September 30, 2004 -- Private entrepreneurs again have triumphed! On September 29, SpaceShipOne, built by Burt Rutan's company, Scaled Composites, and financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, completed its first flight in pursuit of the $10 million Ansari X Prize. The money was secured by private individuals and will be paid to the first private party to put a craft into space twice in a two-week period carrying at least three individuals.
Rutan's rocket had its first test flight over the 100-kilometer limit on June 21, and with the success of the latest launch the clock is now ticking to see if his ship can do it again in a fortnight.
If Rutan's company wins the prize, the public's view of space will be irrevocably altered. Instead of thinking of space as a wasteful government program, more people will see it as a place to which individuals can travel (and—in the future—work, study, vacation, and live) through the efforts of private enterprise. But already changes are taking place.
The news coverage of those flights has been as extraordinary as the flights themselves. From Nightline to network news to cable, the coverage has been positive and reporters have played the story straight. To begin with, the profit motive has not been portrayed as something low and base that somehow "cheapens" any achievement. Rather, most coverage treats cash prizes as a sound way to create competition and innovation, and mentions the $25,000 Orteig Prize that Charles Lindbergh won when in 1927 he became the first individual to fly non-stop across the Atlantic. Reports also mention that Rutan wants to expand his pioneering efforts into a business to carry individuals into space and that Richard Branson, the British pioneer who runs the successful Virgin Atlantic airlines, plans to partner with Rutan and Allen to provide flights into space for some 3,000 individuals in the next five years.
Further, the private entrepreneurs are treated as true innovators, with a special focus on their novel and cost-effective vehicle designs, products of human reason. As important, similar treatment is accorded to Peter Diamandis, the president of the X-Prize Foundation, whose vision is sparking a private sector revolution.
There also seems to be a special appreciation for the fact that the competitors for the prize are risking their own money and their own lives, with no guarantee of success, because they so passionately want to achieve something great. And here the reporters seem to share with their audience a thirst for the sight of human achievement, something that they can simply celebrate rather than sneer at.
Even if Rutan were to fail to win the X Prize, one of the two-dozen competitors likely will triumph, with pride and rationality in pursuit of profits, and in the process will help make us a true space-faring civilization!
Update: Rutan won the Ansari X Prize on October 4, 2004.