Countdown to the new space race

Until now, the US space shuttle or the Russian Soyuz provided the only means of getting off the planet. But next week, Paul Allen and Ray Rutan (above) are planning to change all that. Andrew Gumbel reports from Los Angeles

The early days of aviation must have looked a little like this: an enthusiastic crowd of thousands of people heading out to a remote airfield at the crack of dawn to watch a sleek metal contraption, the likes of which they have never seen, daring to perform new, untested stunts.

The early days of aviation must have looked a little like this: an enthusiastic crowd of thousands of people heading out to a remote airfield at the crack of dawn to watch a sleek metal contraption, the likes of which they have never seen, daring to perform new, untested stunts.

Such a scene is expected at Mojave airport in the desert 100 miles north of Los Angeles on Monday morning, as one of the most innovative aviation companies in the business attempts the world's first non-governmental manned spacecraft flight. The Woodstock of space, some people are calling it.

At around 6.30am - after the runways have been cleared of endangered desert tortoises - a spaceship strapped to the underside of a custom-built aircraft will fly up to an altitude of 50,000ft and then, if all goes according to plan, blast off on its own to pierce the atmosphere 62 miles above the Earth's surface and float at least briefly in gravity-free weightlessness before re-entering and landing back where it started. The whole event is expected to last about 25 minutes. It is the most dramatic stage yet in a competition known as the Ansari X prize, in which aviation specialists and technology freaks the world over have been invited to find a way to make commercial space travel possible. As many as 26 teams have been vying furiously for the $10m (£5.5m) prize money, but by common consent it is the team headed by the aviation veteran Burt Rutan and his deep-pocketed patron, the Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, that is already way out front in the race. Even if it is successful, Monday's flight will not be the end of the competition, since it will be undertaken by a single pilot (who has yet to be named). Competition rules stipulate that the winner of the prizemust send three people up to the 100km limit - not once, but twice in a two-week period. The offer lapses at the end of the year, so the ticking clock is adding an extra layer of suspense to the whole operation.

But Mr Rutan, for one, is encouraging everyone to see next Monday's flight as the epoch-making moment. "We encourage people to come out and bring their children, so their children can tell their children that they were there," he said in a recent interview.

And he has some reason to sound confident. His craft, SpaceShipOne, became the first private craft to break the sound barrier last December. Last month, it successfully flew as high as 40 miles above the Earth's surface, suggesting that the basic technology is sound.

The aeroplane that will carry SpaceShipOne to its launch height is itself a fine sight to behold. One technology writer, for Wired magazine, likened the White Knight to "a spaceship mated with a water bug", with twin tail booms and long, straight wings suspended over a bullet-shaped capsule.

Once SpaceShipOne detaches from the mother ship, it will glide until the pilot fires the rocket motor for about 80 seconds, causing it to accelerate to about three times the speed of sound. Once it reaches maximum altitude, the pilot will cut the motor, float in space for about three minutes and then fall back towards Earth and glide gently on to the Mojave runway.

Nothing about this flight will be orthodox: the rocket fuel, for example, is a composite of rubber and nitrous oxide, better known as laughing gas, which Mr Rutan's company, Scaled Composites, says is much less volatile and flammable than standard rocket fuel.

There are other reasons, too, why the parabola is less hazardous than the kind of paces Nasa puts its shuttles through. Spacecraft like the ill-fated Columbia, which broke up on re-entry into the earth's atmosphere in February last year, are required to reach 25 times the speed of sound, which greatly increases the risk of over-heating.

The smaller scale of the Ansari X prize competition was deliberate, not only to give the pioneering teams a greater margin of safety but also to suggest that there are more ways to go into space than those proposed by the governmental agencies of Russia and the United States. The backers of the prize, who include technology entrepreneurs, space enthusiasts and the astronaut turned US senator John Glenn, want to usher in a new era in which ordinary civilians can become space tourists and, for only a moderately outlandish sum of money (speculation suggests somewhere in the tens of thousands of dollars, equivalent to the price of a brand-new sports car) experience the weightlessness of "zero-g".

If realised, the price tag would be significantly lower than the $20m that Californian businessman Dennis Tito paid three years ago to hitch a ride on a Russian craft to visit the International Space Station. The theory is that the private sector will much more quickly be able to make space travel affordable than any public agency. "Today if you are interested in flying there are only two options, the US Space Shuttle or the Russian Soyuz," says Peter Diamandis, the chair of the prize committee, "and neither of these are available at a reasonable cost or on a regular basis to the general public.

"The problem is not the lack of financial resources among today's adventure tourists, nor the demand in the marketplace, but specifically the lack of licensed, reliable vehicles."

A model many space entrepreneurs turn to in an attempt to prove trips to space are viable is extreme sports: a steady stream of people seems willing to pay as much as $50,000 for a guided ascent of Everest each year - and that is an ascent of just 29,000ft. The Ansari X prize is conceived as a 21st century successor to the great aviation contests of the early 1900s. The most famous was the Orteig prize, which offered $25,000 to the first person who could fly solo across the Atlantic, a milestone famously reached by Charles Lindbergh in 1927. Within two years of that flight, the number of air travellers around the world increased 40 times over.

Mr Diamandis added: "Between 1905 and 1935, hundreds of aviation prizes stimulated the creation of very different aircraft designs, each of which explored different regions of flight and different mechanisms for optimising speed, safety and low cost travel."

With his thick white Elvis sideburns, Burt Rutan, 60, certainly looks the part of a modern-day aviation pioneer. Since 1974 he has designed, built and flown 38 different aircraft without sustaining a single injury. His most visible achievement was the Voyager, which in 1986 became the first aircraft to fly non-stop around the world. He also worked on the outer shell of the DC-X, a prototype single-stage spaceship.

In Mr Allen, SpaceShipOne has the dream backer. He is a man whose many investment pursuits (building a rock 'n' roll museum in Seattle, financing sports stadiums, plunging money into the Hollywood studio DreamWorks) suggest the mindset of an overgrown teenager who has never lost his fascination for speed, noise, gadgets, technological invention and the lure of the limelight.

Mr Allen has sunk more than $20m into Mr Rutan's designs - more than 10 times as much as any of the competition. And, as he told The New York Times recently, it was all about realising the dreams of his youth. He attended the launch of the first US space shuttle in 1981 and has never lost the space bug.

"As a child, I read everything I could about space travel," he said. "When any of us were growing up, that is some kind of underlying dream - to pursue these things when we're older and have a chance to be involved."

Next Monday's event will not want for publicity. Mr Allen has personally approved a logo for T-shirts, hats, mugs and water bottles, all of which will be on sale at the event. Mojave - an agglomeration of wrecked car parts, cemeteries for dead aircraft and other assorted junk left over from the cold war aerospace boom (Edwards Air Force base is just down the road) - does not exactly abound in tourist facilities. But the Voyager Restaurant is still offering dishes called SpaceShipOne (a very exotic name for ham and eggs) and White Knight (bacon and eggs). There are no hotels in town, but Mojave airport is clearing the way for 400 camping spots on its premises.

For those who cannot make it, there will be live news coverage and also a television special, to be co-produced by the Discovery Channel and Mr Allen's own Vulcan Productions.

$10M PRIZE FOR AVIATION PIONEERS

The Ansari X Prize has rekindled the golden age of pioneering aviation. A $10m (£5.5m) carrot to lure private investors into jumpstarting a space tourism industry, it will be paid out to the first team that privately finances, builds and launches a spaceship capable of carrying three people to a height of 62.5 miles and returning safely to Earth. The craft will also have to repeat the journey within two weeks before its backers are declared victorious. (The cash comes from a trust that has collected money from private donors.)

The contest has attracted rocket engineering talent from across the globe. The SpaceShipOne team led by the aviation legend Burt Rutan and investor Paul G Allen appears to be streaking ahead of the competition, but 19 rivals are following in their slipstream.

Among them is John Carmack, a computer game entrepreneur behind such titles as Quake and Doom. He has put $1.5m into Armadillo Aerospace, (above). To Mr Carmack, who wrote the computer programmes for his spacecraft, space travel is a more exotic extension of his previous hobby - collecting turbo-charged Ferraris - and not that much more expensive.

Also in the running is Canadian-based Arrow, (right) which has modified the Germans' Second World War V2 rocket for its design and envisages sending it back to Earth by parachuting it into the Great Lakes. Another Canadian team, known as the Da Vinci Project, hopes to send its rocket up the first 80,000ft by balloon.

A trio of British teams have also entered the contest. Cheshire-based Starchaser Industries is developing the Thunderbird rocket (right) while Bristol Spaceplanes and London-based Green Arrow team have submitted designs. Some companies have begun selling seats for suborbital flights. One is Zero Gravity Corp, which is marketing its space flight as a kind of extreme funfair ride - a "vomit comet".

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