A Brief History of Human Spaceflight

The world has been inspired by human spaceflight. But most people have never met an astronaut – much less flown to space.

For more than five decades, the exploration of space has been driven by government programs. Beginning with the first person in space — Yuri Gagarin in 1961 — human space exploration has been conYuri Gagarinducted by a handful of superpower government agencies. Their missions are pioneering, important, and inspiring, but they are also expensive, infrequent, and generally inaccessible to all but a select group of highly trained government astronauts from a limited number of nations.

In 1996, a group of philanthropists and entrepreneurs began to change that by starting an international incentive prize competition, the Ansari XPRIZE. The competition attracted 26 teams from around the world, each attempting to become the first to build and fly a crewed spacecraft capable of carrying at least three astronauts into space twice within two weeks–a task of unparalleled proportions. These teams pursued nearly every imaginable configuration for space launch (such as ground launch, air launch, sea launch; with many different types of engines and fuels). Ultimately, a single team emerged as a clear leader: Mojave Aerospace Ventures, a team funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and led by legendary aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan and his company, Scaled Composites.

To pursue the prize, Scaled Composites developed a two-vehicle system: a three-seat spaceplane called SpaceShipOne and a carrier aircraft called WhiteKnight. As required by the prize rules, the system was reusable and developed entirely through private funding.

SpaceShipOne

On October 4, 2004, SpaceShipOne completed all of the prize requirements and officially won the $10M Ansari XPRIZE. In so doing, it became the first-ever private vehicle to carry a human being into space, making international headlines and stunning a world that had largely written off commercial human spaceflight as pure science fiction.

SpaceShipOne wins the Ansari X Prize

Millions of people all around the world were inspired by SpaceShipOne, including Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson. Like so many others, Richard grew up watching the Moon missions, and dreamed of one day flying to space himself. As the years passed, it became increasingly obvious that his dream was unlikely to become a reality without some positive action. In the 1990s, undaunted by the scale of the task, Richard began the process of building the world’s first commercial spaceline, a company designed to help people around the world fulfill their dreams of flying in space. The biggest single obstacle was finding safe and commercially viable technology. Our small team spent years hunting for the right design before our team discovered SpaceShipOne, thanks to our work with Scaled on a project called the Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer.

We loved Scaled’s approach to human spaceflight. Before the Ansari XPRIZE was awarded, we agreed with Paul Allen and Burt Rutan that, should they win, Virgin would engage Scaled to develop a commercial version of the SpaceShipOne system, and build organizations to manufacture and operate the new vehicles for private passengers. As SpaceShipOne touched down on October 4, history was made, and the partnership between Virgin Galactic and Scaled began.