Burt Rutan proved he could do it. Now he's going for the gold. Early tomorrow morning, weather permitting, Rutan's SpaceShipOne will arc into the sky above California's Mojave Desert for the first of two spaceflights in two weeks, which, if successful, will win him the $10 million Ansari X Prize.
"Burt's ready, and he's been ready," said Peter H. Diamandis, chairman and president of the X Prize Foundation, the competition's organizer. "He's got three new engines, and he's ready to make the flights."
The X Prize goes to the first civilian entrepreneur who can put three people or the equivalent weight into suborbital space -- about 62 miles, or 328,491 feet above the Earth -- and then do it again within two weeks, reusing 90 percent of the permanent equipment that made the first trip. The engines, little more than fuel and a nozzle, are replaceable perishables.
The idea is to make the prize an incentive for promoting space tourism. Air travel, as Diamandis is fond of pointing out, exploded in popularity after Charles Lindbergh won the $25,000 Orteig Prize for his 1927 transatlantic flight.
On June 21 Rutan sent his stubby SpaceShipOne and pilot Mike Melvill into space for a four-minute test flight over the Mojave Civilian Flight Test Center and then got the capsule safely back to Earth despite serious control malfunctions.
Even with these problems corrected, however, Wednesday's flight promises to be more difficult, because SpaceShipOne must carry the equivalent of three people into space. An as-yet-unnamed pilot will make the trip, but Diamandis would not say whether other humans would fly.
Success is far from assured: "I'm confident that we're going to have a winner," Diamandis said in a telephone interview from Mojave. "The thing to remember, though, is that the person who goes first is not always the person who wins."
Should Rutan falter, Canadian Brian Feeney figures to be his most serious challenger. Feeney's "Da Vinci Project," featuring a rocket launched from a helium balloon 80,000 feet above the Earth, was scheduled to fly above the Saskatchewan prairie on Oct. 2, but Feeney announced a stand-down last week until a custom-built pressurized tank is finished.
"We believe we are looking at a delay of a few weeks at most," Feeney said in a telephone interview from his Toronto office. "Burt's got a good shot, but he's got some stability problems at higher altitudes. It's not a foregone conclusion."
Barring mechanical problems or excessive wind, SpaceShipOne will leave the Mojave Center at 9 a.m. Eastern time tomorrow, carried by a wispy mother aircraft known as White Knight. Diamandis said spectators can watch the entire event live by buying a $25 car pass or by tuning in to the foundation's webcast (www.xprize.org).
At 48,000 feet, White Knight releases the spacecraft, and a rocket ignites for about 80 seconds, burning a combination of nitrous oxide (dentists' laughing gas) and hydroxy-terminated polybutadiene (a clear rubber) to accelerate to a speed of Mach 3.2 (2,400 mph).
At that point -- about 200,000 feet above the Earth -- the engine cuts out and the spacecraft begins to coast until it reaches its maximum altitude of about 340,000 feet, virtually stops and then begins its descent. Weightlessness lasts for three to four minutes.
If everything goes according to plan, the plunging capsule will begin to feel the atmosphere at 80,000 feet and become an aircraft, gliding to a gentle landing. The team has tentatively scheduled the second flight for next Monday.