TOPICS : A giant leap for backyard rocketeers

Mark Sappenfield

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

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, making pilot Mike Melvill the first civilian astronaut. 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. The queue to be next has already started forming. Some 27 organisations 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. 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. founder Jeff Bezos has started a firm that is reportedly designing a spacecraft for space tourism. The $20 million SpaceShipOne program cost only about 5 per cent as much as a single shuttle mission. And while much more work remains before private entrepreneurs can reach orbit Monday’s flight was an indispensable step. — The Christian Science Monitor