Space race: 'Anything can happen'

The world’s first ever privately manned space craft was poised for relaunch on Wednesday as part of a bid to snatch a $10-million prize aimed at kickstarting commercial space travel.

SpaceShipOne, which in June entered history as the first non-military space rocket, will stage its second sub-orbital flight in California’s Mojave desert, in what its creators hailed as the start of a new space race.

The flight was scheduled to take place just two days after Burt Rutan and British tycoon Richard Branson announced a tie-up to start a “galactic” airline aimed at taking a huge step towards space tourism.

SpaceShipOne will seek to equal its June 21 feat when it touched the fringes of space, 100km up, before making what its creator Rutan admitted had been a scary return to base here.

But Rutan was upbeat about the prospects of Wednesday’s flight of his stubby rocket plane, which—if successful—will take him and his United States team half way to pocketing the $10-million Ansari X prize.

“We are all very confident that we can pull this off and turn it around very quickly,” the 61-year-old pioneer told journalists late on Tuesday, vowing to better the 100km sub-orbit SpaceShipOne achieved in June.

“I don’t want to give myself that scare again,” he said, explaining that the craft only just surpassed its 328 000-foot goal last flight around.

But, he warned, he and the Mojave Aerospace Ventures team were taking the first steps into a largely unexplored new era. “Anything can happen,” he said, adding however that Wednesday’s flight was not its riskiest by far.

A specially adapted jet, White Knight, will take SpaceShipOne up into the sky at 6.30am (1.30pm GMT) and the space vessel will start its rocket engine at a height of 15km at around 7.50am.

It should then enter the fringes space, leaving the as yet unidentified pilot weightless for around three-and-a-half minutes, and taking the craft to the second phase of its quest for the prize money, organisers said.

If the flight is a success, Rutan’s spacecraft will make a new flight one week later on October 4 to qualify for the Ansari X Prize, which more than two dozen teams have set their eyes on.

The prize is offered by a private US-based foundation. The winner must send the same manned vessel into space twice in two weeks, carrying the pilot and the equivalent weight of two passengers.

Instead of lead weights, boxes of memorbilia and trinkets supplied by team members and sponsors—who include major names such as sweet maker M and M and soft drink 7UP—will act as ballast, Rutan said.

The Ansari foundation launched the prize eight years ago to give the same impetus to space travel that the Orteig prize did to inspire Charles Lindbergh’s first transatlantic flight in 1927.

Rutan (61) and his company Scaled Composites joined with Microsoft founder Paul Allen and his firm Vulcan to form the Mojave Aerospace Ventures team, build SpaceShipOne and further the cause of private enterprise in space.

There are 26 teams in contention for the Ansari prize but SpaceShipOne believes it is the leader, according to Sarah Evans, a spokesperson for the Ansari X Prize foundation in St Louis, Missouri.

“The other teams have not given notice that they will fly,” she said.
- Sapa-AFP

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