WASHINGTON — The first private space ship took its place Wednesday next to Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, a hoped-for symbol of a new era of space tourism alongside the icon of trans-Atlantic flight.
SpaceShipOne's designer, Burt Rutan, and its financier, Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen, were on hand as the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum took ownership of the 28-foot star-spangled spacecraft.
A year ago, Rutan and Allen captured the $10 million Ansari X Prize when SpaceShipOne dashed to the edge of space twice in five days. The prize was aimed at encouraging space tourism through the development of low-cost private spacecraft.
Rutan told several hundred visitors in the building's giant lobby that he was pleased the Smithsonian so quickly recognized the importance of SpaceShipOne.
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"I knew that the significance would be known and understood by everyone in 10 years," said Rutan, 62. "I'm extremely pleased to see it here this early."
Like many space entrepreneurs, Rutan thinks the private sector can do what NASA cannot: inspire tomorrow's astronauts and scientists by offering them the real promise of a trip to space.
NASA is phasing out the space shuttle and instead plans to return to the moon, for $104 billion over 13 years. It is a plan Rutan dismisses.
"We'll go back to the moon by not learning anything new," Rutan said.
He envisions a day in the not-too-distant future when resort hotels orbit the earth and offer excursions around the moon.
Federal Aviation Administration chief Marian Blakey shares his optimism.
"I don't expect it will be too long before we can all book an aisle seat 62 miles up," Blakey said.
There are signs that SpaceShipOne's historic suborbital flights marked the dawn of a new space age.
Of the 26 teams that entered the Ansari X Prize competition, 10 are now viable companies, according to Ian Murphy, spokesman for the prize's successor, the X Prize Cup.
Rutan has a deal with British entrepreneur Richard Branson, chairman of the Virgin Group, to build a fleet of five spacecraft. The new company, Virgin Galactic, will take passengers on 2 1/2-hour trips into space for $200,000 each.
On Monday, X Prize founder Peter Diamandis announced in New York that he'd formed the Rocket Racing League, which will take NASCAR style racing to 5,000 feet. Diamandis' plans call for rocket planes to fly at about 300 mph in league races that will start in about two years.
Also Monday, Greg Olsen, an American scientist and multimillionaire, was delivered by a Russian spacecraft to the international space station. He reportedly paid $20 million for the trip, organized by Space Adventures of Virginia.
"People are figuring out how they can possibly make money out of the concept of affordable, reusable access to space," said James A.M. Muncy, a Virginia-based space consultant. "This is just the beginning of the new industry."
Entrepreneurs already are selling their services to the government and to universities for research purposes.
Three-year-old SpaceX, for example, intends to become the first company to send a privately funded rocket into orbit. SpaceShipOne's flight was suborbital.
The El Segundo, Calif.-based company will launch its Falcon I from the Marshall Islands at the end of the month. SpaceX spokeswoman Dianne Molina said the company has eight government and commercial contracts, and a contract with the Air Force.
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