Private Spaceflights in Just Two Years?

Feb. 10, 2006 — -- Don't buy your tickets just yet. But in a couple of years, even the usually reluctant Department of Transportation may be ready to say all-systems-go for commercial spacecraft to carry passengers into space.

"This timeline isn't based on science fiction," said Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta. "It is a timeline based on the reality of where commercial space is today and where we expect the state of commercial space to be within two short years."

Mineta spoke Thursday at the ninth annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington, a meeting of aerospace executives and space entrepreneurs.

There is a growing number of companies making plans to carry passengers on suborbital flights to the edge of the atmosphere. Many of them are struggling start-up companies -- and many have gone out of business waiting for commercial spaceflight to become practical. But some, like Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, are well-funded, and have said they will be ready to fly in two or three years.

Some of them have complained in the past that the government is getting in the way. The Federal Aviation Administration, which is part of the transportation department, regulates space launches, if only because there is no one else to do it.

"We have an important role to play in ensuring the safety of commercial spaceflights, especially for passengers," Mineta said. "But we also have an obligation to encourage innovation and support new developments."

Virgin Galactic would fly a ship modeled on SpaceShipOne, which engineer Burt Rutan used in 2004 to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize. It would be lightweight, and its design -- similar to that of a badminton shuttlecock -- would make it inherently stable as it returned to the atmosphere.

Virgin Galactic said in December that 38,000 people had put down deposits for seats on early spaceflights. The initial cost -- obviously a barrier to all but the very rich -- would be $200,000.

But with time, technological progress, and less government interference, entrepreneurs say the price will drop. The state of New Mexico has been helping companies find land for a new spaceport -- with wide-open spaces for launches and landings, and, unlike the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, predictably clear weather.

Entrepreneurs have been waiting impatiently for years for the chance to fly.

William Burrows, who writes frequently on the Space Age, has argued that the time is ripe for private spaceflights. They will, for years to come, be expensive and dangerous. But Burrows and others say NASA's best role is in exploration, while commercial ventures can take over the business of launching passengers.

"Gee-whiz wow Flash Gordon is over," he said several years ago in an interview with ABC News. "We know we belong up there, and nobody's shocked anymore."