- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 5, 2004

The eight-year-old Ansari X Prize competition ended Monday when pilot Brian Binnie returned to earth after rocketing SpaceShipOne 69.6 miles into space. Draped in an American flag, the world’s newest astronaut said upon his return, “I thank God that I live in a country where this is possible.” Though perhaps not quite as eloquent or memorable as Neil Armstrong’s famous line on the surface of the moon, Mr. Binnie’s off-the-cuff prayer nonetheless ushers in humanity’s next foray into space.

Enjoy this moment while you can, because the whole point of the X Prize was to quicken the day when space travel is as common as taking the shuttle from Washington to New York. That day is still many years off, but with adventurers like Mr. Binnie and entrepreneurs like SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan and Virgin Group’s Richard Branson, the immediate future promises to be as momentous, if not as exciting, as the space race of the 1960s.

Yet in one major way, Mr. Binnie’s words capture the moment more accurately than Mr. Armstrong’s. The day of the flight, Oct. 4, marked the 47th anniversary of the day the Soviet Union beat the United States into space with the successful launch of the satellite Sputnik. At the time, many observers viewed the Soviets’ success as evidence of the superiority of totalitarian communism over democratic capitalism. Indeed, winning the space race was seen as vital to winning the Cold War, as two enemy nations pitted their best, brightest and bravest against one another. It just so happened that the ultimate goal fed mankind’s most romantic dreams. To be sure, there’s a reason the American flag is on the lunar surface, rather than the United Nations’ flag.

But with the end of the space race, Americans have seen NASA struggle to find a purpose for its continued existence. Meanwhile, pioneers like Mr. Rutan and the other X Prize competitors didn’t need a state-funded initiative to push the boundaries of human progress. As Mr. Binnie said, to realize their dreams, they just needed a country that honors freedom — that, and a $10 million reward.



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