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Private Space Flight (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

On Monday June 21st the privately owned SpaceShipOne flew to 62 miles above the Earth, creating the first non-governmental astronaut. Was this new astronaut's goal, in the words of Captain Kirk, "to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations?" No, not at all. This newest astronaut and his private space ship pave the way for you to go into space!

Imagine the ride. A jet called the "White Knight" carries your space ship to an altitude of 50,000 feet - about double that of a commercial jet. Then the White Knight releases your ship, as it glides away the pilot fires the ship's rocket engine for eighty seconds and SpaceShipOne rises vertically to 62 miles above the Earth. You'll experience about three minutes of weightlessness and be able to see the black, starry sky unmediated by the Earth's atmosphere, whose thin blue line you can see below. The flight ends with a twenty-five minute glide through the Earth's atmosphere until you land in the Mojave Desert.

How much would you pay for such a ride? The entrepreneurs behind this and other private space craft are betting you'll cough up 100,000 dollars. They chat on about the need for private exploration of space - nonsense about "new energy sources on the moon" and blather about the precious metals stored in asteroids - but their real focus is a multi-billion dollar space tourism industry.

This might seem odd, even less than noble, yet it's the story of most forms of transportation. Showmen, for example, dominated ballooning in the 19th century, selling rides at carnivals. The bicycle began as a fashionable novelty, rather than a practical means of transport. And the jets that we ride routinely have their roots in the "barnstorming" air shows whose visitor could buy a ride. Even the legendary pilot Charles Lindbergh began his aviation career by thrilling crowds as a wing walker.

So, the motto for the new private space flights won't be the Star Trek mantra "to boldly go where no man has gone before," but instead "to boldly go where all of my richer friends have gone before me."

Copyright 2004 William S. Hammack Enterprises