Wed, Jun 23, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Private enterprise makes its mark in the space race

'SpaceShipOne' has made a giant step in the race to win a US$10 million prize for a private venture to make it into space and repeat the feat within two weeks

DPA , Mojave, California

Test pilot Mike Melvill flies SpaceShipOne over Mojave, California, during the first privately financed manned spaceflight. Melvill flew 100km above the Earth's surface, according to radar data. He opened a bag of M&M's candies, seen upper left, to demonstrate weightlessness.

PHOTO: EPA

Mark Smith of Los Angeles wouldn't hesitate for a second to take out a US$25,000 loan to fly into space.

Sending his regards to his extraterrestrial brothers via an imprint on his T-shirt, Smith watched as SpaceShipOne on Monday became the first privately funded enterprise to send a man into space, a potential precursor for space tourism that could one day allow the average Joe -- or Smith -- to leave Earth's orbit.

Another California man watching the spectacle in the Mojave Desert in southeastern California also wouldn't shy away. "Take me to Saturn" read the sign he brought along.

He was among thousands of people who witnessed history in the making early Monday, as South African-born Mike Melvill became the first pilot in space without having the backing of a government.

The rocket was carried aloft an underbelly of the mother ship White Knight to some 16,000m, and then blasted into space, where it stayed for almost four minutes.

The adventure, which cost more than US$20 million, was over 90 minutes later, as Melvill touched ground on the landing strip in the remote desert town.

"I must say, I wasn't scared ... all the way up, but I was afraid on the way down," the 62-year-old Melvill said. "When you start hitting the atmosphere, the noises you hear ... are of someone talking to you very sharply, and you begin to think, `Boy, should I be doing this?'"

Which is a question others may face in the future. California businessman Dennis Tito became the first private citizen to fly into space, paying a hefty US$20 million in April 2001 to the Russian space program for the ride.

The price tag for the trip could go down to US$20,000 in the future, experts said, which would put it in a price range many more could afford.

Following the footsteps of Melvill, SpaceShipOne designer Mike Rutan and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who gave much of the money for the launch, is businessman Brian Bernhard.

Bernhard founded a company for space travel software six months ago and has moved its headquarters to Mojave, a town of 3,700. While he admits the decision to move to Mojave was difficult , Bernhard envisions the sleepy town to become the epicenter of space tourism.

Several conditions must be met before that could happen, Bernhard said. He called for new laws governing space tourism. A plan to revamp the National Aeronautic and Space Adminstration (NASA) and allow the private sector to play a more prominent role also could give space tourism a boost, Bernhard said.

But if these plans do not materialize, space tourism may remain an elusive dream, he cautioned.

Mojave residents certainly could use help, may it be from Earth or outer space. Business has been down 60 percent since a highway bypass opened in September, restaurant, motel and gas station owners said, as travelers no longer stop.

With space tourism possibly on the horizon, residents hope the town will be back on the map for tourists and investors alike.

Making history

* SpaceShipOne made history when it became the first privately financed manned flight to reach space.

* SpaceShipOne was carried to about 13,800m, slung beneath another plane, then rocketed into space.

* The journey to the edge of space was a step on the way to the Ansari X prize, US$10 million, that will be awarded to developers who are the first to send a three-seater aircraft into space and then repeat the feat within two weeks.

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