First commercial spaceplane


The private sector took another step towards space with Monday's unveiling of Burt Rutan's rocket-plane, SpaceShip Two. Rutan is the designer who won the Ansari X-Prize of $10m by sending a private plane twice into space within a fortnight. He has pioneered new technologies, including a fuselage made from composite materials, and featuring a novel re-entry technique in which the wings fold so the spacecraft 'feathers' like a shuttlecock. Rutan's vehicles have been adopted by Virgin Galactic to carry its fare-paying passengers on sub-orbital hops into space.

The ship carries two pilots and six passengers, and gives them the chance to see the earth from space, and to experience several minutes of weightlessness as they float around the cabin. It taps a potentially huge market for those prepared to pay for the once-in-a-lifetime experience. Space has until now been the prerogative of governments and their space agencies. Space Adventures broke that monopoly, much to NASA's original distress, by sending paying customers up to stay at the International Space Station as part of the Russian space programme. But only those prepared to spend $25-$30m had the opportunity. Soon it will be open to those who can afford $200,000 for a short flight, and as is the case with such things, the price will come down. Space is too big and too beautiful to be left to governments, so this has to be seen as a most welcome development.