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Private-sector space age turns 7

June 21, 2004: NBC's George Lewis reports on SpaceShipOne's first spaceflight.

The mastermind behind the first privately funded spaceship says he's disappointed by the pace of progress since SpaceShipOne took its historic trip, seven years ago today. But there's hope on the horizon, in the form of SpaceShipTwo.

Aerospace designer Burt Rutan has retired from his top post at the company he created, Scaled Composites, and is now living in North Idaho with his wife, Tonya. His new digs are hundreds of miles from California's Mojave Air and Space Port, where SpaceShipOne took flight and where SpaceShipTwo is now undergoing unpowered glide tests.

"I feel good about the decision to retire and leave Mojave, mainly due to my health uncertaintites and to the wonderful place we now live," Rutan, 68, told me in an email. When he refers to his health, he's talking about heart troubles that forced him to undergo surgery in early 2008. And when he refers to the appeal of his current locale, he's talking about Idaho's political environment as well as its mountains and lakes.

Bebeto Matthews / AP file

Burt Rutan presides over a 2008 news conference about SpaceShipTwo.

"Conservatives just take better care of each other and govern better," he said. "Oh, I also love the weather and the views."

When SpaceShipOne broke the space barrier on June 21, 2004, Rutan was hoping he'd be one of the first passengers on a commercial flight to the edge of space, more than 62 miles (100 kilometers) up. He even said he wanted to "go to the moon in my lifetime" and "see my grandchildren go to the more interesting moons of Jupiter and Saturn."

Today, folks are still talking about the possibility of sending passengers around the moon — perhaps by 2015, although today Russia's space chief voiced doubts about that prospect. It doesn't look as if anyone will be going to the moons of Jupiter or Saturn anytime in the next few decades, though, and even that first private-sector passenger flight to space has not yet taken place.

"Yes, disappointed that progress has been slow," Rutan wrote.

Rutan has always shied away from laying down firm schedules for the future. Even in his retirement, he declined to talk about how soon SpaceShipTwo would be taking on customers — or, for that matter, about any other ventures he might be taking on. "I cannot talk about future things, never did. Just stay tuned," he said.

But if Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic stick with the schedule they've laid out, rocket-powered test flights could begin within the next year, with the aim of sending test pilots once again across the outer-space boundary.

The year 2012 appears to be the very earliest target for the first commercial suborbital spaceflights. Such journeys would give Virgin Galactic's customers a taste of zero-G and a view of the curving Earth beneath the black sky of space, at a cost of $200,000 a seat. There are other companies in the suborbital space race, including XCOR Aerospace (aiming for flights from Curacao in 2014) and Armadillo Aerospace (which has partnered with Space Adventures). For now, however, Virgin Galactic still appears to be closest to entering the market, with New Mexico's Spaceport America taking shape as its base of commercial operations.

Zenith Press

"Burt Rutan's Race to Space" traces the aerospace designer's decades-long career.

Until the next-gen spacecraft actually fire up their rockets, space dreamers will have to content themselves with lower-flying adventures such as zero-gravity flights and astronaut training sessions. Or you could read the book: "Burt Rutan's Race to Space," a new volume from Dan Linehan, author of the "SpaceShipOne" coffee-table book, has just been published.

While "SpaceShipOne" focused on the run-up to the rocket plane's history-making flights, "Burt Rutan's Race to Space: The Magician of Mojave and His Flying Innovations" takes a wider look at the aerospace guru's career, from his days as a designer of homebuilt airplanes to his work on SpaceShipTwo. Rutan's work on record-setting long-distance aircraft such as the Voyager and the GlobalFlyer is well-known, but I was surprised to see some of the other not-so-ready-for-prime-time projects in which Scaled Composites played a role, including the DC-X rocket prototype, the Roton test vehicle and NASA's X-38 crew return vehicle.

Now the Voyager and SpaceShipOne are hanging in the Smithsonian, and a new generation of aerospace designers are following in Rutan's footsteps. Here's what Mike Melvill, the first pilot to become an astronaut in SpaceShipOne, wrote in the foreword to "Burt Rutan's Race to Space":

"It will be interesting to watch the continuing progress of Scaled Composites, where Burt has left an unbelievable legacy of truly astonishing aircraft designs and ensured that there is a cadre of exceptional designers, engineers and test pilots with an unmatched shop full of the best composite fabricators in the world."

Even though he's retired, and even though he doesn't like to talk about future things, Rutan himself couldn't resist taking a forward-looking perspective as he looked back on what happened seven years ago today.

"The thing that sticks out," he wrote, "is that hundreds of children were there to watch."

Will June 21, 2004, go down in history as the true start of the commercial space age? Or will it turn out to have been a false start? What do you think? Feel free to weigh in with your comments, and let's see what happens by June 21, 2012.

Stay tuned for a Q&A with Dan Linehan in a future posting. Linehan's earlier book, "SpaceShipOne: An Illustrated History," has just become available in paperback.

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