100 miles north of Los Angeles. The X Prize Foundation, which hosted the competition, required that contestants perform two successful flights within two weeks of each other.

“One of the mandates of the X Prize Foundation is to educate the public about what it can do in the future.” X Prize representative Catriona Linton said. “It was really amazing just having students here for something so profound.” Through its “Road Trip to Space” program, the X Prize Foundation offered hats, shirts and other memorabilia to students sporting the best costumes and boasting the most exotic hometowns. Linton said tinfoil suits were common fare for on-looking students at Thursday’s launch. “We didn’t want to miss this opportunity to see a glimpse of the future (space program) that we will get to be a part of,” University of Illinois student Kirk Kittell said in a press release. Linton said Kittell attended the flight with 35 friends.

The “X Prize” was a bounty modeled after the $25,000 award given to Charles Lindbergh for completing his 1927 nonstop flight from New York to Paris. The foundation offered it to the first private firm to take a craft to the edge of the atmosphere twice in a two week period, carrying the weight of three passengers. “It’s really cool that someone other than NASA or some other big organization could do this,” said Aaron Sippel, a senior aerospace engineering student at Purdue University.

Peter H. Diamandis, chairman of the X Prize Foundation, said he was “excited to see so much interest from the college students.”

“It is our intention that the X Prize usher in a Golden Age of spaceflight creating thousands of private astronauts flying aboard dozens of privately owned and operated spaceships,” he said in a press release.

The Washington Post reported that marks of corporate sponsorship were commonplace at this week’s launches relative to the fairly spartan preliminary flight SpaceShipOne took this summer. Scaled Composites, the firm that developed the craft, received more than $20 million in contributions from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Some college students said they see orbital space as the next milestone for private spaceflight.

“There’s been a lot of talk about one day building space habitats and hotels,” said Laura Brower, a junior aerospace engineering student at Perdue University. “This flight is doing a lot more to drive interest (in space tourism) than government.”

British airline mogul Richard Branson announced plans Monday to begin offering customers flights into space on crafts modeled after SpaceShipOne by 2007, according to The Associated Press. He said he will name the service Virgin Galactic. Competing firms said they were quick to set their sights on the new, loftier goals. Interorbital Space Corporation, which competed to enter suborbital space before SpaceShipOne, is first to enter a similar race to break orbital space for $50 million.

“We’re competing for ‘America’s Space Prize,’ a prize being offered to the first firm to take five people 250 miles into orbital space,” said Randa Milliron, CEO of Interorbital Space Corporation. She said her firm is courting sponsors to provide $35 million for the projected 18 month project. Robert Bigelow

Milliron said Nevada millionaire Robert Bigelow, who is funding the prize, is looking to one day create an “orbital hotel.”

She said, “That will be real space tourism.”

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