Vol. 5 Num 8 Fri. June 04, 2004  
Front Page

Pvt space travel starts

The world's first privately funded rocket plane plans to shoot beyond the uppermost layers of Earth's atmosphere later this month in a bid to demonstrate the viability of commercial space flight, organisers of the project said yesterday.

The SpaceShipOne project, backed by Paul Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft Corp., and led by aviation expert Burt Rutan, plans to send a rocket plane 100 kilometres, or 62 miles, into the air and back down in California's Mojave Desert.

"Every time SpaceShipOne flies we demonstrate that relatively modest amounts of private funding can significantly increase the boundaries of commercial space technology," Allen, a well-known technology and science fiction fan, said in a statement.

The rocket plane, which will be carried to an altitude of 50,000 feet by a larger carrier aircraft called the White Knight, will spend about three and a half minutes at its peak altitude, during which the test pilot will experience weightlessness.

During the latest test flight in May, test pilot Mike Melvill reached an altitude of about 40 miles, about two-thirds of the goal for the next flight, scheduled for June 21.

That was already the highest altitude ever achieved by a non-government aerospace programme, and SpaceShipOne's organisers are calling the upcoming flight the first major step toward space flight for civilians.

To promote private space flight, the X Prize Foundation is offering $10 million to the first team that launches a piloted, privately funded spaceship with three people on board to 100 kilometres, brings it back to earth, and repeats the flight again within the three weeks.

Although SpaceShipOne's inaugural launch later this month will not qualify for that prize, it is equipped with three seats and will later compete for the prize, organisers said.

At least 26 other teams are also competing for the prize, reportedly involving backers such as Inc. founder Jeff Bezos as well as Google Inc. founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

SpaceShipOne doesn't look like a typical rocket, except for its bullet-shaped fuselage.

Built with delta-style wings, which can be tilted 90 degrees to slow the vehicle during re-entry, SpaceShipOne will nestle underneath the White Night, a specially designed carrier airplane with its own unique, triple-fuselage design.

At its peak altitude, SpaceShipOne's pilot will be able to see the black sky of space and the curvature of the earth.

SpaceShipOne was designed and built by Burt Rutan and his aerospace company Scaled Composites LLC in California, for an estimated $25 million.

Rutan developed the Voyager, the only aircraft ever to fly nonstop around the world without refueling.

The world's first privately funded rocket plane SpaceShipOne docked onto a carrier aircraft is pictured above the Mojave Desert in this undated photo. The rocket plane plans to shoot beyond the uppermost layers of Earth's atmosphere later this month. PHOTO: Reuters