To the edge of space

Friday, June 25, 2004

Dreamers have always taken mankind to the frontiers of knowledge and exploration. A dream team led by Burt Rutan, often described as an aeronautical genius, this week crossed into suborbital space (62 miles straight up) using technology developed by private entrepreneurs and spurred by a $10 million prize.

Rutan already has a place in aviation history as the designer of 38 aircraft. His company developed the Voyager, an airplane that flew nonstop around the world on a single tank of fuel -- a feat no one else has duplicated.

Now Rutan's team has developed White Knight, an aircraft capable of carrying and launching a three-person rocket, SpaceShipOne, that this week reached the 62-mile altitude of suborbital space and safely landed in the Mojave Desert. If the feat is repeated within two weeks in the same aircraft, Rutan can claim the $10 million X Prize first envisioned by Peter Diamandis, a man who sees a future in space tourism.

Diamandis convinced contributors, many of them dreamers who made their own dotcom fortunes, to create the prize in 1996. Rutan's team faces considerable competition from at least three other serious contenders.

Prizes have encouraged other aviation firsts. Louis Bleriot flew across the English Channel in 1909 to claim a $50,000 prize offered by the Daily Mail of London. Charles Lindbergh's 1927 transatlantic flight to Paris sought the $25,000 Orteig Prize.

With $10 million at stake, all of the X Prize competitors have used new technology. Rutan's SpaceShipOne design, for example, uses a re-entry system that avoids high speeds and excessive heat buildup that have always been a major concern of NASA's shuttles.

If Rutan -- and others -- succeed in developing a safe and reliable suborbital aircraft, what difference will it make? As with any other scientific development, new technology usually finds its way into practical applications for more mundane purposes. And Diamandis, the creator of the X Prize, is convinced there will be a strong demand for rides to the edge of outer space.

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