MOJAVE, Calif. - Hoping to build on the momentum sparked by a private rocket plane's dash into space, supporters of opening the heavens to civilians are turning the winner-take-all race into an annual competition that might further fuel imaginations.
The privately owned SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X Prize on Monday by blasting into space for the second time in five days, a feat considered the first stepping-stone in the direction of public spaceflight.
"In 10 years, everyone will know that if they want to, they can go to orbit in their life," SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan told NBC's "Today" show on Tuesday. "They will know that instead of just hope or dream."
The X Prize, offered to the first team to get into space twice in a 14-day span, will now evolve into a regular competition called the X Prize Cup. In May, organizers selected New Mexico to permanently host the X Prize Cup.
More than two-dozen teams worldwide began projects in hopes of winning the original X Prize, and prize founder Peter Diamandis said the purpose of the Cup competition is to keep such groups going with a "grand prix of space."
The first X Prize Cup will be held in 2005-06 at New Mexico's White Sands Missile Range, a vast military installation. It will then move to an area 30 miles north of Las Cruces, where a facility dubbed the Southwest Regional Spaceport will be built.
Teams will compete in five different categories to win the overall cup: Fastest turn around time between the first launch and second landing, maximum number of passengers per launch, total number of passengers during the competition, maximum altitude and fastest flight time.
Diamandis said it is envisioned that prizes will grow to the multimillion-dollar range. Organizers hope it becomes one of the largest space-related events on the calendar, drawing hundreds of thousands of people to cheer for their favorite team.
International Fuel Technologies of St. Louis, Mo., announced Monday that it has signed on as the event's first major sponsor. "IFT has just secured a new position in the new frontier," said Chief Executive Officer Jonathan Burst.
Terms of the sponsorship weren't divulged.
SpaceShipOne proved that privately funded spaceflight is indeed possible. The craft left the Mojave Airport north of Los Angeles at dawn aboard a mother plane named White Knight that carried it to an altitude of 46,000 feet.
From there it was launched on a half-hour flight that took it to an altitude of more than 62 miles, the height generally considered the border between the atmosphere and space.
After the spaceship landed, Diamandis said the altitude was official, and that SpaceShipOne's team had claimed the prize by being the first to make two such flights within the required 14 days.
"This is the true frontier of transportation," said Marion C. Blakey, head of the Federal Aviation Administration, who stood near the runway to watch the flight. "It feels a little bit like Kitty Hawk must have."
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said President Bush called to congratulate the SpaceShipOne team. Astronauts aboard the international space station also sent their best wishes.
Last week, Richard Branson, the British airline mogul and adventurer, announced that beginning in 2007, he will begin offering paying customers flights into space aboard rockets like SpaceShipOne.
Branson said he had a deal, worth up to $25 million over 15 years, to license the technology that led to SpaceShipOne. Fares will start at more than $200,000, and SpaceShipOne designer Rutan will build the spaceship.
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