The leading candidate in an international race to fly people to space aboard a privately developed rocket plans to make his bid for the final frontier in three weeks. Burt Rutan, an aircraft designer, announced Wednesday that he would dispatch his novel craft, called SpaceShipOne, to suborbital altitude on June 21st. One of the company’s aspiring astronauts will be aboard.
If successful, the flight will mark the first time a person has reached space without a government-supported program. “It’s hugely exciting,” said Peter Diamandis, head of the St. Louis, Missouri, nonprofit X-Prize Foundation, which has pledged US$10 million to the first team to build and fly a reusable, three-person spaceship twice within two weeks to an altitude of 100 kilometers, or 62 miles above Earth.
“It’s happening, it’s real and it’s going to get a lot of people around the world excited about space,” said Diamandis. “That’s a fundamentally critical part of what we’re doing — revitalizing interest in space. This is an outlet that is not going to go away since it’s driven by commercial markets, not the whim of government spending.”
Rutan’s company, Scaled Composites of Mojave, California, already has test-flown SpaceShipOne and its jet aircraft launcher, White Knight, three times, setting records during each foray for speed and altitude by private vehicle. Although the ship is targeted to reach the X Prize-winning altitude during its next flight, it will not carry the weight of three people, as the contest rules stipulate.
Rutan’s program is solely sponsored by Paul Allen, cofounder of Microsoft.
“This flight is one of the most exciting and challenging activities taking place in the fields of aviation and aerospace today,” said Allen, in a statement. “Every time SpaceShipOne flies we demonstrate that relatively modest amounts of private funding can significantly increase the boundaries of commercial space technology.”