Historic, Private Space Flight Succeeds

A 62-year-old pilot flew a craft 62 miles from Earth to the edge of space, becoming the world’s first privately backed, civilian astronaut and edging a team funded by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen closer to the X Prize, the cup of the modern space race.

Pilot Mike Melvill’s flight to suborbital space and safely back to the ground marks perhaps the greatest achievement for private industry in space. The historic flight could open commercial markets that include not only space tourism but also remote sensing, microgravity testing and even point-to-point travel or package delivery, The Space Review editor Jeff Foust told TechNewsWorld.

The flight of SpaceShipOne, funded by Allen and created by Burt Rutan’s company Scaled Composites, takes the team closer to the X Prize objective — to launch three people or a pilot and the equivalent weight of two passengers into suborbital space (100 kilometers or 62 miles) two times within two weeks.

The successful team did not indicate when its next mission would be scheduled, but did exude confidence that it would win the X Prize.

Excitement and Emotion

After the SpaceShipOne craft returned to the ground and landed successfully following its flight to suborbital space, Scaled Composite’s Rutan said that the people in mission control had experienced several emotional highs during the flight.

“The way you guys felt when it touched down, we felt that several times up in mission control at other portions of the flight,” Rutan said at a press conference.

The craft designer also expressed satisfaction that — apart from a few changes — the SpaceShipOne that flew this week looked like the craft he designed more than four years ago.

Safely First

Rutan, with Allen and Melvill at his side in front of reporters and spectators after the flight, said the flight was truly eventful for what it represented but was gladly uneventful in terms of glitches or safety issues.

“It’s the first time that a winged vehicle — one that can make this beautiful landing on a runway — can have a carefree reentry, and that is an enormous thing for safety,” Rutan said.

The winged SpaceShipOne took off on top of a companion craft known as White Knight and after being released from it, the smaller, rocket-like SpaceShipOne craft fired its rocket motor for more than a minute, shooting the craft a half-mile past the X Prize designation for space at 62 miles up.

SpaceShipOne then reentered the atmosphere, descended and landed safely in California’s Mojave Desert.

Onboard For X

Scaled Composites spokesperson Kaye LeFebvre told TechNewsWorld that the company now is working to add two more passengers — or the equivalent weight — to move closer to the US$10 million X Prize, which requires a three-person trip to space repeated within two weeks.

Foust called the ability to fly to the same altitude with the full payload and the follow-up flight within two weeks the biggest challenges for SpaceShipOne. Still, he already has predicted that, barring problems, the craft could win the X Prize within the next couple of months.

Foust referred to the many other X Prize competitors and the X Prize Cup, a similar private space race to take place in New Mexico starting in 2005, and said that regardless of the prizes and SpaceShipOne’s success, several of the other teams could find long-term commercial success.

Lift For Space

Foust added that although the achievement marks a milestone, it is even more significant in terms of what it has done from a cultural or psychological standpoint.

“It has the potential to really resonate with the public,” Foust said. “They may see space as something far more accessible to them than ever before, that space is more than just NASA.”

Foust also credited the Ansari X Prize for driving the development of commercial space endeavors, adding that it will be interesting to see how ventures such as SpaceShipOne might be converted into profitable business.

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