Later this month, Paul 'Microsoft' Allen's SpaceShipOne will blast off for space. The launch is scheduled for 21 June, and if everything goes well, Allen will snag a place in history as the man behind the first private space craft ever to leave the atmosphere.
Michael Nank, a spokesman for Allen's investment company, Vulcan, told the Seattle Times: "[This] shows that at relatively little cost, we can spur commercial space technology. It's always previously been done by governmental agencies."
The vehicle has a great pedigree: it has been built by Burt Rutan's company Scaled Composites. Rutan established his reputation by building a privately funded plane capable of circumnavigating the globe without refueling. He is also the team leader on this project.
SpaceShipOne, a three seater ship, will be lifted to about 50,000ft by carrier jet. Once it is dropped off, a rocket motor will fire for about 80 seconds, accelerating the vehicle to Mach 3 in a vertical climb. This should be enough to get the ship to an altitude of 62 miles before it falls back to Earth. In May this year, the craft reached an altitude of 40 miles.
The ship will not go fast enough to get into orbit, but the pilot will be weightless for three minutes, and should be surrounded by the blackness of space. To completely escape the Earth's gravitational pull, a vehicle needs to reach 25,000mph, and to get into orbit it needs to reach 17,500mph.
The pilot will be able to reconfigure the ship so that as it passes through the atmosphere its tails fold up like a shuttlecock, and then back to a normal glider shape for descent and landing.
Allen and Rutan are among several contenders for the $10m Ansari X-prize. This is a competition in which the winning craft must take three people into sub-orbital space twice within a two-week period. Vulcan would not say how much had been invested in the project, but the costs are likely to have run into the millions. ®