A weekly series by United Press International exploring the people, passions and business of sub-orbital manned spaceflight.
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Aug. 3 (UPI) -- A recent predicts private passenger spaceflights will be available by 2010, and several startup, sub-orbital launch firms are targeting the end of next year, but for one or two lucky people, the opportunity to fly may come as soon as October.
Not that it would be a long trip -- just over an hour from takeoff to landing -- so no need to pack a suitcase or even a meal. If all goes as planned, however, the flight will be a virtual replica of the June 21 voyage aboard SpaceShipOne, the star-studded, winged craft created by aviation designer Burt Rutan to compete for the $10 million Ansari X Prize. The money and a large trophy will be awarded to the first privately funded team that flies a three-passenger ship to sub-orbital space twice within two weeks before the end of the year.
SpaceShipOne's June voyage was a test flight with just one person aboard -- pilot Mike Melvill, who earned the country's first pair of private astronaut wings for his 62-mile (100-kilometer) foray into space.
For the X Prize runs, Rutan must add the weight of two passengers, although various items, such as life support equipment, count toward the 595-pound (270 kilogram) payload/passenger weight requirement.
"We're very, very keen to promote the teams to do the safe and the right thing," said X Prize chief judge Rick Searfoss, a former NASA astronaut and space shuttle commander. "So we've built it into the rules to give credit for things like parachutes, ejection seats or the equivalent, alternate escape paths to get in and out of the vehicle, and, in addition, any instrumentation that is required to verify the altitude."
Rutan's team, Scaled Composites of Mojave, Calif., plans to make its initial X Prize flight Sept. 29.
"We're not real busy at Mojave right now," Rutan said at a news conference in Santa Monica last week to announce the flight. "We're not working overtime. We're working with a lot fewer people than we were before the June flight. We've got a lot of extra time and just a little bit of work to do. Unless we're delayed by weather, there is extremely high likelihood that that first X Prize flight will be flown on the 29th of September."
The pilot has not yet been chosen. In addition to Melvill, Rutan has two other test pilots trained to fly SpaceShipOne -- Brian Binnie and Pete Siebold.
No matter who makes the trip, the team will have to add just over 200 pounds of payload to fulfill the X Prize passenger weight requirement. Rutan explained that when SpaceShipOne flew in June, it carried quite a bit of extra equipment that will be taken off for the competitive flights.
"We've gotten to the level of discussion with Burt's team down to the grams," Searfoss said.
For the second flight, targeted for Oct. 4, Rutan may skip the ballast altogether and fly people instead.
"I really do want to fly passengers in this ship," Rutan told United Press International. "It has real seats. It has real seatbelts. It has real ECS (environmental control system) for everybody. I can tell you that we will not fly with passengers on the first X Prize flight. As far as what we do on the second flight or on future flights with SpaceShipOne, we are certainly considering flying people in the back seat."
Rutan would like to clinch the X Prize with the Oct. 4 flight -- the 47th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite, which was launched by the former Soviet Union in 1957.
"It just seems a poetic thing to do something on the anniversary of the first orbital spacecraft," Rutan said.
Scaled Composites will be ready to make three flights if necessary within the two-week period in case one of the first two flights fails to make altitude. If the first flight on Sept. 29 is successful, then the team will have until Oct. 13 to make a second successful run and win the X Prize.
There is no lack of volunteers to serve as SpaceShipOne passengers, including Burt Rutan's famed pilot brother, Dick, who in 1986 circumnavigated the globe non-stop and without refueling aboard the Voyager aircraft Burt designed.
"Sure I'll put my name on the list," Dick Rutan told UPI. "Why not?"
Burt Rutan said the passenger list is quite long. "There are some significant opportunities and some significant folks who are on that list," he said. "Hopefully, we'll be able to talk about that later on. There is an enormous passion for people to fly, not just citizens, but journalists and scientists."
In addition to passengers, Rutan also is considering flying small payloads. Four organizations, including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, have approached Scaled Composites about flying items aboard SpaceShipOne.
"Assuming that Rick (Searfoss) gives us weight credit for it, we might be flying one or two payloads on the X Prize flights," Rutan said.
Although 26 teams officially are in the running for the X Prize, Rutan has just one competitor that may pose a challenge at the moment. The da Vinci Project, an all-volunteer team based in Toronto, plans to unveil its Wild Fire rocket and helium balloon launcher on Thursday.
The only thing holding up Wild Fire's launch is money, Feeney said. The team still needs to raise about $500,000 for the two X Prize flights.
If both teams end up flying during the same period, the one that completes its second flight with a safe touchdown would win, Searfoss said.
"I want to tell you that we do have a way of getting down a lot faster," Rutan told da Vinci Project leader Brian Feeney. "We can leave it in feather (a maneuver used during atmospheric re-entry that increases drag on the vehicle) all the way to downwind."
Added Feeney, "And we have manual override of the performance of the parachutes."
Irene Klotz covers space and aviation for UPI Science News. Email email@example.com