For anyone who hasn't heard of the Ansari X-Prize, it's a $10 million dollar award that will be given to the first independent, private group that successfully launches two people to 100 km altitude, returns them safely, and repeats the feat within two weeks, before Jan 1st 2005. The prize is modeled after the Orteig competition won by Charles Lindberg in his record-setting flight across the country in the Spirit of St. Louis. The X-Prize is designed to spur space pioneers in much the same way that the era of general aviation was spurred at the turn of the (prior) century. The future of space travel lies in private industry, not government agencies, and the X-Prize is part of making that dream come alive.
Aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan, founder of Scaled Composites Inc., may well see his SpaceShipOne craft alongside the Spirit in the Smithsonian one day if he wins - which by all accounts he is on course to do.
Yesterday, May 13th 2004, SpaceShipOne reached 65km in altitude, a new record for private spacecraft. Flight data is now online. NASA awards astronaut status to anyone who reaches an altitude of 50 miles (80,500 metres), meaning that Rutan's group will soon boast the world's first non-government astronauts. But 65km is the threshold of space - as the photo at right demonstrates (click the thumbnmail to see a larger version, or the original here).
This is a new era in space travel and I am tremendously excited to see it happen in my lifetime. Keep an eye on Scaled's news page for further developments...