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Private space age turns 4

NBC News
Pilot Mike Melvill flashes thumbs-up after flying SpaceShipOne
above the 62-mile boundary of outer space on June 21, 2004.

This weekend marks four years since Burt Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites ushered in the age of privately developed spaceflight with the SpaceShipOne rocket plane. But don't expect a big celebration: Rutan told me he's been so busy ushering in the next stage of the spaceflight age that he forgot about the anniversary . . . until I reminded him.

"We are so focused on SpaceShipTwo development here, with a lot of new engineers and technicians, that we tend to forget our accomplishments of 2004," the aerospace designer wrote in an e-mail from his headquarters in Mojave, Calif. "I can say that the SpaceShipOne program for [software billionaire] Paul Allen was the most challenging and most rewarding program I have done.

"It is likely that we may never accomplish that great a challenge with so few people again," he said. "Looking back, it makes us all very proud."

The four years since June 21, 2004, underline just how unpredictable frontiers can be. Many of the things that were predicted have not come to pass: Back then, it seemed as if the first suborbital space tourists might be climbing aboard Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo within two years after SpaceShipOne's historic test flight. Today, that milestone still looks as if it's two years away.

The unpredictability doesn't apply merely to the people at Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites - who will be running into the much more tragic first anniversary of a fatal accident next month. As I pointed out a year ago, the two-year rule applies to virtually every player in the private space race. (A quick look back at my stories about Rocketplane Global and PlanetSpace confirms how tricky the prediction business can get.)

Eric Anderson, the chief executive officer of Space Adventures, referred to the fudginess of forecasts last week. He recalled that his company was founded 10 years ago with the expectation that suborbital space tours would be routine by now.

"The funny thing about predictions is that sometimes it ends up being a lot better than you thought, but not in the way you might have thought," he said.

If you're looking for the "better" half of the spaceflight revolution, four years after its start, you'd be best advised to look at the low end and the high end of the scale, rather than the middle-range suborbital challenge. Arguably, things have turned out better than expected for semi-space experiences and the full orbital treatment:

Semi-space: In the past four years, the availability of commercial zero-gravity airplane flights in the United States has gone from "can't be done" to coast-to-coast. (Sure, NASA was doing it for years before that, but not on a commercial basis.) The zero-G clientele includes high-profile fliers ranging from physicist Stephen Hawking to domestic diva Martha Stewart. Now tourists are paying $4,000 each for a taste of weightlessness, and even NASA is a client.

The Rocket Racing League is making progress toward its first demonstration race in August - and if that venture's business plan pans out, legions of spectators will be exposed to the roar of a "NASCAR in the sky." XCOR Aerospace plans to parlay its work with the Rocket Racing League into its years-long effort to build a rocket plane capable of taking paying passengers to the 37-mile mark - and eventually beyond the 62-mile internationally recognized boundary of outer space.

The full orbital: The Russian space program has been very, very good to Space Adventures. Moscow has sent three of the company's millionaire clients to the space station in the past four years. The next millionaire, video-game guru Richard Garriott, is due to go to the station in October for an estimated fare of $35 million. This part of the business is a big factor behind Space Adventures' reported profitablility - and the company is working with the Russians to get more high-rolling clients (such as Google co-founder Sergey Brin) into orbit in 2011 and beyond.

NASA is trying to help jump-start commercial orbital spaceflight through its $500 million Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program. Although Rocketplane's deal with NASA fizzled out, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are still working to develop private-sector rocketships capable of servicing the international space station. SpaceX is gearing up for a key launch of its Falcon 1 rocket that could come as early as this month.

Meanwhile, Bigelow Aerospace has two functioning modules in orbit and is working on what could be considered the first private-sector space station - assuming that the company finds an affordable method for transporting crew and cargo.

The dates most often mentioned as key for Bigelow, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are 2010 and 2011 - which proves that the two-year rule is in force for orbital as well as suborbital spaceflight.

Will Rutan and his team be flying SpaceShipTwo by that time? Will they even be turning their eyes toward orbital flight by then? Although Rutan will be rolling out SpaceShipTwo's mothership for display on July 28, he won't play the prediction game - and you won't hear him invoke the two-year rule. We'll just have to stay tuned.

"We cannot comment on what is ahead, beyond what you can find with a Google search," he told me. "In general, we are mute on new programs until they are ready for flight testing."

Check out this posting for more SpaceShipOne tales.