View From a Height
Commentary from the Mile High City
Monday, June 21, 2004

One Giant Flight for Mankind 

Today marks the first private flight into space. Up until now, all spacecraft had been government-funded and government-built. The fact that a private firm is now able to build, launch, and return to earth a re-usable spacecraft is a significant development for those of us who grew up watching Star Trek, and got goosebumps of nostalgia watching Apollo 13. It is a testament both to advancing technology and a growing economy that a private firm is able to put someone up and bring him back safely.

Today's flight was a craft build by Burt Rutan, who also built Voyager, the first airplane to fly around the world without refueling. Rutan is reclusive but brilliant, and clearly sees today's flight as a step towards routine civilian space travel. NASA has had to ground its shuttles, but private initiative rolls on.

Much will be made of this spacecraft as an entrant for the $10 million. But Paul Allen (left), who looks like a little kid ready to call shotgun on the next flight, has already put $20 million of his own money into the venture. The X-Prize's real value lies in legitiamcy and future funding, potentially on Wall Street, rather that its cash value.

You think there's a market for this? People flew in from all over the country just to watch. No, it's not Zefram Cochrane firing up a roman candle from his backyard in Montana. But it's as close as we're gonna get. The pilot did this in shirtsleeves, by the way.

The X-Prize was well-designed, like all good prizes. The ship has to carry a passenger, has to be reusable, quickly. One they actually claim it, venture capital is going to line up so fast they'll need to set up cordons with a sign saying, "You Must Be This Tall to Ride the Spaceship."

The joy of the pre-Shuttle program was that it went somewhere. We all got excited over the proposed Mars mission because we were going someplace new. Even though this ship is still suborbtial, it still has that feeling of going somewhere. Gotta start saving for that ticket now.

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