Will historic flight launch space tourism?

With Richard Branson poised to go galactic, the days of right-stuff heroics could be long gone. Photo gallery: SpaceShipOne's historic flight

Jim Hu
Jim Hu Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Jim Hu
covers home broadband services and the Net's portal giants.
3 min read
MOJAVE, Calif.--As the sun cracked the ragged horizon of the Mojave Desert on Wednesday, the White Knight aircraft taxied onto the runway looking like a gigantic model glider with an oversize torpedo latched to its belly.

Watching as it bounced down the runway in front of thousands of spectators, VIPs and reporters, it was hard to imagine that this gangly winged, privately funded jet would help that torpedo--a spacecraft, actually--make history.

But though the liftoff lacked the flame-throwing drama of a rocket launch, White Knight and its SpaceShipOne payload climbed steadily to 47,000 feet, or about 14 kilometers. And that's when the fireworks began. Once SpaceShipOne separated from White Knight and its rocket boosters kicked in, its bright streak toward space was unmistakable.

The flight could mark the beginning of a new chapter in mankind's exploration of the cosmos. On the other hand, it could also herald the beginning of a less stirring transformation, from the right-stuff manliness of the early Gemini and Apollo space flights to the aeronautical equivalent of Caribbean pleasure cruises.

Case in point: Flamboyant billionaire, entrepreneur and balloonist Sir Richard Branson, head of the Virgin Group, who has licensed the SpaceShipOne design for his own Virgin Galactic space-tourism effort.

But Burt Rutan, whose Scaled Composites company designed SpaceShipOne, talks like a hard-nosed businessman.

"We are extremely confident that we'll be able to produce the first space-tourism commercial space liner that will start out service with reliability that's significantly better than the first airlines," he said.

For the Mojave Aerospace Ventures team, backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the launch was especially emotional. Rutan had placed his mother's ashes into SpaceShipOne. Pilot Mike Melvill's wife gave him her wedding ring, which she had taken off only once during their 43 years of marriage.

And then there was the spinning. As it climbed toward its target altitude of 100 kilometers, SpaceShipOne began spinning unexpectedly, like a giant drill bit. But Melvill managed to regain control, later calling the blip a "victory roll."

Despite Rutan's assurance that the craft suffered no significant structural or internal damage during the flight, questions persist about why it started rolling. Rutan said the craft had some "dihedral" issues that caused the spin when wind gusts hit it from the side. In other words, SpaceShipOne has a tendency to do pirouettes before reaching space. But Rutan also said there were no significant gusts, leaving many scratching their heads.

At least one team member reported that he had a mild attack of nausea while watching the video of the ascent.

"Your heart goes into your throat," said Allen. "Everything seems to be going perfectly, and then this rotation develops."

With all the hype surrounding Wednesday's launch, space competitions are poised to become big business. The SpaceShipOne team is after the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million award to be handed to the first group that can privately fund, build and launch a spacecraft; carry three people above the 100-kilometer mark and return them safely to Earth--and then repeat the aeronautical feat within two weeks.

Now New Mexico has said it will begin hosting an annual X Prize Cup competition every year, with similar guidelines. Organizers are negotiating with television networks to sell live broadcast rights, and to produce a reality show, according to Rick Homans, secretary of New Mexico's Economic Development Department.

To win the Ansari X Prize, Rutan's team has until 8:34 a.m. on Oct. 13 to repeat Wednesday's feat. The team has unofficially set Oct. 4 as the date of that attempt.