A private company punched a hole in space last week through which a flood of commercial space enterprises may gush in the coming years. SpaceShipOne, propelled by a funky-looking carrier plane called White Knight, blasted its rockets above 50,000 feet, and pilot Michael Melvill eased the craft into the edge of space around 62 miles up. It was a first for a commercial vehicle. Proud space entrepreneurs Paul Allen-who had pumped $20 million into the project-and legendary designer Burt Rutan smiled.
Ostensibly, SpaceShipOne is now the leading contender to snare the $10 million Ansari X Prize, created a decade ago to encourage the design and common use of orbit-and-return craft. The X Prize is similar in intent to the $25,000 Orteig prize that Charles Lindbergh won when he crossed the Atlantic in 1927. Indeed, the X Prize organization is based in St. Louis, where Lindbergh secured his funding, and the group includes two of Lindbergh's grandsons.
Thirteen teams from countries including the United States, Britain, Argentina, Romania and Canada are hustling after the $10 million prize. The designs range from more traditional, rocket-centric approaches to one that starts in the water using a liquid oxygen and methanol engine (Team Advent Launch Services).
But this is about more than a $10 million prize (indeed, if Allen's Scaled Composites LLC team wins, he'll have lost money on the deal). Space tourism is a big driver, but it won't be a volume business anytime soon (a Virginia company is charging $102,000 apiece for trips to space). And mining or colonizing the moon or Mars is also a ways off, given the logistics necessary for creating even a small-scale inhabitable environment.
It is encouraging, though, to see entrepreneurs taking risks in space. Chances are things will happen a lot faster with private capital than they would if the government had its way. Maybe the competition will spur changes in U.S. space policy.
Should private capital be directed toward more immediate problems, such as curing diseases or rebuilding certain countries? It already is. Could that capital, directed skyward, help bring an end to the resources wars? It's possible.
Given all the dreary news on terra firma these days, it's nice to gaze toward the heavens and ponder the possibilities.