A weekly series by United Press International exploring the people, passions and business of suborbital manned spaceflight.
MOJAVE, Calif., July 6 (UPI) -- Randa Milliron has a vaguely familiar face: defined jaw, prominent nose, clear pale skin and sharp blue eyes that peer directly at you from beneath a row of straight-edged, silvery blonde bangs.
At 5 feet 8, Milliron is a little on the tall side for a woman. Her fit physique is dressed in all-black, the only one at the campy Mojave Airport diner so attired despite -- or perhaps to spite -- the blow-torch desert heat. She orders hot coffee.
Randa is half of a pair of Millirons, the other one being her husband Roderick, and together they are stepping through carefully chartered plans to leave Earth. That might sound funny, except for the fact that they are far from alone.
Their neighbor at the Mojave base, Burt Rutan, just became the first person to design a privately funded ship that actually left the planet's atmosphere -- albeit briefly. Rutan's firm, Scaled Composites, along with the Milliron's Interorbital Systems and more than two dozen other companies are in various stages of planning, developing, manufacturing and testing an assortment of rocket motors, propellants, guidance systems, launching platforms, and, in a few cases, fully integrated working vehicles all designed with one goal in mind: to go to space.
Galvanized by the promise of a $10-million prize for the first team to send a three-passenger craft to the edge of space and back, then repeat the stunt within two weeks, some of the aspiring space barnstormers are mustering their resources and brushing up their business plans in hopes of snaring a far more valuable trophy -- investors.
Rutan already has one in billionaire Paul Allen, a patron of pop science projects among other initiatives. Through the largesse of Allen, Rutan is favored to win the space race, which is being overseen by the non-profit X Prize Foundation of St. Louis.
Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, has spent more than $20 million on Rutan's winged wonder, SpaceShipOne, which holds the altitude record for a private vehicle with last month's sub-orbital spaceflight to 100 kilometers (62 miles). The pilot, Mike Melvill, earned his astronaut's wings.
The Millirons, who have been toiling in Mojave for eight years, experimenting with various rocket motors and other systems, so far have raised roughly $500,000, which Randa calls, "insignificant, as far as a space launch program goes."
They are looking for a relatively modest $4 million to complete their sub-orbital program, which is built around a reusable, single-stage, ocean-launched vehicle called the Solaris X. Nothing fancy, it is more truck than sports car, but according to the Millirons, it will get them to space.
"We went the path of least resistance financially," Randa Milliron told United Press International. "Our goal is to make a simplified vehicle."
For example, Solaris X uses hypergolic propellants that ignite upon contact, eliminating the need for an ignition system.
"If you eliminate systems on a launch vehicle, it improves safety and improves reliability. That's very important to us since we plan to fly on our vehicles eventually," Randa said. "Everything is done on the cheap with safety in mind."
The sub-orbital vehicle, which the Millirons plan to develop for tourist rides to 161 kilometers, or 100 miles, is a stepping-stone to grander plans that include commercial orbital spaceflight and sojourns to the moon.
"Thirty-day vacations on the moon sound much more exciting than sitting in a canister in orbiter, even though that's exciting, too," Randa said. "This, to me, is a realistic and achievable goal. I could be the first woman on the moon, who knows?"
The space bug hit the couple early and hard. "We've always been interested in space, individually before we met," Randa said. "We've just always wanted to be space travelers. As a child, I was an astronomer. Rod did the same kind of stuff -- always looking outward. We've traveled allover the world, we scuba dive, just going to the outer fringes. Space to us is really the next step."
She said they recognized "this wasn't going to happen unless we did it ourselves, so one day we just decided to start designing and building ... We always say that NASA won't be stopping by to pick us up, take us for a ride. Currently our country doesn't even have the capability to do manned space travel on its own, which is kind of an embarrassment, I think."
So Randa and Rod are working outside the government space program. "We have all the proper licensing and all the things we need to do, but we're not funded by the government," she said. "The fact is that the government is afraid to take any kind of risk and that risk-taking fear has permeated the entire American culture. That, to us, is something that needs to be defeated before it defeats us."
Lacking an angel investor, the Millirons have raised money for their program the old-fashioned way: They work. Half the week is spent in Hollywood, Calif., where the couple takes whatever roles as extras in whatever television shows or movies are being shot. She usually gets assigned to play the tough-minded police officer, occasionally the terrorist.
Randa also teaches communications at the University of Phoenix and works as a television producer and documentary filmmaker.
"We're having steady progress here and eventually we'll either make our own funding or have additional investors," Milliron said.
So far, the Millirons have sold one ticket for a Solaris X flight, to a 17-year-old named Justin Houchin who is raising money for the half-price $50,000 ticket. Interorbital is offering the discount to anyone who signs up before flights begin and, as an additional incentive, will refund the fee two years after the flight is made.
The $10 million award for the Ansari X Prize would go far toward helping the Millirons achieve their goal, but they know their chances are slim. Randa Milliron has doubts anyone will win the contest before it expires at the end of the year.
"Just because someone is launching, attempting to win the X Prize doesn't mean that that person or that team is going to do it. It's not a done deal," she said.
Irene Klotz covers space and aviation for UPI Science News. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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