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Fame's final frontier

Hulton Archive / Getty Images file
A black airman gazes skyward
in a World War II poster.

The rich and the famous will be lining up for rides when suborbital space tourism finally kicks into gear. But what about the people who made it all possible? XCOR Aerospace's "Legacy Flight" program will send some of those unsung heroes to the final frontier ... for free. Over the weekend, XCOR awarded the program's first ticket to an 89-year-old Tuskegee Airman.

And that won't be the last ticket issued: XCOR Aerospace spokesman Doug Graham said the California-based company plans to give away as many as three Legacy Flight tickets a year - to be redeemed when its Lynx rocket plane takes to the air, a year or two from now.

"XCOR's efforts to make spaceflight affordable are made possible only because we have inherited a tradition of freedom and aviation excellence," the company's chief executive officer and co-founder, Jeff Greason, said in a news release issued Saturday. "We established the Legacy Flight program to thank those persons and groups that have helped build this heritage."

The program is just the latest effort to use future spaceflight as a reward for past service: Other examples include the Teachers in Space program, in which XCOR is also participating, and Virgin Galactic's intention to fly such notables as famed British physicist Stephen Hawking.

Honoring America's legacy
XCOR's Legacy Flights are aimed at honoring a wide spectrum of unsung heroes - people who have contributed to aviation, or electronics and engineering, or entrepreneurship, or even the furtherance of freedom in the broadest sense.

Graham said the fact that the Tuskegee Airmen and Airwomen contributed so much to civil rights as well as America's role in World War II made them the perfect organization to start out with. "The Tuskegee guys were two-fers," he joked.

The Tuskegee Airmen were black military aviators and crew personnel who signed up for service in World War II even though the Army Air Corps was segregated at that time. "Their outstanding performance in combat paved the way for the 1948 order by President Harry Truman to desegregate the nation's armed services, and this in turn was an important step forward for civil rights within the United States," Greason said.

XCOR Aerospace
XCOR Aerospace's chief executive officer, Jeff
Greason, hands an oversized ticket for a rocket ride
to Tuskegee Airman Le Roy Gillead.

Le Roy Gillead, one of the 401 original Tuskegee Airmen, was selected by his fellow veterans as the Legacy Flight recipient. Gillead served as a triple-rated navigator, bombardier and aerial gunner, and was involved in the Freeman Field Mutiny, in which black officers faced court martial for attending a white officers' club.

The Legacy Flight presentation was made on Saturday at the University of California at Riverside during an annual celebration of the Tuskegee Airmen's legacy. Gillead, who now lives in San Francisco, said he was honored to accept the award on behalf of his comrades.

"When we volunteered, none of us knew exactly what the future would hold," he said. "I certainly didn't expect it to lead to space."

Graham said that Gillead's flight date has not yet been determined, and that the 89-year-old would have to go through all the medical testing and training required for his future Lynx flight. XCOR plans to begin flight tests for the Lynx in 2010, with commercial operations due to begin after the successful completion of those tests.

XCOR and RocketShip Tours opened the ticket window for $95,000 flights on the Lynx just a couple of months ago. The Lynx Mark 1 is designed to take off and land like a regular airplane, and fly as high as 38 miles (61 kilometers). Passengers may not rise to the 100-kilometer height that marks the internationally accepted boundary of outer space - but they will get a front-seat view of the curving earth, much like the view that the astronauts get. They'll also feel a minute or two of weightlessness and a jolt of acceleration that should be thrilling even for an old airman like Gillead.

Graham said XCOR would be selecting more Legacy Flight recipients going forward. "It's kind of nice if the person being so honored doesn't necessarily have the spare cash to take this trip," he said. "We look at it as making dreams come true."

For now, Legacy Flight nominations can be sent to Graham via XCOR Aerospace's "Contact Us" page. (Just select "Press Inquiries," include "Legacy Flight" in the subject line, type in your nomination and hit the "Send Feedback" button.)

Meanwhile, the Teachers in Space effort, organized by the Space Frontier Foundation and the United States Rocket Academy, is in the midst of designing training programs and selecting its first Pathfinder teacher-astronauts. The educators will be given suborbital rides contributed by XCOR and other spaceship builders - that is, once those vehicles enter commercial service. You can follow the process by checking in on the Teachers in Space blog.

Stephen Hawking in space
As for Virgin Galactic and Stephen Hawking, they're both reportedly raring to go. "We have a keen owner and a keen passenger," said Stephen Attenborough, Virgin Galactic's commercial director.

Last week, Germany's Stern magazine quoted Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic's British billionaire founder, as saying that SpaceShipTwo could go into testing as early as August or September of this year - and that Hawking was signed up for a suborbital spaceflight.

"I admire this man very much," Branson told Stern.

Attenborough said it was too soon to say exactly when SpaceShipTwo's test flights would begin, let alone when Hawking would fly to the final frontier.

Zero Gravity Corp.
Physicist Stephen Hawking flashes a grin as he floats in weightlessness
on April 26, 2007, with Zero Gravity's Peter Diamandis looking on from
right. The apple is a tribute to Isaac Newton and his theories of gravity.

He said the rocket plane's mothership, known as WhiteKnightTwo, has gone through four hours of testing and encountered "no showstoppers" so far. After WhiteKnightTwo has completed its initial round of testing, California-based Scaled Composites would put SpaceShipTwo through rounds of ground testing, captive-carry tests, glide tests and eventually powered flights, Attenborough said.

Rumors are already rife that SpaceShipTwo as well as WhiteKnightTwo will make an appearance (as promised) in July at the EAA AirVenture show in Oshkosh, Wis. When asked about those rumors, Attenborough said he was reluctant to pre-empt an announcement that the show's organizers are expected to make sometime in the next week.

"There will be a 'presence,' let's say, at Oshkosh," he said.

Attenborough noted that Branson offered to fly Hawking to the edge of space, even before the physicist gleefully floated through a zero-gravity airplane ride in 2007. "The offer is still very much open, and the plan is still very much alive," Attenborough said.

The medical concerns related to Hawking's near-total disability will have to be addressed, of course, but Attenborough said he's been heartened to see how many people have passed their medical exams for SpaceShipTwo flights. About 100 would-be fliers have already bought their $200,000 tickets for suborbital space tours and have taken an initial round of training. The record so far has given Attenborough hope that Hawking will eventually achieve his long-held dream of flying in space.

"All the omens are good," he said.

Update for 9:40 p.m. ET Feb. 26: Flight International's Rob Coppinger reports that WhiteKnightTwo will make demonstration flights at the AirVenture show, but that SpaceShipTwo will not be brought to Oshkosh this year. (Tip o' the Log to Clark Lindsey's RLV and Space Transport News.)

To keep up with the personal spaceflight revolution, click into our special report on "The New Space Race." And to learn more about the Tuskegee Airmen, check out this article from our "Race and Ethnicity" section, as well as NBC's video reports about a new Tuskegee museum and the airmen's reflections on a new era.