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Private space race reaches its height

Published by Sigurd De Keyser on Mon Sep 27, 2004 9:25 pm
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chabot imageBy Alan Boyle; Science editor, MSNBC: Visionaries already looking beyond $10 millon prize
After eight years, the finish line in the rocket-powered race for the Ansari X Prize is finally in sight. Someone could win $10 million. Someone could get killed. Or the whole competition could just fizzle out. In any case, this particular finish line is less an end then a beginning of a marathon aimed at making space travel affordable for ordinary people.

Over the next week, handicappers will be focusing on Mojave, Calif., where aircraft designer Burt Rutan and his Scaled Composites team are hoping to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize by sending their SpaceShipOne rocket plane to the edge of outer space and back, then making a quick turnaround and doing it again. The first attempt is scheduled to begin at 6:30 a.m. PT (9:30 a.m. ET) Wednesday, with the second tentatively set for Oct. 4.

The launches will be witnessed in person by thousands of spectators, including about 1,000 invited VIPs, said Peter Diamandis, the X Prize Foundation’s chairman and co-founder. NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe is scheduled to attend the first launch, and Marion Blakey, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administrator, plans to be in Mojave for the second attempt, Diamandis said.

Launch-day coverage also can be seen via the X Prize’s official Webcast as well as via MSNBC.com and other media outlets.

Diamandis is looking forward to the climax of the race he started back in 1996. But he’s also looking beyond the finish line.

“We’re at the birth of a personal spaceflight revolution, like the personal computer revolution,” Diamandis said in an interview with MSNBC.com. “Our greatest goal goes beyond just a flight. It’s really, ‘Can we change the mind-set of the world about space travel?’ We will be successful when people around the world believe that spaceflight is an option for them personally.”

Incentive for space passenger service
The St. Louis-based X Prize Foundation is offering the $10 million purse as an incentive for private-sector space efforts — just as the $25,000 Orteig Prize, won by Charles Lindbergh and his “Spirit of St. Louis” airplane in 1927, was an incentive for never-before-accomplished feats of aviation.

Unlike Lindbergh’s solo trans-Atlantic flight, the X Prize spaceflights aren’t exactly unprecedented. Some might even see them as a case of “been there, done that.” The altitude requirement is 100 kilometers or 62.5 miles, a height that X-15 jet pilots and astronauts attained in the early 1960s. Even SpaceShipOne made it to that altitude on June 21, during a test flight that marked the first time a privately developed craft reached the internationally recognized boundary of outer space.

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