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Science & Space

Commercial space travel next leap for mankind?

Private manned flight test may launch new era in aviation

By Michael Coren
CNN

SpaceShipOne rockets towards space in a previous test flight
SpaceShipOne rockets toward space in a previous test flight. The craft's designer aims to open up a new space frontier with Monday's launch.
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SpaceShipOne's trial flight

White Knight takes off carrying SpaceShipOne over the Mojave Desert.

Animation: Spacecraft separates from a turbojet.
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What: SpaceShipOne
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When: Monday, at 6:30 a.m. PT/ 9:30 a.m ET
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CNN and CNN.com will carry live coverage of the launch of SpaceShipOne beginning at approximately 6:30 a.m. PDT and 9:30 a.m. EDT on Monday.
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(CNN) -- Kitty Hawk. Cape Canaveral. Mojave Desert.

That last site may join the list of famed locations in aviation history when a small craft lifts off from its remote California desert airstrip Monday.

SpaceShipOne, designed by Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites, will be carried by a turbojet called White Knight to an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15,240 meters).

If all goes according to plan, it will ignite its rocket engines that propel the craft to Mach 3, three times the speed of sound, and into space. The spacecraft will spend three minutes beyond Earth's atmosphere, becoming the first private craft to carry a human into space and touch down on the same runway it left about an hour and a half earlier. This mission will mark its 15th test flight.

But will it mark the next revolution in flight or just another firework in hopes of bringing the public into space?

If the tiny desert workshop of Scaled Composites has its way, SpaceShipOne's flight above the Earth -- 62 miles (100 kilometers) above -- will be the gateway to many more. And the next one could carry paying passengers.

"Our hope is that this will be a benchmark ... for a lot more people to not only have fun but to reap the benefits that we believe might be there," said Rutan, the aerospace engineer spearheading the project.

"Just like when early airplanes were flying in 1910, we didn't know what the benefits are, but we were doing it because it was fun."

The team of aerospace enthusiasts believes this flight will unlock the potential languishing since the 1960s when jets and space technology made their most spectacular breakthroughs. Although impressive technical advances have been made since then, few innovations proved as revolutionary as the Apollo lunar program or the SR-71 reconnaissance plane, Rutan said.

"The reason we haven't had the advances is no one had the courage to demand it," he said.

So now that private manned spaceflight is almost a reality, are rocket launches for the rest of us around the corner?

Well, not quite.

That kind of progress will take more, said Roger Launius, a space historian at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

"I wish them well. I hope it opens up this capability to the public," Launius said. "I wish it were more revolutionary."

The SpaceShipOne flight would be no doubt history making. But three factors that proved instrumental in making aviation part of our daily lives will play a similar role in space travel: government subsidies, a commercial sponsor and public enthusiasm.

The phenomenal level of investment, research and physical and financial daring that air travel enjoyed during the 20th century may also be required for spaceflight. And achieving orbital flight -- the holy grail of private space travel -- is more difficult.

But this flight is only a steppingstone.

"Our goal is to show that you can develop a robust, safe manned space program and do it at an extremely low cost," Rutan said.

Business from biplanes

Creating a market for commercial air travel from aviation's barnstorming roots took more than better planes and adventurous investors. It took a lot of public funds and imagination.

U.S. commercial aviation, although a thriving industry for decades, received strong government subsidies up until the 1960s. That promises to play a major role, at least initially, in fueling private human spaceflight in the future. An industrial incubator was also critical to the growth of aviation in the United States. The U.S. Postal Service had filled that role by 1911, and other commercial ventures followed.

And, of course, air flight had to ignite the public imagination before it began transporting large numbers of people economically. Decades of barnstorming, air shows and finally Charles Lindbergh's trans-Atlantic flight from New York to Paris aboard the Spirit of St. Louis in 1927 made that possible.

Today, aviation historians aren't arguing if private human spaceflight will happen -- a successful launch Monday by SpaceShipOne should put the question to rest. But whether a constellation of factors to make human spaceflight routine will come together as they did for aviation seems less certain.

Getting off the ground

Image of SpaceShipOne taken during an April powered test flight from Edwards Air Force Base
SpaceShipOne makes an April powered test flight from Edwards Air Force Base in California.

By any measure, aviation developed at an astonishing rate. In 1903, two bicycle repairmen sent a cloth-clad biplane aloft in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and sparked a revolution. A mere 23 years after the Wright Brothers, the first commercial airline, Western Air Express, took off, and the major air routes and airlines were in place by 1930.

In contrast, spaceflight remains largely a government endeavor today. Despite more than $1 trillion invested worldwide in the last 40 years by some estimates, an independent space industry has not materialized.

But the potential for private space growth is there.

The U.S. Commerce Department's Office of Space Commercialization put the 2002 global revenues for commercial space transportation and satellite technology at $105 billion -- and growing.

That figure does not even include human flight that Rutan and others are advocating.

A paper by Patrick Collins, an economics professor at Azabu University in Japan and founder of www.spacefuture.com, predicted that once suitable passenger vehicles are available, private industry could begin building the massive tourist industry.

He presented a "feasible" space tourism scenario by 2030 that would put 5 million passengers into space per year, with an orbital population of 70,000 people involving as many as 60 co-orbital hotels. He said thinking of space in those terms amounts to revolution comparable to Copernicus's proof of a solar system that orbited the sun.

That view might seem overly optimistic, but Collins disagrees.

"I don't think it's unreasonable in view of the space industry's extraordinary economic stagnation for half a century," he wrote. "The full implications of breaking out of that are going to be a revelation."

Eyes on the X Prize

Inspired by the Orteig Prize -- a $25,000 award that went to Lindbergh for the first nonstop aircraft flight between New York and Paris -- the $10 million Ansari X Prize will reward the first one to achieve civilian spaceflight.

Workers prepare the spaceship for its historic flight. The large rocket motor will produce 17,000 pounds of thrust.
Workers prepare the spaceship for its historic flight. The large rocket motor will produce 17,000 pounds of thrust.

SpaceShipOne will have to beat out more than 20 teams from seven countries -- some of which claim they are less than two months away from launching -- to win the X Prize.

The money goes to the first team that privately finances, builds and launches a spaceship carrying three people -- or a pilot and the weight equivalent of two passengers -- into suborbital space 62.5 miles (100.6 kilometers) above Earth. The vehicle must return safely and repeat the launch within two weeks.

Rutan's flight Monday will have only one person on board despite having room for two passengers. (The pilot's name has not been announced yet.) SpaceShipOne will compete for the X Prize later in the year. The winner will presumably spark an explosion of investment in private space travel, advocates hope.

And who will be one of the first private astronauts on SpaceShipOne?

Rutan said he is in the running.

"I'll certainly be one of the first passengers, let's put it that way," he said.


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