Outer space on the cheap

On June 21, a rocket-powered airplane known as SpaceShipOne soared 100 kilometers above Earth to the fringes of space, carrying out the first-ever private, manned space mission. The flight was a milestone for privately funded efforts to develop low-cost space technology.

LITTLE ROCKET THAT COULD. Seen from below, the first private, manned vehicle to reach space glides back to its landing field. Scaled Composites

Before its self-powered ascent, the three-seater SpaceShipOne was lofted to about 14 km altitude by a larger plane designed for the purpose. That’s a few kilometers higher than a typical cruising altitude for an airliner.

Compared with a ground launch, such a midaltitude send-off slashes the power and fuel required to get a vehicle into space, says Matthew Gionta, chief engineer of Scaled Composites, the Mojave, Calif., company that built and flew SpaceShipOne.

This flight strategy was but one of many ways that SpaceShipOne’s designers cut expenses, which still amounted to about $20 million. “You’d be amazed at how low-technology [the spacecraft] is,” Gionta says.

Scaled Composites next plans to compete for a $10 million purse called the X-prize that has been offered by a St. Louis–based foundation to the first team that flies a privately funded, three-seater spacecraft twice to space and back within a 2-week period. A long-term goal is to start an era of affordable space tourism.

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