Commercial aviation began within a decade of the Wright Brothers' 1903 flight at Kitty Hawk. Yet 43 years after Yuri Gagarin's first manned space flight, nobody can book a seat on a regularly scheduled spaceship.
Weather and technology permitting, the era of commercial manned space flight finally may open tomorrow, when the first privately developed rocket plane is scheduled for launch into history.
Funded by Paul G. Allen, billionaire co-founder of Microsoft Corp. and designed by aviation legend Burt Rutan, "SpaceShipOne" will attempt the first nongovernmental flight to exit Earth's atmosphere. It is scheduled to take off from Mojave Airport in the desert outside Los Angeles,
After riding to an altitude of 50,000 feet on a carrier aircraft named the White Knight, SpaceShipOne and its pilot will drop loose. An 80-second blast from its rocket motor will lift the brave little ship to an altitude of 62 miles. That's well beyond the 50-mile mark that the Air Force terms "worthy of astronaut wings."
The pilot, not yet chosen, will become the world's first astronaut coined in a privately funded program. He then will guide SpaceShipOne to a landing back in the desert, where organizers expect TV cameras and thousands of spectators.
"SpaceShipOne has already some impressive successes on the way to space, and I think it has a good chance of making it the rest of the way," Dr. Marc Rayman, of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said in an interview. "I wish them the best for a successful trip."
Dr. Rayman, a Toledo native, headed NASA's DeepSpace 1 mission, which concluded in 2001 after successfully testing a new spacecraft propulsion system and other technologies.
SpaceShipOne will fly for the same reason that fostered emergence of commercial airplane flights a century ago - a fat cash prize.
Pursuit of the $25,000 Orteig Prize put Charles Lindberg on course for his landmark 1927 nonstop trans-Atlantic flight, which boosted commercial aviation's prospects. Between 1905 and 1935, hundreds of similar prizes spurred innovations in aircraft design that underpinned commercial passenger and cargo flights, Peter H. Diamandis noted in an interview.
Mr. Diamandis is chairman and president of the Ansari X Prize Foundation, which hopes to do the same for space flight, making it more accessible to the general public on a regular basis at reasonable cost.
More than 20 groups are competing for the X-Prize, which carries a $10 million purse. Thanks to Mr. Allen's money and Mr. Rutan's genius, SpaceShipOne is far and away the No. 1 competitor. Mr. Rutan designed the Voyager, which in 1986 made the first airplane flight around the world without stopping for refueling.
A team at Mr. Rutan's company, Scaled Composites LLC, worked in secret for two years to build SpaceShipOne. Mr. Allen has been an investor and philanthropist since leaving Microsoft in 1983. He has funded other space-related projects, including a telescope complex being built in California to search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.
Mr. Rutan is perhaps best known as the designer of the Voyager airplane that his brother, Dick Rutan, and Jeanna Yeager flew around the world. It now hangs from the ceiling of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air & Space Museum.
SpaceShipOne has passed more than a dozen shakeout tests, including glides and rocket-powered flights. The most recent, flow by veteran test pilot Mike Melvill, 62, reached an altitude of almost 38 miles in April.
It embraces the tried-and-true approach pioneered in the 1950s by the fabled military X-15 program: The X-15 was a rocket plane, which a giant B-52 bomber carried to altitudes of about 50,000 feet, where it was released for free flight. Pilots flew various versions of the X-15 to altitudes of more than 65 miles.
Other X-Prize entrants are in earlier stages of developing their vehicles. They include vertical-takeoff rockets, space planes that would take off and land on a runway, X-15-type vehicles lofted by carrier planes or helium balloons. Dr. Rayman said that several of the designs ultimately might be successful.
"There are many examples throughout history of private investors following the government into new frontiers, and I think it's extremely exciting that we are on the verge of seeing this happen with space travel," Dr. Rayman noted.
Among them are Earth-orbiting communications satellites, which account for a big fraction of all space launches.
Historians disagree on exactly when the first airplane passenger service began in the United States. By 1913, however, a regularly scheduled hydroplane was carrying passengers between San Francisco and Oakland harbors.
Mr. Diamandis envisions the X-Prize fostering rapid emergence of a space tourism industry with annual sales that could top $2.3 billion by 2020. Market forecasts suggest that 500 people a year might pay $100,000 for a suborbital flight - officially making them astronauts. Ticket sales could rise to 13,000 annually by 2020.
The X-Prize may lead to another for development of a commercially feasible vehicle for orbital flights. Tickets on those flights might fetch from $1 million to $20 million.
Dr. Rayman noted that space tourism is a reality for the very rich, with the Russians selling sticker-shock-priced trips to Earth orbit. U.S. businessman Dennis Tito paid them a reported $20 million for an 8-day stay on the International Space Station in 2001. Russia's Energiya space corporation is seeking investors to help build Mini Station 1, the first commercial orbital station designed for space tourists.
If the market is so attractive, why haven't the big aircraft companies jumped in, and built a commercial passenger spaceship?
"The answer is not what people typically expect," Mr. Diamandis, said, noting misconceptions about the lack of technology to do so. "A colleague of mine who is a Boeing executive explained the situation bluntly, 'Why should we take the risk? If some entrepreneurial X-Prize team succeeds in building a working spaceship and proving the marketplace exists, we'll just buy that company.'●"
SpaceShipOne will not win the X-Prize with a successful flight. Contest rules require that the vehicle must fly again within two weeks, carrying weight equivalent to three passengers. Mr. Diamandis said the requirement helps to assure that a space plane is commercially feasible, and does not need extensive repairs after each flight.
"As a lifelong space enthusiast, I'd love to take a trip away from Earth," Dr. Rayman noted. "After all, everyone likes to leave home now and then."
So how about taking that second flight of SpaceShipOne, Dr. Rayman?
"I don't think so," he replied.
"I would love to travel into space, but I am not willing to take a large risk to do so. So before taking such a flight, I would want to have a history of successes behind the machine that propels me into an unforgiving environment and hurtles back to the very solid Earth."