Space travel: A competition that’s out of this world

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The Independent Online

How Mission Virgin Galactic could be your chance to contribute to aerospace technology.

When American aviation engineer Burt Rutan’s groundbreaking SpaceShipOne flight won the Ansari X prize (a competition to encourage innovation) in 2005, space flight entered a new era. Rutan had applied engineering ingenuity, entrepreneurial drive and innovative ability to come up with a viable, reusable spacecraft for commercial spaceflight.

How did Rutan came up with the design for SpaceShipOne? Lying in bed one night, still trying to work out how to bring his spacecraft back through the Earth’s atmosphere avoiding the intense heat of re-entry, a groundbreaking shuttlecock design suddenly popped into Rutan’s head. The vehicle would realign its wings immediately before re-entry and float back down through the atmosphere, thus remaining cooler.

Just three years on, Rutan and Virgin Galactic are developing larger spacecraft to take space tourists into orbit, and the waiting list includes the scientist Stephen Hawking. Now you have the chance to contribute your inspirational ideas to aerospace technology and win a fantastic prize, as Virgin Galactic, the Royal Aeronautical Society and Royal Air Force announce the launch of a new schools competition aimed at teams of four to six students who are, at the time of entering the competition, in full-time Key Stage 3 (or equivalent secondary level education). This, ladies and gentlemen, is Mission Virgin Galactic.

The challenge

Teams have to produce a marketable product that demonstrates one or more of the engineering or scientific principles employed by the Virgin Galactic space flight, demonstrating a practical application of science and engineering in a commercial environment.

Teams also have to create a project portfolio and a prototype or model of the product, as well as delivering a presentation to the judging team and being able to answer any of their questions.

The winning team will demonstrate design and technological capabilities, project management and team-working ability, utilising their imagination and entrepreneurial skills to create a marketable product.

The prizes

Virgin Galactic will provide a trip to the USA for the winning team and their supervisors to see the launch of SpaceShipTwo. Winners of the regional heats will receive a model of SpaceShipTwo for their school, while runners-up will receive a photograph of SpaceShipTwo signed by Richard Branson. All participants will receive a certificate, and there will also be special RAeS membership prizes and the chance to meet some interesting people along the way!


  • April to May 2009: Regional heats

  • July 2009: The final