First commercial space flight
It was not bigger than the four-wheel drives gathered in the dust to watch, but a small, oddly-shaped white machine made history on June 21 when it soared through the Californian sky to become the world’s first commercial craft in space. The three and a half minutes SpaceShipOne spent in space, 100km above the Mojave desert, was a small step for the tiny proportion of punters rich enough to take a tourist flight beyond the outer atmosphere. After SS-1’s pilot safely glided his craft back to earth, its backers said they hoped that very brief — and relatively low — sojourns in space could be but a decade away for thousands of wealthy tourists. Space obsessives converged on the small desert town of Mojave to witness the tiny rocket-cum-glider fire its way into the aerospace record books, reaching 10 times the height of a commercial jet’s cruising altitude on its one-hour, 28-minute maiden flight. Hotels were booked up, souvenir T-shirts were on sale and the National Space Society even held an all-night rave.
Usually empty desert roads were jammed at 6.30am, with the launch arranged early to beat the winds that sweep across Mojave by day. After the runway was cleared of endangered tortoises, SS-1 departed at 6.47am, slightly behind schedule, hanging beneath its carrier aircraft, White Knight, a turbojet-powered sailplane. The sun was low in the sky, helping spectators watch the moment when, after climbing to 14,000 metres, White Knight released SS-1. Hollering with delight, space fans — and the project’s commercial backers — saw the trails in the sky as pilot Mike Melvill, 62, fired up the rockets for 80 seconds. Melvill briefly achieved weightlessness as he became a fully fledged astronaut, rather than a mere commercial pilot, as SS-1 climbed to “suborbital” space. “Beautiful sight, Mike,” gushed mission control as he safely glided his craft back to earth half an hour later. Standing on the runway beside his ship after the flight, the elated pilot described seeing the curvature of the earth. “I feel great, I really do. The flight was spectacular. Looking out of the window there were clouds over the LA basin that looked like snow. It was a mind-blowing experience. The colours were pretty staggering.”
Asked what he planned to do next, he said, “I think I’ll back off for a little bit and ride my bike.” Alex Rodriguez, a young spectator, was similarly enthused. “After this it’s probably going to be like they’re sending people up there every day, so I want to be the first one.” The people of Mojave, almost 160km from Los Angeles, hope their humble airport will become the world’s leading spaceport. The federal aviation administration has granted it a licence to be America’s first inland spaceport and it is now known as a civilian flight test centre. In turn, investors hope SS-1’s flight heralds the start of space tourism, if not for the masses then for a wealthy minority. There is already a new space race of sorts, fuelled by personal dreams and private wallets, not state funds. Burt Rutan, the SS-1 designer who also devised the Voyager aircraft, which flew around the world non-stop without refuelling in 1986, spoke of an “enormous, pent-up hunger to fly in space.”
Paul Allen, the philanthropist and businessman who founded Microsoft with Bill Gates in 1975, was hungry enough to put up more than Pounds 11m for SS-1. More than 20 companies, including three from Britain, are competing for the Ansari X prize, a $10m trophy offered to the first private craft capable of taking three people to sub-orbital space. Key to the competition is that a three-seater plane must reach space twice within a fortnight — suggesting it could be commercially viable. SS-1 now leads the field. Commentators believe it could claim the prize by the end of the summer. Analysts say market for such travel could be huge.