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Science & Space

The race for flights into space

From CNN's Miles O'Brien

Audio Slide Show: Roaring into history

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Private space travel gets a booming boost over the Mojave Desert.

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MOJAVE DESERT, California (CNN) -- After years of capturing the imagination of wide-eyed daredevils, dreamers and would-be entrepreneurs, space travel for ordinary people may finally be taking flight.

On October 4 this year, a Californian-based team won the Ansari X Prize -- given to the first team to get into space twice in a 14-day span and aimed at spurring civilian spaceflight -- by climbing to an altitude of 377,591 feet (71 1/2 miles) in SpaceShipOne.

SpaceShipOne designer, engineer Burt Rutan, told CNN's Spark program that he and his small team have shown that private space trips for civilians are possible.

"We think the most significant thing was to show that a private company without any NASA help, without any government help at all, can actually go out and fly a manned space flight."

His brother Dick Rutan was a test pilot for the SpaceShipOne voyage.

He told CNN his brother's design had paved the way for the space tourism industry.

"The space domain for manned spaceflight is no longer the domain of a huge bureaucracy spending billions of dollars. We can do it privately," said Dick Rutan.

Rick Tumlinson, founder of the non-profit advocacy group Space Frontier Foundation, told CNN that years of behind-the-scenes hard work and research had enabled the possibility of private space travel to get to where it was today.

"Keep in mind this not something that just happened at the snap of a finger, the momentum is built up and were really now starting to see things start to happen and it's a very exciting time."

Rutan's design reached space for $25 million dollars -- about a twentieth the cost of a NASA space shuttle flight.

But NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe told CNN that without NASA's groundwork, the possibility of civilians in space would never be possible.

"This is exactly the way it's suppose to work. NASA knocks down all the technology hurdles and we've accomplished that objective, now you've got some entrepreneurs who are taking that experience and making it accessible for all of us."

Rutan's effort was financed by another child of the space age, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

"A few years down the road, when space tourism is available for everyone, it's going to be amazing and it's going make that momentum increase more and more," Allen told CNN.

One of the biggest incentives for such a renewed interest in space was the $10-million X Prize, the brainchild of Peter Diamandis.

He got the idea for the prize after reading Charles Lindbergh's autobiography, "The Spirit of St. Louis."

He realized there were two things that spurred innovation in aviation: Warfare -- and cash prizes. Lindbergh flew the Atlantic in 1927 in pursuit of the $25,000 Orteig prize.

"We are out to try to create the sort of space flight revolution, the same way that apple created the personal computer revolution, where we can all play in that world, you can own a ship, buy a ticket."

British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, meanwhile, has commissioned Rutan to build a space liner that will carry as many as seven paying passengers to space -- possibly within three years.

The first space tourist -- and one of only two to have paid their own way into space -- was California businessman Dennis Tito. He told CNN he would love thousands more to be able to have the same experience.

"The next step will be to extend the range, develop greater capabilities, eventually develop point to point travel suborbitally, and then eventually develop reusable vehicles that will place human cargo in orbit, at a low price."

Until then, astronaut wannabes lacking deep pockets can buy a smaller piece of the action.

Diamandis is also selling $3,000 rides on a specially modified 727 that flies a roller coaster pattern -- offering 30-second doses of weightlessness, similar to those that astronauts in training experience.

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