Ansari X Prize

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The X prize logo shows a stylised letter X representing a spacecraft trajectory and containing a starfield.
The X prize logo shows a stylised letter X representing a spacecraft trajectory and containing a starfield.

The Ansari X Prize (formerly the X Prize) was a US$10,000,000 prize, offered by the X PRIZE Foundation, for the first non-government organization to launch a reusable manned spacecraft into space and repeat the feat within two weeks in the same spacecraft. It was modelled after early 20th century aviation prizes, and aimed to spur development of low-cost spaceflight. The prize was won on October 4 2004, exactly 47 years after the launch of Sputnik 1, by the Tier One project using the experimental spaceplane SpaceShipOne.


Contest rules

The contest winner was to be the first team to launch a piloted spacecraft, carrying at least three crewmembers (or one human pilot and payload equivalent to two more), to an altitude of at least 100 kilometers (328,100 ft or 62.14 mi), and then repeat the feat using the same spacecraft within two weeks. Reaching orbit was not a goal, and so all the competitors aimed to make suborbital flights only. The spacecraft were permitted to land at the same site that they launched from. The 100 km target is the boundary of space as defined by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.

The two competitive flights were required to be made by the same vehicle. With the exception of propellant, no more than 10% of the vehicle could be replaced between flights; the rest of the vehicle must be reused. Even NASA's Space Shuttle falls short of this performance requirement, since it takes much more than two weeks to ready a given shuttle between flights. The vehicle must be intact and theoretically reusable after the second flight, and the crew must return unharmed.

Altitudes achieved were measured by three separate systems. There was a flight recorder, referred to as the "gold box", carried on each competitive flight, and two separate radar systems were used. Official altitudes were determined by a compromise between the three systems.

Teams were forbidden to accept government funding for their efforts. Private sponsors were acceptable, however.


The X Prize was designed to help encourage the space industry in the private sector, which is why the entries were not allowed to have any government funding. It aimed to demonstrate that spaceflight can be affordable and accessible to corporations and civilians, opening the door to commercial spaceflight and space tourism. It is also hoped that competition will breed innovation, introducing new low-cost methods of reaching Earth orbit. If everything goes as planned, the X Prize winners could become pioneers of low-cost space travel and unfettered human expansion into the solar system.

Missing image
The X Prize invokes romantic ideals of pioneering aviators.

The X Prize was modeled after many prizes from the early 20th century that helped prod the development of air flight, including notably the $25,000 Orteig Prize that spurred Charles Lindbergh to make his solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. NASA is developing similar prize programs called Centennial Challenges to generate innovative solutions to space technology problems.


Twenty-six teams from around the world participated, ranging from volunteer hobbyists to large corporate-backed operations:

This contestant list notably did not include traditional space access companies like Boeing and Lockheed, which many in the industry believe to be incapable of replacing their present space transportation vehicles with low-cost alternatives. These critics claim as evidence the companies' several failed attempts to do so, such as the X-33 project, on contract from NASA and other U.S. government agencies. However, the X Prize Foundation itself did not ban these companies from applying, so long as they could prove their efforts on this project would be free of government funding.

Competition status

Missing image
Representatives of the Ansari X Prize Foundation symbolically presented the ten million dollar prize to Burt Rutan and Paul Allen of Mojave Aerospace Ventures on November 6, 2004. The X Prize trophy is on the left.

The Tier One project made two successful competitive flights, X1 on September 29 2004 and X2 on October 4 2004. They thus won the prize, which was awarded on November 6 2004. (Note: the winning team is referred to by several names at various times: Tier One, Scaled Composites, and Mojave Aerospace Ventures.)

Flight attempts by teams that did not win

Although only the Tier One team actually launched a spacecraft into suborbital space, several other teams have conducted low-altitude tests or announced future plans to launch into space:

  • The da Vinci Project originally announced that their first flight would be on October 2 2004, but this was postponed indefinitely on September 23 2004, as they were unable to obtain a few necessary components in time. They have not announced a revised timetable.
  • The Canadian Arrow team conducted a successful full-power engine test in 2005 and announced on June 2, 2005, that it had received permission from the Candian government to use Cape Rich as a future launch site.
  • On August 8 2004, Space Transport Corporation's Rubicon 1 and Armadillo Aerospace's test vehicle, in two separate unmanned test launches, both crashed and were destroyed.
  • On February 15 2005, AERA (Formerly American Astronautics) announced its plans to send seven paying passengers into space as early as 2006, a full year before the first Virgin Galactic flight.


Created in May 1996 and initially called just "X Prize", it was renamed "Ansari X Prize" on May 6, 2004 following a multimillion dollar donation from Iranian-born entrepreneurs Anousheh Ansari and Amir Ansari.

The X PRIZE Foundation, (based at the St. Louis Science Center in St. Louis, Missouri), maintains a list of organizations registered to compete for the prize. Some companies developed their craft in secret, not publicly announcing their plans until they were ready to request air/space permission from their local government. Such was the case with the winning team Scaled Composites, whose founder Burt Rutan announced in 1996 that the company would compete for the X Prize but worked entirely in secret for seven years, finally revealing the completed vehicle in April 2003.

List of major donors by order of donation

See also

Related technical topics:

External links

Further reading

  1. "The X Prize", an article by Ian Parker on pages 52 – 63 of the 4 October 2004 issue of The New Yorker

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