OAKLAND, CALIF — . - As soon as Monday, Burt Rutan could send his split-tailed space guppy past the envelope of blue sky for the second time in a week and at last lay claim to the $10 million Ansari X Prize.
Yet as Mr. Rutan prepares SpaceShipOne for a second launch next week, the traces of Wednesday's wobbling flight still hang over Mojave like a question mark. If SpaceShipOne's successes have planted a symbolic stake in the heavens, claiming them for anyone with the mind and the money to follow, then Wednesday's wild ride suggests that those who do will need strong nerves and stomachs of steel.
On one hand, it's hardly surprising that going to space is a dangerous business. Yet a clear goal of the X Prize is to make spaceflight routine - routine enough for British billionaire Richard Branson to announce the creation of Virgin Galactic this week. For now, however, SpaceShipOne's harrowing space shots are showing not only how far the private space race has come, but also how much farther it still has to go.
"If safety is the No. 1 objective of spaceflight, we're never going to do it," says Lori Garver, a former president of the American Astronautical Society in Springfield, Va.
"You take greater risks for things that could be more meaningful."
To space enthusiasts, few things could be more meaningful. The X Prize has come to represent the gateway to humanity's space-faring future. Since NASA has failed to find a way to get humans into space cheaply, reliably, and frequently, the X Prize donors asked private entrepreneurs to do it - for a $10 million reward.
The rules are simple: Build a machine that can carry three people to an altitude of 62 miles twice in two weeks. SpaceShipOne did it Wednesday, though it carried only the pilot and the weight of two people (which is legal under X Prize rules). If it succeeds in its second attempt next week, Rutan will win, recouping half of the estimated $20 million that Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen spent on the project.
For all the import of the X Prize, though, SpaceShipOne's achievements so far remain largely symbolic. The practical applications are slim for a test rocket that handles like a rodeo bull and is prone to pinwheeling into the ether. Perhaps the only use is space tourism - appealing to those wealthy thrill-seekers who spend tens of thousands of dollars to climb Mount Everest or go on safari.
That's the idea behind Virgin Galactic, a collaboration between Mr. Branson and Rutan that would use the next generation of SpaceShipOne craft to offer clients four minutes of weightlessness for about $190,000.
"Rutan has been clear that he wants to make this into a profit-making venture," says Edward Hudgins, author of "Space: The Free Market Frontier." "That's exactly the right approach."
It's a modest beginning far short of space hotels or trips to the moon, but it is significant. Since the dawn of the Space Age, the human spaceflight industry has existed only in artists' renderings and far-out futurists' conferences. Now, the scheduled launch of Virgin Galactic in 2007 - along with the increasing activity of other space ventures - is forcing the world to prepare itself.
American X Prize competitors, for instance, have operated by finding loopholes in regulatory law, since there are no laws governing private spacecraft. Though Congress could pass a bill on the issue this session, the questions remain broad and basic: Which vehicles need licenses? Who can fly them? What laws are needed to protect people in the machines and on the ground?
"All issues are on the table," says David Goldston, chief of staff for the House Science Committee.
The success of SpaceShipOne has created a sense of momentum, both on Capitol Hill and among analysts and members of the nascent human spaceflight industry. The hope is that the X Prize will stir entrepreneurs to consider new possibilities, and eventually lead to the Holy Grail of aerospace engineering: a cheap and reusable vehicle that can go into orbit. With that, hotels and orbiting spaceports become a reality.
There's already evidence of the optimism. Bigelow Aerospace is reportedly on the verge of offering a $50 million American Space Prize to any private American company that can develop a reliable orbital vehicle. There's a good reason for that. Bigelow has been working on orbiting space habitats - and needs an orbital rocket for people to get to them.
"Once the market get rolling, it picks up speed, " says Tony DeTora, executive director of the Space Frontier Foundation in Nyack, N.Y.
How fast it will pick up speed is anyone's guess - some people suggest two decades, others suggest a matter of years. Yet most analysts agree that the pace is likely to be faster in the hands of private industry than in the hands of government - partly because entrepreneurs can be more daring in the early stages.
If SpaceShipOne's spin had happened with a government vehicle, "Congress would have called an inquiry and the spacecraft would have been grounded for 1-1/2 years," says Ms. Garver, who has also worked at NASA. If there's a problem, Rutan's team "will figure it out, and not some panel of bureaucrats."