First, an elegant airplane called the "White Knight" will take off from the runway with a three-person spacecraft slung under its belly. About 15 kilometers over the desert, the spacecraft, called "SpaceShipOne," will detach from the larger carrier plane and fire its rockets, blasting off to an altitude of 100 kilometers -- the edge of space. It will spend just three minutes outside the Earth's atmosphere, and then coast back down to the airport where crowds of spectators will be waiting.
If "SpaceShipOne" lands safely, it will be recorded as the first privately funded, manned space flight ever. The mission is being hailed as a milestone by space enthusiasts, who have seen government-funded space programs dwindle for lack of money and support.
But it's unlikely to remain the only private space flight for long. Along with "SpaceShipOne's" designer Burt Rutan and his company Scaled Composites, 26 other private companies in seven countries are competing to put their pilots and passengers into space.
This anticipated surge in commercial space travel is the product of the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million cash award for the first private company that completes two manned space missions within a two-week period. The prize's creator, aerospace engineer Peter Diamandis, started the project in 1996 as a novel strategy to revitalize the space industry.
"SpaceShipOne's" flight next week will not qualify it for the prize, since only a lone pilot will head into space. The test flight must then be repeated twice with three people on board. Those flights are expected later this summer. But Diamandis says the race for the first private space flight has already proved that space is within reach of the private sector.
"This next flight of 'SpaceShipOne' will be a historic event. We've traditionally only had governments with multi-billion-dollar budgets build spaceships to carry people into space. Our hope, and I know Burt Rutan and Scaled Composites' hope, is that these flights will kick off a renaissance in space flight -- really making it possible for the public to go and for all of humanity to benefit from the various resources and dreams and aspirations that we can have in space," Diamandis says.
Diamandis believes the innovation generated by the private space race will eventually lead to the creation of profitable new technologies and industries. He compares the Ansari X Prize to the award won by Charles Lindbergh in 1927, when he became the first pilot to fly nonstop between New York and Paris. That contest, Diamandis says, led directly to an aviation boom and to today's $250 billion aviation industry.
"We hope that this competition will actually bring about a number of things. One, some breakthroughs in technology. Second, a change in public mindset, so that everybody now knows that space is being opened, and it is a future they can personally participate in. And third, we'd like to create a new business market, in which people can make a profit flying the public into space, and that will garner investments," Diamandis says.
Diamandis predicts that the private space industry will earn money not only from tourists, but also from tapping mineral and energy resources in space.
Naturally, any vision as ambitious as Diamandis' will attract a wide range of skeptics. John Pike, whose public policy group GlobalSecurity.org monitors technology developments, is one of them. Pike has serious doubts that the range of spacecraft competing for the Ansari X Prize will yield technology that advances space exploration.
"I think it's silly,” he says. “I think it'll be entertaining, I hope that too many people don't get killed in the process, but it really doesn't have anything to do with space flight. Normal people can't afford it, and anybody with close family ties won't be allowed to do it, because it'll be too dangerous. And the first time they kill someone, it may shut down the entire industry permanently."
Pike questions the fundamental idea behind the Ansari X Prize: a faith in the powers of capitalism to tap the talents of the private sector. Pike says those talents have been involved all along.
"The division of labor in the space business from the beginning has always been that the government figures out what ought to be done, gets the money to pay for it, and then gives the money to private industry to actually do it. Ninety-five percent of the people working on the "Apollo" program were in private industry. Ninety-five percent of the people who work on the shuttle or the space station are in private industry, because that's where the expertise is. But the money is from the government, because they're the only one rich enough to afford this stuff," Pike says.
If "SpaceShipOne" completes its flight next week, it will be a first step towards the goals of Diamandis' X Prize. It may not usher in a sudden boom in new technology, but it may force skeptics to concede that space is now accessible to the public.