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Space race could prove interesting

Published by Sigurd De Keyser on Sat Aug 14, 2004 12:15 pm
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pasadenastarnews.com: By Victoria Samson: IN October 2003, China sent its first astronaut into space. With Yang Liwei’s 14 orbits around Earth, China became only the third country in the world to have sent a man into space.
In what U.S. officials claim was an unconnected move, four months later, President George W. Bush announced a new U.S. space policy; its goals include putting a man on the moon. Again.

For the United States to repeat an accomplishment that is decades old is no one’s idea of a technical achievement.

As it turns out, a manned space program has indeed captured the media’s attention. However, it isn’t one done under the aegis of NASA. It is, instead, a privately-funded one.

The Ansari X Prize offers $10 million to anyone who can send a re-usable craft into suborbital space (defined as 62 miles or 100 kilometers away from Earth) twice within a two-week period and carry three passengers while doing so.

Twenty-six teams have been competing for the X Prize, but one leader has emerged from the pack. Scaled Composites launched SpaceShipOne on June 21, 2004, for a trial flight from California’s Mojave desert. The craft was carried to 47,000 feet by an airplane, the White Knight, and then used a hybrid rocket motor and sheer momentum to reach an altitude of 328,491 feet or 100.1 kilometers.

Carrying only the 63-year-old pilot, Mike Melvill, SpaceShipOne became the first privately-funded craft to reach space. While some unexpected technical difficulties arose during the flight, Scaled Composites feels confident enough in the craft’s capabilities to make its first attempt at the Ansari X Prize on September 29, 2004.

The Ansari X Prize emulates the 100-plus incentive prizes offered from 1905 to 1935 as the fledgling aviation industry attempted to prompt technical breakthroughs that would make air travel economically feasible.

Its backers hope the Ansari X Prize will do the same for space tourism. Scaled Composites’ chief engineer, Burt Rutan, believes that eventually passengers could experience a brief space voyage at a cost of $30,000 to $50,000 per person, with prices dropping in the long run to $10,000 to $12,000 each.

While those numbers certainly don’t represent pocket change, they do bring closer the possibility of space travel for those of us who don’t have the right stuff or the $20 million dollars to buy our way onto Russian space flights.

It is unclear what effect the popularity of the Ansari X Prize will have on U.S. government space spending. But it is becoming apparent that it is a venue that cannot be ignored for long. SpaceShipOne’s June 21 flight was surrounded by a rave-like atmosphere, where hundreds of space enthusiasts from around the globe braved gale-force winds and arid desert heat to camp out and be there when the historic flight occurred.

This fervor can and should be tapped by NASA. Whether or not any company succeeds at meeting the Ansari X Prize’s requirements by its Jan. 1, 2005 deadline, this financial incentive has proven to be a great way of generating a large amount of public interest with relatively little cash outlay.

Indeed, it ties in nicely with NASA’s old mantra of “faster, cheaper, better.’ Instead of spending tens of billions of dollars to put man in space, as the new U.S. space policy is projected to cost, $10 million has done the trick. In the meantime, this new space race should prove quite interesting to watch. Victoria Samson is a research analyst at the Center for Defense Information, a non-partisan think tank in Washington, D.C. that focuses on defense and security issues. (Distributed by MinutemanMedia.org.)

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