How SpaceShipOne Used a Hybrid N2O Engine to Win the Ansari X-Prize

At World Wide Gas, we like to celebrate the special moments in history that involve the product that we’ve dedicated our lives to producing. Well over 90% of the N2O that we produce is sold for culinary purposes, but we appreciate the flexibility and power that Nitrous Oxide brings to fields such as medicine, chemical engineering, and in this case… rocket science!

Famously, it was the television show ‘MythBusters’ who introduced the general public to the concept of N2O hybrid rockets. In their show entitled ‘Confederate Rocket’, they fired off their test bed using liquid Nitrous Oxide and paraffin wax.

But in this article, we would like to aim a little higher than what Adam and Jamie achieved. We’re setting our sights on suborbital space. Which is why we will take a look back at how SpaceShipOne used N2O to capture the coveted Ansari X-Prize.

A Brief History of N2O’s Use in Space Travel

The first work on N2O hybrid rockets was done in the late 1930s. IG Farben in Germany and the California Rocket Society in the United States both had an interest in the field. It was a German team that first tested a large scale hybrid rocket motor, using coal and gaseous N2O as the two propellants.

Though Nitrous Oxide has been part of the propellant conversation in rocketry for over 80 years, it wasn’t until the last half of the 20th century that its role in hybrid rockets was carefully examined. The Technical University of Munich has been developing hybrid engines and rockets since the early 1970s, using Nitrous Oxide in combination with either polyethylene or HTPB rubber. Their early work allowed for labs throughout the world to refine their own hybrid rockets, and fine tune the chemical reactions that produce enough thrust to send rockets into space.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, university research caught the attention of a number of companies with more commercial interests. In particular, the American Rocket Company performed over 200 test firings of their own hybrid rocket design. Although the rocket never left the lower atmosphere, the data that the company collected would become invaluable to an upstart rocketry company seeking one of the most coveted prizes in aviation.

Development of the Hybrid Engine that Won the Ansari X-Prize

SpaceDev was founded in 1997 by Jim Benson, who also snapped up the rights to all of American Rocket Company’s research data. This allowed the hybrid rocket designer to fine tune their N2O based engine for higher and higher yields.

Their results impressed Paul Allen, who was the sole investor in Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne project. SpaceShipOne was attempting to become the first suborbital commercial spacecraft in the world, and in doing so with the $10 million Ansari X-Prize. In the end, Allen and Rutan chose SpaceDev’s Nitrous Oxide and HTPB engines to power their dreams.

October 4, 2004, the N2O powered craft reached an altitude of 111,996 meters. It became the first privately funded ship to successfully put a civilian in suborbital space. And with that, the innovative craft won the Ansari X Prize and launched a brand new era of private companies going to space.

The Amazing Future of N2O Orbital Spacecraft

Nitrous Oxide powered hybrid rockets have some advantages over their pure liquid cousins. They run cooler, they don’t require high pressurization since N2O is a self-pressurized oxidizer, and they have a better stability profile. So it is no surprise that more and more aerospace organizations are looking at hybrid engines for their future designs.

Vaya Space is using hybrid rockets to enter the small satellite launch and hybrid rocket sales market. They use the N2O based STAR-3D Hybrid Rocket Engine as their launch platform, with over sixty successful test fires accomplished to date. Their small satellite market services offer a launch-ready cycle of less than 30 days, yet another advantage of using powerful, efficient hybrid engines.

A number of other startups and established companies are looking at hybrid rockets with an N2O oxidizer as a more affordable, more environmentally friendly way to reach Earth’s orbit.


Although World Wide Gas hasn’t yet dabbled in the world of rocketry, we applaud the pioneers that are taking us right to the edge of space, and then beyond.

Nitrous Oxide has dozens of amazing uses. As we observe the recent accomplishments of private firms such as SpaceX and Vaya, we’re happy to celebrate the kinds of advancements that can improve our understanding of the universe, and bring us all closer together in the spirit of discovery.

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