Private Spacecraft Roars to Space and Back

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During today's manned flight, the spacecraft did not carry any additional human passengers. But it did carry an equivalent amount of extra weight in the form of personal items collected from those involved in the project.

If ship passes inspection, SpaceShipOne pilot Melvill will soon attempt a second qualifying flight. The launch is tentatively scheduled for October 4—the anniversary of the Soviet Union's Sputnik I satellite. The Sputnik launch triggered the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Space Tourism

In addition to today's successful test flight, SpaceShipOne has already spawned a lofty commercial venture.

Earlier this week, British tycoon and adventurer Richard Branson announced the formation of Virgin Galactic. The enterprise will license technology from Mojave Aerospace Ventures, the creators of SpaceShipOne.

Branson said Virgin Galactic will begin building its first spacecraft, the V.S.S. Enterprise, next year. Branson hopes his fledgling enterprise will take paying passengers to space as early as 2007.

Customers who could afford the U.S. $200,000 price tag would fly on a commercial derivative of SpaceShipOne capable of carrying a pilot and five passengers.

The two-hour tourist flight that is envisioned would be similar to the 1961 suborbital space flight made by Alan Shepherd, the first U.S. astronaut in space, onboard the Freedom 7. Passengers would experience weightlessness and the blackness of space, while enjoying a view of the curvature of Earth, Branson said.

The entrepeneur said he hopes to sign up 3,000 "astronauts" within the venture's first five years. Customers would have to pass three days of required training and be "reasonably fit."

Significant regulatory hurdles must be surmounted before Virgin Galactic becomes a reality, however.

"This is exactly the results we hoped this ten-million-dollar purse would create," said X Prize Foundation chairman and founder Peter Diamandis. "I wish Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic the best of luck."

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