Well, maybe not that far. Yet.
The FAA on Wednesday licensed the first private rocket, and has given the green light for a real sub-orbital space flight. Burt Rutan and his California-based Scaled Composites have built SpaceShipOne, a funny looking rocket-powered plane that Burt hopes will usher in “a renaissance for manned space flight.”
The primary goal of SpaceShipOne is to develop opportunities for private citizens to take a sub-orbital excursion:
Our plan involves flight in a 3-place spaceship, initially attached to a turbojet launch aircraft while climbing for an hour to 50,000 feet, above 85% of the atmosphere.
The spaceship then drops into gliding flight and fires its rocket motor while climbing steeply for more than a minute, reaching a speed of 2,500 mph. The ship coasts up to 100 km (62 miles) altitude, then falls back into the atmosphere. The coast and fall are under weightless conditions for more than three minutes. During weightless flight, the spaceship converts to a high-drag configuration to allow a safe, stable atmospheric entry.
After the entry deceleration which takes more than a minute, the ship converts back to a conventional glider, allowing a leisurely 17 minute glide from 80,000 feet altitude down to a runway where a landing is made at lightplane speeds.
Additional incentive for the project is the $10 million X-Prize, which is a contest of sorts to help create a space tourism industry, which will hopefully drive innovation in the field of space travel. Thus far the history of space flight includes only government-funded projects, but with tight budgets and political bickering over funding of these projects, their future is dubious.
The solution? Privatize it. So far the XPrize has 24 entrants from seven countries competing. The rules are pretty simple; the prize goes to the first privately-funded group that builds and launches a spaceship able to carry three people to 100 kilometres (62.5 miles), returns safely to Earth, and repeats the launch with the same ship within 2 weeks.
Looks like Rutan et al will take it. They just completed their second successful test flight today.