Judging by the thousands of spectators who made the trek to the Mojave Desert to watch SpaceShipOne fly early Monday morning, a lot of people are still interested in space flight. The excitement in the crowd as the craft took off was palpable. Each milestone in the flight brought cheers from the throngs come to witness a piece of history in the making.
With Monday’s successful flight, SpaceShipOne’s team won the $10 million Ansari X Prize by sending a three-person, privately built vehicle into space — defined as at least 100 kilometers or 62.5 miles from the Earth’s surface — twice within a period of two weeks.
But the more important prize was the launching of a truly new era of space flight. “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.”
The only thing more exciting than watching the contrail from the rocket head straight into the clear blue sky after it disengaged from the mother ship, a twin-turbojet plane, then disappear as it ran out of atmosphere, was listening to the plans and dreams of the visionaries, scientists and entrepreneurs involved in the historic mission.
The dream? For space flight to be available to anyone at a reasonable price. Monday, the 47th anniversary of the flight of the Russian Sputnik that launched the first great space race of our era, an important first step was taken.
Don’t count these dreamers out. Operating in a free-market environment rather than in a government project, the possibilities are literally boundless.
In a word, SpaceShipOne was an exciting and complete success. Not only did it attain its X Prize goal, but by attaining an altitude of 367,442 feet, it also broke the old record set by the experimental X-15 craft in the mid-1960s by almost 14,000 feet.
What’s in the future? Virgin Atlantic (or Virgin Galactic, if you will) chairman Richard Branson, who was in Mojave, has already ordered a five-passenger craft from Scaled Composites, the Mojave company headed by legendary aircraft designer Burt Rutan. His hope is to do 100 flights a year, with the price, which could start at $200,000, cut in half each year.
Peter Diamandis, chairman and founder of the X-Prize Foundation, also announced a series of X-Prize Cup races, to begin next year in New Mexico. The idea is to keep X-Prize competitors — 25 teams have registered — pushing the boundaries of technology and human aspiration.
Want something done? Competition in the private sector is the proven path. Thanks to Burt Rutan and his team, financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the next phase of space travel has begun. Life is notoriously stingy about handing out guarantees, but all these years after the government ran into a bureaucratic dead end in its space program, space enthusiasts have found a way to tap into the innovative and adventurous spirit of humankind.