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Private Team to Attempt Astronaut Launch - 2004-06-20


The space race is heating up, as private groups compete to put a human into space without government financing. More than two dozen teams worldwide are aiming to be the first, and claim a $10 million incentive called the X Prize. A California-based team hopes to launch its craft, called SpaceShipOne, into sub-orbital space Monday.

The team brings together one of the world's richest people, high tech entrepreneur Paul Allen, with one of the most innovative aerospace designers, Burt Rutan. Mr. Rutan created the Voyager, the lightweight airplane that his brother, Dick Rutan, flew around the world without refueling in 1986, with copilot Jeana Yeager.

Monday morning, if weather permits, SpaceShipOne will take off from the desert town of Mojave at 6:30. An aircraft will carry the spaceship to a height of 15 kilometers, then the ship's rockets will fire for 80 seconds. It will reach three times the speed of sound, and pierce the outer layer of the earth's atmosphere to briefly enter sub-orbital space.

If everything goes as planned, the flight will also put Mr. Rutan and his team on the road to winning the $10 million Ansari X Prize. The award is named for Iranian-American entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari, who provided much of the funding.

Twenty-seven teams from seven countries are competing for the prize, which requires two flights in the same spacecraft in a two-week period. The ships must carry a pilot, and enough cargo space and weight equal to two additional passengers, who may be included on a future flight. A successful attempt Monday will likely lead to formal qualifying flights in coming months for the X Prize.

Engineer and physician Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X Prize Foundation, says at least seven international teams have equipment ready for testing. As many as four have ships ready to fly this year.

"And we hope that once one team does it, very much like the four-minute mile [running record], other teams will quickly follow on and repeat the feat," said Mr. Diamandis.

One team ready to 'repeat the feat' is Canada's Da Vinci Project. Its founder and team leader, Brian Feeney, will pilot the WildFire spacecraft later this summer. The rocket vehicle will launch from the Western Canadian province of Saskatchewan. A helium balloon will carry the craft to a height of 24 kilometers, then the ship's engines will fire.

"We climb to an altitude of 55 kilometers, where the engines burn out around just under mach four, and we continue on a steep parabolic curve into space," said Mr. Feeney.

His is a volunteer project with limited funding, but Mr. Feeney thinks his team has a chance of winning the X Prize. He says no matter what happens over the Mojave desert on Monday, the contest is very much open, and competition with Burt Rutan is friendly.

"We're cheering him on," he said. "In fact, I will be down there for it. We're somewhere in the late summer time frame for an all-out manned flight into space. And knowing something of Burt's potential X Prize flights, we feel that we're actually extremely competitive against him on that."

The private race for space has inspired other ventures, that aren't focused on the X Prize, like Zero Gravity Corporation, which hopes to put tourists in space. Alan Ladwig, a former official with the US space agency NASA, now works for Zero Gravity, and says they'll start with the next best thing to being in space: feeling like you're in space, in an airplane.

"Our first product is to provide the weightless experience for the general public, for researchers, for the film and entertainment industry, and for the government, where we will take people up in a Boeing 727, conduct a series of parabolas, and provide the weightless experience," explained Mr. Ladwig.

Mr. Ladwig says those flights should begin this summer. He adds that space, once the preserve of governments, will soon be open to investors.

"Now you're seeing private entrepreneurs get involved, in many ways kind of like the government started initial research 40 years ago on communications satellites, then that became something the private sector picked up," said Mr. Ladwig. "Similarly, you're seeing the whole space flight experience for individuals being something that was begun by the government and now being picked up by the private sector."

X Prize Foundation Chairman Peter Diamandis agrees, pointing to the role the commercial sector now plays in aviation and computers.

"The government plays a role in getting things started, but it can't do it anywhere near as efficiently or even take the same level of risk in some cases to have breakthroughs," he said. "So private industry for space flight will eventually be operating all the travel from earth to low earth orbit, and eventually beyond."

Mr. Diamandis says a spaceport to be built in Las Cruces, New Mexico, will host an annual space flight demonstration and competition beginning next year.

Zero Gravity's Alan Ladwig says SpaceShipOne's flight on Monday will have an effect on the public psyche, building enthusiasm for space travel. He says a successful flight will demonstrate that private companies like his have a future in space exploration, and that, in maybe just five years, those who can afford it will be making trips to the 'Final Frontier' for vacation.

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