...As X PRIZE Seems In Reach...

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Last week's events brought aircraft designer Burt Rutan another step closer not only to capturing the X PRIZE , but to realizing his dream of creating a commercial space-tourism industry. "We look to the future, hopefully within ten years, when ordinary people, for the cost of a luxury cruise, can experience a rocket flight into the black sky above the earth's atmosphere, enjoy a few minutes of weightless excitement, then feel the thunderous deceleration of the aerodynamic drag on entry," Rutan wrote last year when he unveiled the program. "I strongly feel that, if we are successful, our program will mark the beginning of a renaissance for manned space flight." Rutan's plan to win the X PRIZE starts with the three-place spaceship initially attached to a turbojet launch aircraft. It then climbs for an hour to reach 50,000 feet, above 85 percent of the atmosphere. "The spaceship then drops into gliding flight and fires its rocket motor while climbing steeply for more than a minute, reaching a speed of 2,500 mph," Rutan said. "The ship coasts up to 100 km (62 miles) altitude, then falls back into the atmosphere. The coast and fall are under weightless conditions for more than three minutes. During weightless flight, the spaceship converts to a high-drag configuration to allow a safe, stable atmospheric entry. After the entry deceleration, which takes more than a minute, the ship converts back to a conventional glider, allowing a leisurely 17-minute glide from 80,000 feet altitude down to a runway where a landing is made at light-plane speeds."