Xeni on NPR: SpaceShipOne wins XPrize, earlier space history at Mojave

The age of commercial space flight officially began this morning: SpaceShipOne successfully completed the second of two flights into space within 5 days, securing its win of the $10 million Ansari XPrize. On today's edition of NPR's "Day to Day" I speak with host Alex Chadwick about today's historic news — as well as some of the lesser-known space history surrounding Mojave airport, now America's first licensed spaceport. Link to today's segment.

Before SS1 took off this morning, its designer Burt Rutan said he hoped it would top the 354,200 foot altitude reached 40 years ago by X-15 pilot Joe Walker, also out of Mojave. The X-15 program was a joint NASA/Air Force effort preceding the space shuttle program (NASA photos, videos). And SpaceShipOne did indeed beat that record, climbing to an unprecedented 377,591 feet, then returning to earth in a smooth arc.

At last week's Mojave SS1 launch, I met Richard Russell and USAF Major Greg Frazier, aerospace historians who run an organization called West Mojave Aviation Archaeology. They work to preserve crash sites like the one where a later X-15 pilot, Maj. Michael J. Adams (bio link) lost his life in 1967 during an X-15 research flight. He was the first American astronaut to die on a space mission. Adams' fatal mission was the 191st flight in the X-15 program, and his first suborbital mission. His aircraft crashed after re-entering earth's atmosphere. The X-15 program was canceled the following year.

Frazier led an effort to create a monument to Adams at the X-15 crash site, unveiled in May, 2004 (Link). They're now working to get some of the ship debris into the Smithsonian Air and Space museum, and trying to raise awareness about these sites to protect them from vandalism.

"Florida got all the recogniation for Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, and the Antelope Valley here is more known for aircraft achievements — but X-15 was a spacecraft, so there is some space flight history here," Frazier told me, "Now, with the advent of Space Ship One, there's a whole lot of new history out here."

Link to today's "Day to Day" show on XPrize and X15 history, Link to last week's NPR segment: "First X-Prize Flight a Success for SpaceShipOne", with some of Jason DeFillippo's photos.

See also John Schwartz's fine Xprize/SpaceShipOne coverage in today's New York Times (Link), Dan Brekke's items in today's Wired News (Link), and on-ship footage from the webcast (Link). Also: The New Yorker has a great piece on Rutan this week, but it's not online.

And finally: BoingBoing reader Kevin T. Keith says, "Check out Google today – their logo includes a caricature of SpaceShip One in orbit (being greeted by little green men)."

Image: shot by BoingBoing pal Wayne Correia (background link, email link), who says, "It was so beautiful to watch it shooting straight up from 47,000 to 370,000 ft. when the pilot ignited the rocket. When the craft landed, Paul Allen, Burt Rutan and Sir Richard Branson went out in a pickup truck to the tarmac so they could greet the pilot and tow it back to their hangar… the three of them were just hanging off the back of the tailgate with the craft in tow, the pilot standing on the roof of the aircraft holding an American flag which he'd just taken into space." Link to Wayne's full-size photo.