A giant leap for backyard rocketeers

Mike Melvill pilots a rocket into space, opening era of private manned launches.

When SpaceShipOne split the clear California skies to cross the threshold of space Monday morning, the rumble that echoed down toward the Joshua trees of the Mojave Desert was no mere sonic boom. It was a seismic shift in the history of human exploration.

For this first privately funded trip to space, there was no wagon train hitched to SpaceShipOne's tail fins. On board that rocket-fueled carbon shuttlecock, there were no settlers prepared to colonize the heavens. But this much seems certain: Space is now open for business.

For two generations, the feats of space have been reserved for those test pilots and scientists who passed government muster. Now, the vapor trail of SpaceShipOne's hurtling ascent hangs in the air, an indelible cosmic path for anyone with the money and moxie to follow.

In many ways, the moment is more Wild West than Wilbur Wright, opening a new frontier for the geniuses and thrill seekers, businessmen and hucksters who have long followed pioneers to new lands and new markets.

"It's like the opening of the West," says Howard McCurdy, a spaceflight historian at American University in Washington. "Entrepreneurs followed in the wake of the oft government-funded explorers. There were a lot of characters and a lot of innovation."

By those measures, Burt Rutan certainly qualifies. Like the prospectors of old, the creator of SpaceShipOne has gone out seeking a new verse in the narrative of exploration - and a nice chunk of cash.

The money comes from the Ansari X Prize: A competition that will give $10 million to any organization that can build a machine that can reach the threshold of space - an altitude of 62 miles (100 kilometers) - with three people, then do it again within two weeks. With only a pilot on board, this flight did not qualify, but Mr. Rutan hopes to win the prize later this summer.

It will come as no surprise. At the competition's opening event, Rutan boasted to the gathering that he already knew how to accomplish the feat "but I'm not going to tell you what I'm going to do because I'm going to win it."

The idea became SpaceShipOne, and Monday just before 8 a.m. Pacific time, the diminutive space dart detached from its arachnoid mother ship and rocketed upward to where the sky turned black and the horizon bent with the curvature of the earth, making pilot Mike Melvill the first civilian astronaut.

"The colors were pretty staggering from up there," said Mr. Melvill, who also earned his wings, officially, as an astronaut. "It was almost a religious experience." Melvill said he could see the black expanse of outer space, the curvature of the earth and a broad swathe of the Southern California coast during his three and half minutes just beyond earth's atmosphere. He released a bag of M&Ms candies that floated around the cockpit.

At a time when America and the world are absorbed with grim news of terrorist attacks, hostages, and war, the flight provided a welcome moment of hopeful news for humanity - and made Melvill a hero of sorts. "I'm just a guy, an old guy" he insisted after the flight. "I think I'll back off a little bit and ride my bike."

The queue to be next has already started forming. Some 27 organizations are competing for the X Prize, and at least one other company - a Canadian venture that foresees launching a rocket from a balloon - is not too far behind Rutan. Other X Prize companies say they will continue to develop their technologies even if Rutan wins. What's more, Monday's flight could be a kick to the flywheel of further innovation.

"People don't believe something until they see it," says Edward Hudgins, author of "Space: The Free Market Frontier." "If Rutan wins the X Prize, we will see the private sector leading the way into space, not the public sector."

Already, the private sector in America spends more on space ventures than the government, sending up satellites at a cost of roughly $100 billion a year. But SpaceShipOne is the first hint of expanding that market to the world of space hotels on orbiting colonies, imagined since the turn of the century.

Indeed, the hope of getting people and equipment into space on rockets that can do the job cheaply, safely, and frequently has become something of a crusade among the world's tech intelligentsia. Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen bankrolled SpaceShipOne with $20 million of his own money. The creator of the popular video game Doom runs a company that is competing for the X Prize. Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos has started a firm that is reportedly designing a spacecraft for space tourism.

"The one thing we know is that the cost will drop and this will balloon out, and that's a fantastic achievement," says Kevin Marvel of the American Astronautical Society in Springfield, Va. "Getting the cost down is a good thing."

The $20 million SpaceShipOne program cost only about 5 percent as much as a single shuttle mission. And while much more work remains before private entrepreneurs can reach orbit - where the greatest business opportunities are - Monday's flight was an indispensable step.

Like the barnstormers who crossed America in the early years of the 20th century, promising a future when any person could get on a plane and fly across the country, today's space entrepreneurs speak about space with a sense of manifest destiny. Now, more people might listen.

"The public perception of space is that space is a government policy," says Mr. Hudgins. "But just as private entrepreneurs commercialized the Internet and the automobile, so it is private entrepreneurs that can open space and make us a potential space-faring race."

Staff writer Elizabeth Armstrong contributed to this report, and material from Reuters was used.

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