CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., June 7 (UPI) -- The faithful, the curious, and of course the news media will gather on June 21 to witness the start of a new era in human spaceflight.
They will not travel to Cape Canaveral, where all other human U.S. expeditions to space have set sail. They will not be visiting the Russian launch site, either, which until China's foray into space last year was the only other place on Earth from which living beings have left the planet.
The birthplace of this 21st century space race is California's Mojave Desert, a remote and wind-swept region largely untouched by the hands of time -- with one notable exception. The skies over Mojave have been the backdrop for an armada of esoteric flying machines created by wizard engineers employed by government agencies and private firms.
It was in Mojave airspace that test-pilot Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in October 1947. It is where, 39 years later, pilots Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager (no relation to Chuck Yeager) took off in an aircraft called Voyager, which was built by Rutan's brother Burt for a non-stop journey around the world.
After flying 24,986 miles, the aviators landed back at Mojave nine days after takeoff, the first pilots to circumnavigate the globe without refueling. At the time, it was thought to be the last major flight record.
Burt Rutan was far from finished, however. Having reached the sky's limit, he set his eyes on space. Working quietly at his Mojave-based firm, Scaled Composites, Rutan's team created SpaceShipOne, a vehicle that one might expect to find in George Jetson's garage. It looks more airplane than rocketship, with swooped-back vertical wings framing a sleek, pointy nosed cockpit.
Rather than blasting off vertically from a launch complex, SpaceShipOne hitches a ride beneath a matching jet aircraft, called the White Knight, which carries its princess to an altitude of about 50,000 feet. The rocket quickly leaves the airborne ferry and fires its single hybrid engine, created for Rutan by Spacedev, in San Diego, for a steep and rapid climb.
SpaceShipOne has been setting milestones throughout its test-flight program. In December, it became the first privately developed vehicle to break the sound barrier. Last month, it set a record for the highest altitude reached by a non-government airplane -- 211,400 feet. Later this month, if all goes as planned, SpaceShipOne will become the first private manned vehicle to reach space.
The company has not announced which of its pilots will become the new Alan Shepard. Mike Melville has been in the cockpit during most of SpaceShipOne's 14 test flights, including its third powered run last month. For the first two powered flights Peter Siebold piloted the ship. The earlier runs were unpowered drop glides, some of which carried Brian Binnie or Doug Shane in the cockpit.
When the United States launched Shepard as its first human into space on May 5, 1961, he reached an altitude almost twice as high as where SpaceShipOne is heading -- 62 miles above Earth, or 100 kilometers. But that is high enough above the atmosphere to be out of its grasp and high enough to see the planet as an orb set in space -- although Shepard's spacecraft, Freedom 7, did not have a window.
When he launched, America was more concerned with the fact that its Cold War adversary already had put cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin in orbit. By the time Virgil "Gus" Grissom climbed aboard his Liberty Bell 7 for a follow-up flight, on July 21, 1961, the astronauts had won their battle for ships with a view.
Grissom -- who was killed in 1967, along with two other Apollo astronauts, in a launchpad fire -- said he was entranced by the blackness of space set against "the blue of the water, the white of the beaches and the brown of the land."
Grissom was the last American to make a suborbital flight.
Forty-three years later, that 15 1/2-minute ride will be worth $10 million and a place in the history books. The race this time is not to showcase armaments to the Soviets, however. It is meant to parlay new technology into a robust and expanding consumer service: tourism.
A study by Futron Corp., a space consulting firm in Bethesda, Md., determined that, by 2021, suborbital space tourism could bring in $700 million a year in revenue by flying 15,000 passengers who have the means and the desire to go.
Space Adventures, a specialty travel agency in Arlington, Va., already is marketing suborbital flights and expects to begin selling tickets in a year or two. The company is even partnered with US Airways to allow passengers to use Dividend Miles in exchange for a roundtrip ride to space. The price? 10 million air miles or about $100,000 cash.
Though Rutan's Scaled Composites is the leading pioneer in this new space frontier, the company is far from alone. More than two dozen teams have registered as contestants in a competition known as the Ansari X Prize and run by a non-profit foundation. The group plans to award $10 million to the first team to fly a three-person craft to suborbital altitude twice within two weeks. Rutan aims to reach the X Prize-winning altitude during the June 21 test flight, but the craft will not have the weight of three people -- just one. His formal bid to win the X Prize is expected later this summer.
Rutan has spent several times the amount of the X Prize award to develop SpaceShipOne -- his sole backer is Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen -- and though the prospects for Rutan's competitors to win the race are dimming, none are dropping out.
It is not for the money these teams have labored for years to come up with a better way to travel to space; it is to demonstrate -- and perhaps eventually cash in on -- the fact that there may very well be a better, less-expensive, more-accessible way to travel to space than what government-funded programs have been serving up for more than four decades.
"The Wright Brothers may have been first in flight," said Brian Feeney, head of a Canadian team chasing the X-Prize called the da Vinci Project, told United Press International. "But you don't fly on Wright Brothers' aircraft -- you fly on Boeings and Airbuses."
Irene Klotz covers space and aviation for UPI Science News. E-mail email@example.com