I f it didn’t cross your mind while watching video footage of SpaceShipOne streaking into space over California’s Mojave Desert on Monday, there were plenty of commentators on hand to jog your sense of history. One was Gregg Maryniak, executive director of the foundation that offered a $10 million prize to the designers of the first private space vehicle to reach an altitude of 100 km twice within two weeks — a prize that SpaceShipOne successfully claimed last week. “This is the end of the beginning,” Mr. Maryniak said, leaving no doubt that he meant nothing less than the beginning of a new age of aviation.
There was some early confusion about nailing down the right historical parallel. Many people were reminded of the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, nearly 101 years ago. Even the head of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, Marion C. Blakey, said watching Monday’s flight felt “a little bit like Kitty Hawk must have.”
The more precise comparison, of course, was to Charles Lindbergh’s pioneering solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927. Just as Lindbergh ushered in the era of commercial air travel, SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan and his team may well have kicked off the era of viable commercial space travel. In fact, the Ansari X prize won by Mr. Rutan last week was directly inspired by the $25,000 Orteig Prize won by Lindbergh.
So, while not as big as Kitty Hawk’s achievement, the Mohave flight was definitely a red-letter event in the relatively short annals of aviation — and probably among the top five news stories of 2004, although it may not have seemed so amid the ephemeral din of war, politics and sport.
Investor Sir Richard Branson has said he hopes to see a Virgin hotel in space in his lifetime. That’s a long shot. But the X Prize Foundation is taking the next step seriously, announcing plans last week for an annual spaceship competition to start in 2006. Japanese rocket scientists should be planning their entries now.
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