WASHINGTON—A new neighbor hangs next to Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis from the ceiling of the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum. It's SpaceShipOne, the geeky-looking privately funded manned spacecraft that flew into space three times last year.
Burt Rutan, who designed it, could hardly take his eyes off the tiny aircraft—wingspan: 27 feet; length: 28 feet—at a welcoming ceremony in the museum's central gallery on Wednesday.
Paul Allen, the Microsoft billionaire who financed the $25 million effort, signed it over to the Smithsonian with a challenge.
"What Burt and I were hoping to accomplish with SpaceShipOne—and I think we did—was to show that this kind of experience should be open to the general public," Allen told reporters. "Burt and I both dream of the day when there will be privately owned space hotels and space stations."
Rutan conceived of SpaceShipOne in 1996 as a lightweight and simple alternative to NASA's costly hardware. By relying on composite materials and a new hybrid rocket engine that burned rubber and nitrous oxide, he produced an elegantly engineered craft that weighs about 3 tons and travels at three times the speed of sound.
The ship, with its strange Swiss cheese windows and a belly festooned with random stars, rocketed more than 62 miles above the Earth's surface—technically suborbital space—three times last year. The effort won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for completing two of those flights within two weeks.
"I'd like to see those sorts of trips affordable in my lifetime," Rutan said.
In July, Rutan inked a deal with Sir Richard Branson, chairman of Virgin Group Ltd., the British media and transportation company.
The new company, Virgin Galactic, bought Rutan's design from Allen and hired Rutan to build SpaceShipTwo and its successors. Virgin Galactic plans to seat up to eight passengers on the new ship at $200,000 per ticket. Flights start in 2008.
"As opposed to the first 44 years of manned spaceflight," Rutan said, referring to multibillion-dollar government efforts, "the difference is people are going to know that it is for them."
He and Allen—who with $20 billion is America's third richest man, according to Forbes magazine—repeatedly contrasted their venture's nimbleness to NASA's approach.
For the space agency's 2018 trip to the moon, Rutan said, it will rely on the same technology that first took it to the moon in 1969.
"It doesn't try new things and it doesn't take new risks," Rutan added. With competition from "a robust, high volume, successful and very profitable suborbital manned space industry ... solutions will come much sooner."
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): SCI-SPACESHIP
ARCHIVE GRAPHIC on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040621 SpaceShip One
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