SpaceShipOne bid seen opening space for business

Posted October 11, 2004

LOS ANGELES – A private space plane is set to shoot beyond Earth’s atmosphere for the second time in a week in a pioneering bid to win a $10 million prize and prove that space is open for business.

Inspired by SpaceShipOne’s success, entrepreneurs like Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, have already announced plans to make space travel as ordinary as a Caribbean cruise.

But SpaceShipOne’s wild, spiraling ride 62 miles straight up last week, may have also planted doubts as to how safe such ventures can be made, how they will be licensed and who will pay if something goes wrong. SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan last week downplayed potential safety issues with the craft, saying any design flaws were minor and could be remedied in the next generation.

“We are extremely confident that we are going to be able to produce the first space tourism commercial spaceliner that will start out service with reliability, I believe, significantly better than the first airlines had when they started doing service decades ago when we first had the first airliner,” Rutan said after his craft’s qualifying bid on Wednesday. Top federal aviation administration officials were on hand in Mojave to watch the flight.

“Given that Burt Rutan is successful tomorrow … it really is a critical step over a threshold we have never been over before,” said Marion Blakey, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration. “I really do believe it is a historic thing – the beginning of personal transportation into space,” she said.

Blakey said the government was still trying to work out regulatory issues related to commercial space travel, but wanted to stay out of the way of the developing industry.

“It’s a very good thing the Ansari X Prize is pushing us harder and faster to develop these things,” she told reporters. “We want to make things possible. We want to be in front. We don’t want to be the bucket behind the boat.”

Blakey declined to comment on whether regulations would be in place in time for Virgin’s Branson to launch his space service, but FAA associate administrator Patti Grace Smith said the agency “will be engaging with them real soon.”

The potentially prize-winning flight comes a week after Branson, owner of Virgin Atlantic Airways, said he would sell tickets on ships to be built by Mojave Aerospace Ventures, the makers of SpaceShipOne.

Already more than 100 would-be space tourists have paid celestial travel agency Space Adventures sizable deposits for suborbital rides on ships that haven’t even been built yet.

The high price of tickets, projected at $100,000 to $200,000, has not deterred future customers. That is still far less than the $20 million it costs to ride the Russian Soyuz, the only ship that has taken tourists into space.

U.S. lawmakers, too, are taking the first steps to regulate space tourism. In March, the House of Representatives passed legislation to limit liability for space launch companies and to inform space travelers of the potential risks.

The rush of money toward space businesses was the result Peter Diamandis intended when he founded the Ansari X Prize in 1996. The prize offers US$10 million for the first privately funded, three-seat spacecraft that could be flown twice in two weeks carrying three adults or their weight equivalent. In all, 26 companies in seven countries rose to Diamandis’ challenge. Although Mojave Aerospace Ventures got to space first, all now plan to vie for the potentially lucrative space tourism market.

Space Adventures customer Per Wimmer, an investment banker based in London who enjoys mountain climbing and scuba diving, said he will accept some risk in pursuit of the ultimate high. He quantified acceptable risk, however, as a spaceship that had less than a 1 percent chance of crashing.

But even if a fatal crash occurs before he has a chance to ride, says Wimmer, he will still want to go. (Reuters)