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Out on the Mojave: space shot for the common man

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 18, 2004


Down Route 58, past tangles of scrub brush and 20 miles of landscape that ripples in the heat of the high California desert, America took its first steps into the space age in the 1960s.

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For the generation of test pilots who would become America's first astronauts, this was the launching pad for the impossible - where machines took humans faster and higher than ever before.

Monday morning, as the sun creeps over the umber edge of the San Gabriel mountains, a local engineer famous for his independent attitude and revolutionary ideas will seek to take that spirit into the 21st century. If all goes as planned, his SpaceShipOne will shoot straight up - 62 miles above the Mojave sand to where the sky is as black as shale - and for the first time a human will reach space unaided by any government.

It will be an event earmarked for history, and a statement that - after 40 years of exploration - the final frontier might finally be open to the common man.

While floating hotels and lunar honeymoons might still be years if not decades away, they are impossible without this achievement, experts say. This is the beginning of cheap access to space, and the last gasp of the notion that the heavens are solely the domain of governments.

Like Charles Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic, which fired the public's imagination and led to the creation of commercial air travel, SpaceShipOne's space shot could set off a new space race, as private entrepreneurs see what is possible and race to stake their claim in the ether.

"It would create a feeling among the population that space is an achievable place," says Edward Crawley, an engineer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. And "it would create a feeling among people interested in investing that this is part of the general human experience, not a fringe thing."

That is the goal of the ANSARI X Prize - the $10 million competition that brought SpaceShipOne into being. In short, it seeks to fulfill the failed promises of the space shuttle, which was originally conceived as a way to get into space frequently and reliably but has proved to be too fragile to fly more than a few times a year.

The rules of the X Prize hold that competitors must build a machine that can reach an altitude of 62 miles (widely considered to be the threshold for space) while carrying three passengers. Then they have to do it again with the same machine within two weeks. The first one to complete the task wins the $10 million, which was donated by a group of space enthusiasts including novelist Tom Clancy.

Some 27 teams from seven countries have entered. But the front-runner appears to have emerged from the sunbaked plains of Mojave. It is no surprise.

Since the earliest days of the fighter jock, this stretch of California scrub has been a mecca for cutting-edge aircraft, promising crystalline skies and thousands of square miles of uninhabited land to test balky technologies.

And since the early 1980s, the drab corrugated-steel sheds adjacent to Mojave's World War II-era airfield have been the workshop of Burt Rutan - the mind behind SpaceShipOne and one of the most innovative aerospace engineers in the world. In 1986, his Voyager became the first aircraft to fly around the world nonstop. More recently, his bid to win the X Prize has attracted the backing of Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen - who says he has committed more than $20 million to the project.