- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 8, 2005

The possibility of private space travel continues to grip the American imagination. Last year it was SpaceShipOne, the first privately manned vehicle to leave the earth’s atmosphere, designed by spaceship pioneer Burt Rutan and financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. This weekend, at the annual X Prize Cup in Las Cruces, N.M., it’s what supporters hope will become the NASCAR of the skies, the Rocket Racing League.

Today, three-time astronaut and Columbia shuttle captain Rick Searfoss will pilot a prototype called the X-Racer, several of which are expected to be ready to soar a year from now around a GPS-guided track 5,000 feet in the air at speeds of up to 300 mph. If Rocket Racing League conjurer and Ansari X Prize founder Peter Diamandis gets his way, the races will become a regular American pastime that opens space for entertainment — and perhaps will help lay the groundwork for routine space travel and space tourism. Time will tell whether ESPN will show rocket racing on Sunday or whether rocketeers remain a futurist dream like flying cars or robot butlers.

Whatever the answer, some of the groundwork for routine private space travel is already being laid. Private companies are moving quickly into the field, some of them hatching plans to offer space travel to the mega-wealthy as early as two years from now. Virgin Galactic, founded by Virginia Atlantic chief Richard Branson of “The Rebel Billionaire” fame, plans to offer suborbital space flights for about $190,000 a trip by late 2007.

It’s a sign of the expectations Americans have for private space travel that on Wednesday, at a ceremony in Washington, SpaceShipOne joined Charles Lindberg’s Spirit of St. Louis and Chuck Yeager’s Bell X-1 in the “Milestones of Flight” gallery at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. “SpaceShipOne represents the next step in traveling beyond our planet,” the museum’s director, Gen. Jack Dailey, said at the unveiling.

Gen. Dailey could be more right than he realizes. At a time of mounting troubles for NASA and uncertainty about the future of the shuttle program, private space travel inspires some much-needed optimism about the future of space travel. As vital as NASA’s role continues to be in the quest to put humans in space, the role of individual entrepreneurs and seekers of fortune — as with the seas and skies in earlier ages — promises to be even greater. Even when they fail — which, so far, they haven’t — entrepreneurs like Messrs. Diamandis and Allen are a credit to American ingenuity.

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