Out on the Mojave: space shot for the common man

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.

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.

The result is a machine more insect that airliner. First, the spindly limbed White Knight carrier jet takes off like a typical aircraft, with SpaceShipOne clamped to its belly between pincer-like landing gear. When the White Knight reaches 50,000 feet, it releases SpaceShipOne, which is little more than a rocket- propelled dart. After a short glide, the engines fire with such force that their contrail can be tracked from the ground, and SpaceShipOne shoots straight up until it reaches 62 miles (327,000 feet), where the pilot can see the curvature of the earth and the blackness of space. When the spacecraft falls, the wings reorient themselves to allow the craft to fall belly-first before it glides in for a landing.

Even if Monday's run is successful, it wouldn't count toward the X Prize, since only one pilot will be on board. But Mr. Rutan reportedly hopes to make qualifying flights later this summer.

Fred Hudson has seen the show before - attending several recent tests. "It gives you goose bumps," says the 30-year Mojave resident, who stopped in for lunch at the Voyager restaurant just beneath the control tower of the Mojave airfield. "It's beautiful. It's something out of the future."

He plans to come back Monday morning for the 7:30 launch, and rumors traveling through local restaurants suggest that as many as 60,000 people from as far afield as Canada might join him. Some might even camp out, Woodstock-style, to snare the best spot when airport gates open at 3 a.m.

Just don't expect all of Mojave to take part. From the beginning, this gold-rush town has been an ambivalent capital of civilian test aviation - a town that still, in many ways, looks west for its identity to the railroad tracks that skirt downtown, rather than east to the airfield. After all, it is a place where sonic booms are familiar enough that they could be on the lunch menu - and they engender no great affection. Along downtown's three-stoplight stretch of Route 14, where the dry desert winds play on metal with a devilish skree, there are two signs for July's Tattoo Expo, but not a single mention of Rutan's launch.

"Most of the people have been here ever since dirt was made," says Hudson, stroking his grizzled mustache with a smile. "They don't realize the significance."

The significance, say experts, is in how it changes perceptions about space. Alone, a successful launch Monday would not move humanity all that much closer to the "2001" society of spinning space stations. To establish a true civilian presence in outer space, companies would need to discover a cheap, reliable means of entering Earth's orbit - and Rutan's effort falls far short of that. In fact, it reaches only slightly more than half the altitude Alan Shepard reached in America's first space flight.

Yet, in time, Monday's flight could prove as significant as Shepard's 15-minute suborbital fling 43 years ago, some say, especially with President Bush's plan to shift more space programs to private business.

"It represents a major turning point in our ability to live and work in space," says Howard McCurdy, a space-flight historian at American University in Washington. "It represents a transfer of responsibility from government to commercial organizations, and in that sense space becomes a part of the earth."

In the immediate future, space tourism is likely to be limited to $100,000 space shots. Hundreds pay similar amounts to scale Mount Everest every year, and those who have been to space say the experience is like no other.

"A lot of them have this sense that there's some experience that occurs, some perspective they get on life and Earth, by going away from it and looking back at it," says Dr. Crawley. "They tend to be more introspective, more interested in getting all of the people on the planet to work together.... Maybe that'll come about."

Staff writer Elizabeth Armstrong contributed to this report.

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