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Jason Holliston
Monday, June 21, 2004  
Space Becomes More Accessible

I've been watching the X Prize contest for quite a while now, hoping that some company would have the money, vision, and genius to pull this off. The X Prize states that it will award $10 million to the first non-governmental team that can successfully put a pilot and two passengers into space (defined as 62.5 miles above sea level), land safely, and return to space in the same ship in 2 weeks time. The benefit of meeting this challenge should be obvious: it will open up a new chapter in manned space travel, taking the monopoly out of government's hands and into private ones, where innovation is kept higher and costs kept lower.

Today, SpaceShipOne made history, breaking the 62.5 mile barrier into space, after being launched from a piggyback plane at 62,000 feet. This wasn't its "official" run, since no other passengers were aboard, but it did mark the highest that any private plane has travelled -- the first into space. You might recognize the name of the plane's designer: Burt Rutan. He was the great engineering mind behind the revolutionary plane Voyager that flew around the world on one tank of gas in 1986. He also designed the famous home-built, canard-style planes: the Long-EZ and the VariEze (note: my dad built a Long-EZ over a decade ago -- very cool plane).

The SpaceShipOne team will go for it's prize run sooner, probably late summer or early fall. Pretty exciting stuff, especially for a project that's only run a bit more than $20 million so far to finance. This, coupled with Brad Edwards' push for a space elevator project (detailed in this month's Discover magazine, with more information available all over the Web, including at The Space Review), it's looking pretty bright for civilians getting into space at a reasonable price sometime this century. Last century saw the opening of space to mankind, but this century will see space open up to everyday men and women.

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