17 December 2003: the first powered flight of SpaceShipOne

Madame Guzman didn’t get her chat with aliens when she announced the Guzman Prize 115 years ago today. Despite offering a 100,000 franc reward, nobody could come up with the technology to communicate with distant worlds. (Mars didn’t count – it was deemed too easy.) But in some ways, the Ansari XPrize was its successor.

Unveiled in May 1996, the $2.5m prize (which grew to $10m) would be awarded to anyone who could design and build “a reliable, reusable, privately-financed, manned spaceship capable of carrying three people to 100 kilometres above the Earth’s surface twice within two weeks”.

The idea was to prove that private space travel (ie, non-government funded) was not only possible, but profitable. Twenty-five teams threw their hats into the ring, including four from Britain – the most represented county after the United States.

Mojave Aerospace Ventures was one of the American teams to enter. On 17 December 2003, their SpaceShipOne, piloted by Mike Melvill, undertook its first powered flight test, in which it broke the sound barrier.

It was a day loaded with meaning. Quite apart from Madame Guzman and her challenge, the date was also the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ ground-breaking first powered flight in the Wright Flyer, which ushered in the age of aviation.

Suitably impressed, Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic “spaceline” venture engaged the company behind SpaceShipOne, Scaled Composites, to develop a commercial version to ferry tourists into space.

SpaceShipOne went on to fulfil all the requirements of the Ansari XPrize, and on 4 October 2004, it was awarded the $10m – roughly half of what it cost to develop, but still an achievement in itself, as The Economist noted at the time: “For that, Nasa could barely launch a kite, let alone an astronaut.” And besides, the cost wouldn’t have much troubled the team’s backer – Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

Also on this day

17 December 1900: The Guzman Prize is announced

On this day in 1900, Clara Guzman stumped up 100,000 francs prize money for the first person to communicate with and receive a response from another planet. Read more here.