New era

October 06, 2004

TWICE within the last week, the SpaceShipOne team sent its privately financed craft, a test pilot and 400 pounds of cargo more than 62.5 miles high - past the threshold of outer space - to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize. And with its second relatively safe and low-cost ride into the thermosphere Monday, a new era - of private space travel - may have dawned.

Other entrepreneurs already are lined up to build or buy similar rocket ships to send paying passengers - initially the very wealthy, of course - on the same trip. Over many years, it's predicted, the cost will plummet to within reach of many more people, perhaps someday making suborbital space flights feasible for transoceanic journeys.

If that seems like science fiction, keep in mind that the second flight by SpaceShipOne took place on the 47th anniversary of the Soviet Union's launch of the Sputnik satellite. Less than a half-century later, through many government-financed trials - some of them fatal - man has walked on the moon, orbited the Earth in a space station and sent probes to Mars. And now there is a new, much more nimble player in manned space flight: the private sector.

But SpaceShipOne's achievement likely has less in common with the Sputnik launch than with Charles Lindbergh's 1927 nonstop New York-to-Paris flight, a feat similarly spurred by the offer of a $25,000 prize and one that rapidly ushered in a new era of longer-range commercial aviation.

We cannot predict where this week's breakthrough will lead, but it's useful to recall that, until his historic flight, Mr. Lindbergh was dismissed in some quarters as a mere daredevil. It probably would be an error to likewise discount the long-term value of efforts by the SpaceShipOne team and others around the world working on making reliable and affordable space flights much more commonplace.

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