- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 20, 2004

Today, an unusual craft is expected to rocket high above the Mojave Desert. When launched from an equally unusual airplane, the white, teardrop-shaped craft with feathered wings will be powered by an exotic combination of rubber and nitrous oxide. The most unorthodox thing about the craft, named SpaceShipOne, is that it was designed, built and launched by a private team.

If SpaceShipOne reaches an altitude of 62 miles as expected, it will represent the first time a private entity has put a man into space. While the launch is not likely to usher in a golden age of space tourism, it is a promising step in that direction, and it proves the value of the prizes NASA hopes to offer for other achievements in space.

SpaceShipOne was designed to win the Ansari X Prize, which will award $10 million to the first craft that can fly three passengers 62 miles into space, return to Earth and repeat the feat within two weeks. Today’s flight will not qualify for the prize, but those flights are expected to follow soon.

The craft was designed by Burt Rutan, who is best known for designing the Voyager, the first aircraft to circumnavigate the globe non-stop and without refueling. He and his team of 100 employees at Scaled Composites built the state-of-the art craft, backed by $20 million from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Mr. Allen will not receive much of a return on his investment even if SpaceShipOne wins the Ansari X Prize, but that was not the goal.

Rather, the contest was established to encourage entrepreneurial investments and innovation in space, in the same way the aviation prizes of the 20th century helped to drive the development of commercial aviation. Mr. Rutan and others believe that commercial suborbital flights are likely to follow his demonstration that such ventures are possible. “If we are successful,” Mr. Rutan said, “our program will mark the beginning of a renaissance for manned space flight.” Space Adventures Ltd., the company that already has sent private citizens into space, claims to have taken deposits from more than 100 people interested in commercial space flights of the sort Mr. Rutan might offer.

NASA has also embraced the idea of competitions, and it recently held a workshop to gather ideas for its new program of prize contests, the Centennial Challenges. The agency hopes to offer between three and five challenges each year, largely derived from NASA’s new vision of exploration. The President’s Commission on Moon, Mars and Beyond also recommended that Congress encourage private investment in space by offering “significant monetary prizes.”

Competitions have pushed the private sector to the cusp of significant profit from space commercialization. Congress should fund NASA’s prize initiative. To add more fuel, Congress should also act on the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004, sponsored by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher. Rocket science is complicated, but rocket fuel is fairly simple: innovation, competition and large cash prizes.

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