Space travel has finally stepped out of the few hands of governments into the open hands of the private sector. Today, Burt Rutan and company achieved the first privately-financed launch of a crewed vehicle into space. A landmark accomplishment, it will hopefully shake NASA out of its implacable stupor of bureaucracy and contractor-dependence to start changing the world again. At the very least, it begins a new era of connection between humans and the stars.
SpaceShipOne has several advantages over NASA's space shuttle, not only using more sophisticated technology but better design: its "supersonic feather" tail boom reduces the need for sophisticated computer control of stability and attitude during reentry. SpaceShipOne has also been vastly cheaper to design, build, launch, and maintain than the shuttles--this is the breakthrough that can bring spaceflight to the public.
Pilot Mike Melvill flew over 100km above the Earth and glided back down to a landing in SpaceShipOne. Part of the craft's airframe buckled during flight, but apparently the damage was not serious (which is good, because the craft had no ejection seat--if anything had gone wrong, it would have been fatal.) The craft was brought up to 46,000 feet by the custom-built jet "White Knight" before rocketing up into space and returning to ground alone at California's Mojave airport, which according to CNN, is officially licensed as a spaceport.
As the SF Chronicle reports, "Federal Aviation Administration representative Patricia Grace Smith presented Melvill with the agency's first commercial astronaut wings."
If SpaceShipOne flies with two passengers, and then repeats the feat within two weeks, it will win the coveted Ansari X-Prize for initiating the possibility of space-tourism.
Though Melvill, Rutan, and others had no supreme quotes like "one small step...", Melvill was quoted by CNN as saying "It was a mind-blowing experience, it really was -- absolutely an awesome thing... From up there, it's almost a religious experience." They also have a nice little article showing parallels between the beginnings of private spaceflight today with the beginnings of private airplane flight at the beginning of the last century.
Can I be the first to say WOOT!?
I'd just like to point out one thing that the shuttle can do that SSO can't - the shuttle can reach orbit, while SSO is limited to suborbital flight.
This isn't meant as a denigration of the accomplishments of Rutan, Melvill and the rest of the SSO/Scaled Composites team, but it needs saying that while SSO is the first step to a (I hope!) long and glorious age of public spaceflight, there's still a ways to go before we can make any real comparison between the shuttle and the SSO family.
as exciting as privatized spaceflight is, where exactly will we be going ?