- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 3, 2004

A British businessman and a legendary aircraft designer say they believe thousands of people will pay almost $200,000 to become space tourists, and after tomorrow, they could be one step closer to discovering the public’s penchant for space travel.

The rocket-powered SpaceShipOne is expected to launch tomorrow and travel to an altitude above 62.1 miles. If it successfully completes the trip, its owners will win the $10 million X-Prize, designed to encourage the commercial space tourism industry.

Aircraft designer Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites has spent far more than the prize purse to develop SpaceShipOne and its air carrier. Richard Branson of the Virgin Group has licensed SpaceShipOne’s technology for space tourist flights. Mr. Branson is the entrepreneur who started the discount Virgin Atlantic airlines, eventually branching into music and other industries.

The rules for the X-Prize, founded by Peter Diamandis, call for a privately built spaceship to launch the equivalent weight of three persons above 50 miles altitude and turn around the ship and perform the same task two weeks later.

Mr. Branson said Virgin Galactic would build “within three years the first of Virgin’s fleet of spaceships — the VSS Enterprise. A spaceship designed to carry fare-paying pioneers on a journey to the stars.”

He said he expects to sell 3,000 seats at $190,000 each over five years.

Outsiders question whether or not enough people with that much spare change are interested in the three-day adventure, which would include only three minutes of actual exposure to outer space.

One space enthusiast commented: “If I could actually go into orbit for a day for $190,000, I’d sell my grandmother, but for just three minutes, I don’t know. That’s a lot of money for a very short experience.”

The view from 62 miles above Earth is spectacular, said SpaceShipOne pilot Mike Melvill.

“I just can’t describe what it looks like up there. We’ve got the black sky, the horizon and the ground. It was a spectacular thing to see. You really cannot describe what it looked like. It was very exciting,” he said. “I just loved every second of it. Maybe I’m crazy.”

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