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Thursday, June 17, 2004

Countdown to the new space race
chabot imageUntil 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.
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. Read More


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