1st private manned spacecraft to take off

Rocket-ship launch today motivated by $10 million

safety issues of concern

September 29, 2004|By THE SEATTLE TIMES

SEATTLE - When SpaceShipOne takes off from the Mojave Desert today in its bid to win a $10 million bounty called the X Prize, the Paul Allen-backed rocket ship will be pushing the frontiers of safety regulations.

The first manned spacecraft built and launched by a private company represents the dawn of a freewheeling - and high-risk - new era in space flight.

Motivated by the prize and the prospect of wealth for the first companies able to offer rocket rides to the public, more than two dozen teams are competing furiously to develop commercially viable spaceships.

At the same time, federal regulators are scrambling to write rules that will protect the public, the pilots and the passengers who may pay $100,000 to $200,0000 for a trip to the edge of space.

"It's like the early days of aviation," said Dennis Parks, senior curator for the Museum of Flight in Seattle. "The [Federal Aviation Administration] doesn't know how to regulate these things."

No safety rules existed in the 1920s, when barnstormers bought surplus World War I biplanes and toured rural America, delighting crowds with their aerial acrobatics and offering rides for a few dollars. They also crashed with alarming frequency, sometimes killing or injuring themselves, spectators and passengers.

The federal government stepped in with safety requirements that essentially eliminated the daredevil antics, but didn't inhibit the growth of passenger airlines.

Today's space race isn't as wide open as that bygone era, but the FAA and Congress are still trying to decide how to write rules for private rocket operators that will strike that same balance, said Ken Wong, who's leading the agency's task force on commercial, human space flight.

"If you over-regulate, you could basically kill the industry, but at the same time our primary responsibility is to ensure public safety," he said.

Regulation can help the industry, said Joan Horvath, a former National Aeronautics and Space Adminstration scientist who runs a California company called Takeoff Technologies that consults with space entrepreneurs.

"Good regulations create a stable environment for investment," she said, "and there's some frustration that it's taking so long to get a stable regulatory environment."

But many of those in the thick of the race fear heavy-handed government rules will smother their fledgling enterprises. Other experts foresee catastrophe if lax regulations give safety short shrift.

E.J. "Ted" Llewellyn, professor of physics and engineering at the University of Saskatchewan, calculated that Wild Fire, a Canadian X Prize contender set to be launched from a balloon Saturday, could crash into the city of Saskatoon if something goes awry.

"If you look at the worst-case scenario, you suddenly realize that it can go a long way," said Llewellyn, who doesn't believe the Canadian government has scrutinized the project enough.

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