Private Space Travel: We May Have Liftoff

If a June launch comes off, a new plane may herald a commercial era in the heavens

By the time the sun begins to bake California's Mojave Desert on the morning of June 21, a new Space Age may have dawned. If all goes well, the world's first private space plane, dubbed SpaceShipOne, will have shot 62 miles up into the inky blackness of space before gliding back to land at the Mojave (Calif.) airport 95 miles north of Los Angeles.

Scores of aerospace entrepreneurs and astronauts-turned-executives have been waiting for the day when space is no longer dominated by costly government programs. Cheap access to space, they believe, is the key to unlocking its commercial potential. And this could be the "historic year," says Rick N. Tumlinson, president of Space Frontier Foundation, which promotes free enterprise in space.


Elbert L. "Burt" Rutan, president of Mojave's Scaled Composites LLC, has proved that small is viable. He created SpaceShipOne with the help of just a few modest companies. It took only three years, and about $25 million from billionaire Paul G. Allen, one of Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT ) founders.

The agenda on June 21 starts with the takeoff of White Knight, a special mother plane that will carry the dart-shaped SpaceShipOne to 50,000 feet. After being released, the spacecraft's pilot will then fire a rocket motor and climb straight up for 80 seconds, hitting Mach 3, or roughly 2,400 mph, to bust out of earth's atmosphere. "This will launch a revolution in space technology," says James W. Benson, who made a mint in software before founding SpaceDev Inc., (SPDV ) the Poway (Calif.) startup that supplies SpaceShipOne's rocket.

No one will be more pumped up than Rutan. In 15 years, he predicts, "space tourism will be a multibillion-dollar business." By yearend he plans to hand Allen a business plan and designs for commercial space ferries that could hold 6 or 12 tourists and whisk them into space once or even twice a day.

How much would a ticket cost? Well, Xcor Aerospace, another Mojave space-plane developer, is selling advance tickets for suborbital hops -- date unspecified -- at $98,000. But prices could eventually drop to $15,000, according to a study by Aerospace Corp., a defense contractor that has been promoting free enterprise in space since 1988. At that level, a million people a year might buy rides, predicts a NASA study.

In August, Rutan plans to go after the $10 million Ansari X Prize. Intended to spur development of private space planes, it was created in 1996 by Peter H. Diamandis, CEO of Zero Gravity Corp., and has attracted 26 competing companies and teams. To win, a private spacecraft carrying the weight of three human beings must reach 62 miles -- and do so twice within two weeks. That short interval of time is the crucial factor: Space planes don't earn revenues on the ground, so space flight will become cheap and routine only with frequent launches. Next up for Rutan and his pals: the moon, Mars...and beyond.

By Otis Port in New York

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