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Newsday October 05, 2004

A viable private enterprise?

By James Bernstein

Did SpaceShipOne's successful suborbital flight Monday -- its second in a week -- mark the beginning of privately-funded space ventures that could one yield profits to companies and investors?

Or was it little more than a bold stunt by a group of daredevils?

For those who have been pressing for a major role by private companies -- and less of a role by what is seen as an often cumbersome government -- in the exploration of the cosmos, the flight of SpaceShipOne was yet more proof that private industry is capable of one day safely reaching the stars and bringing humans back again.

But for those who have been calling for a larger role -- and more money -- from NASA and have been highly-skeptical of all private space efforts, SpaceShipOne's 90-minute flight was a lot of fun for its sole pilot, Brian Binnie, the ground crew, and thousands of spectators, but not much more than that.

Private enterprise might not be able for many years to launch a vehicle capable of orbiting the Earth, like the space shuttle. But suborbital flights, experts argue, could get travelers from Los Angeles to Tokyo in a few hours. However, critics note that speedy flights to Europe did not make the Concorde a financial success.

Which side is right may take decades to decide. But more investors have been putting more money into planning space ventures. Last week, Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Airlines, announced that beginning in 2007, he will begin offering paying customers flights into space aboard a service he calls Virgin Galactic. He plans to invest $108 million into the venture.

And, more companies are sprouting up in hopes of gaining lucrative contracts to launch or service space vehicles or to conduct experiments in space. One such company, 1000 Planets Inc., says on its Web site it plans to "establish 1,000 settlements on planets, moons, asteroids, and space stations."

Although most space companies have less lofty goals, there is a growing feeling that private space travel will indeed become a reality in the not-too-distant future. One company, Futron Corp., a technology consulting firm in Bethesda, Md., estimated that the overall space tourism market could generate revenues in excess of $1 billion a year by 2021.

Dennis Tito, who in 2001 became the world's first private space traveler when he paid an estimated $20 million to fly a Russian ship to the International Space Station, said in an interview that SpaceShipOne's flight was highly significant.

"This represents a successful privately-funded effort to go to space," said Tito, who lives in California, but grew up in Forest Hills. Tito said it is only "a matter of time" before private space flights are a reality.

Charles Vick, a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org, was not convinced by SpaceShipOne's flight. Vick said private industry has not yet developed the propulsion systems or fabrics needed for spaceflight.

"We're not technologically there," Vick said.

"We're still at the Kitty Hawk level," Jon Kutler, chief executive officer of Quarterdeck Investment Partners in Los Angeles, said, referring to the current status of private space enterprise. "But I'm excited. This not only provides a first step toward a commercial space flight business, it will also spawn companies and technologies that will make Earth orbit cheaper and more accessible."


Copyright 2004, Newsday, Inc.