A Rocket Flight for the Common Man?
Leader in Private Space Race Predicts New Era of Tourism
By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 12, 2004; Page A01
Think of it as an elaborate badminton shuttlecock. Put a pilot in it, take it up in the air and fire it 62 miles straight up into suborbital space at three times the speed of sound -- a spectacular trip undertaken with the knowledge that as the spacecraft plummets back to Earth, it will always be pointing in the right direction.
This elegantly simple precept underpins the aerodynamics of SpaceShipOne, a stubby rocket plane whose creators on June 21 plan to put a human in space for the first time without any government sponsorship or assistance.
"We are encouraging people to come and bring kids," said engineer Burt Rutan, who built SpaceShipOne. "We fly to space directly over the crowd instead of going way down range, and it lands back in the same place like a small, light plane at a private airport."
Rutan leads one of 27 teams from seven countries that are competing for the $10 million X Prize, to be given to the first private entrepreneur who can put three people into suborbital space and do it again with the same equipment within two weeks -- and do it by the end of this year.
The idea is to create a new tourist industry. "For the last 30 years, people have thought that space flight is only for a select number of government employees," said Peter H. Diamandis, chairman and president of the X Prize Foundation, the competition's organizer. "We want to change that mind-set."
The X Prize is modeled on the $25,000 Orteig Prize that Charles Lindbergh won for crossing the Atlantic nonstop in 1927. Practically overnight, the narrow public perception of the airplane as a weapon and a stunt device expanded to embrace air travel as something for Everyman .
"So if Burt Rutan can do it with a couple of dozen people, there will be a lot of investment," Rutan said, speaking by telephone from his Mojave, Calif., headquarters. "In 12 to 15 years, we'll have suborbital space tourism that costs as much as a luxury cruise, and very soon after that, you'll be able to spend your vacation in orbit."
Also, Diamandis added in a telephone interview from Santa Monica, Calif., the X Prize serves to "to create a business model," to show that the private sector can fly to space for only a fraction of the hundreds of millions of dollars that it costs for a NASA space shuttle mission, or even the estimated $20 million that space tourists Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttlesworth paid to ride on the Russian Soyuz.
Rutan, who gained widespread renown in 1986 when his Voyager became the first aircraft to circumnavigate the globe without refueling, estimates that commercial suborbital flights could cost $30,000 to $50,000 "initially," and as little as $7,000 to $12,000 in a "second generation."
He works at his Scaled Composites company next to a small municipal airport in Mojave, where the June 21 flight will take place. The team is funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen, who said he has spent "in excess of $20 million" on SpaceShipOne. Although the project "is a very exciting, cool thing," he added, "Don't think [the prize money] is not a component -- it's going to cut our costs in half."
Although the flight, if successful, will be history's first privately funded manned space flight, it will not qualify for the X Prize, because it will have only the pilot aboard. The prize flights will follow shortly, Rutan said. He has not named the pilots.
At the moment, Rutan is the leading X Prize contender, but there are a half-dozen others close behind, especially the Canada-based Orva Space Corp., developers of the Da Vinci Project. It features a giant, helium-filled balloon that will release a rocket 80,000 feet above Earth for a burn into suborbital space.
"Burt [is ahead of] us right now," Canada's Brian Feeney, president, pilot and co-owner of Orva Space, said in a telephone interview from Scarborough, Ontario. "But we're feeling very competitive, and we're going to go sometime this summer."
Feeney noted that while Rutan has, in Allen, one of the world's richest men for a sponsor, Da Vinci is being developed on a shoestring by volunteers, with help from in-kind corporate contributions. And while the 220-foot-wide balloon may be awe-inspiring, Feeney said its chief attraction is low cost.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
SpaceShipOne piggybacks aboard the aircraft that launches it into space. After it reaches its maximum height, it adjusts its wings for the flight back to Earth. Vacation cruises to space are foreseen in 20 or so years.
(Scaled Composites Via Reuters)