Private Spacecraft is a Sign of the Future

Washington - For those craning their necks below, the spaceship hanging overhead was a glimpse of the future of space, both through travel and industry. For David A. Johnston and Sean Davidson, it was another step toward success for their company. For the Billings children, Jacob, 9, and Gwendolyn, 7, it was a sign that they might be able to go into space one day.

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum accepted the donation Wednesday of SpaceShipOne, the first privately financed vehicle to fly to the brink of space when it won the $10 million Ansari X Prize competition last year.

The spacecraft is among the other "firsts" in the Milestones of Flight gallery. It hangs where Wilber and Orville Wright's plane (first flight) usually is, between the Spirit of St. Louis (first nonstop trans-Atlantic flight) and the Bell X-1 Glamorous Glennis (first to fly faster than the speed of sound). The Wright plane is on loan and will return in two weeks.

Calling the Russians "better capitalists than we are" for sending tourists willing to pay millions of dollars into space, the spacecraft's designer, Burt Rutan, said he was happy the museum had recognized the importance of their achievement so soon. "I knew the significance would be known and understood by everyone in 10 years," Rutan said.

Johnston, 20, and Davidson, 19, are the chief executive officer and chief financial officer of a Columbia, Md., company, OffWorldWealth Inc. The company is "a project dedicated to creating aerospace solutions to problems faced by the platinum mining industry," according to its Web site. The 3-year-old company with about 20 researchers is looking ahead to the industrialization of space. They are researching the use of robotics in making resources in space available for consumption here on Earth, Johnston said.

"I really believe that if we're going to get anywhere in space, we've got to get there privately," Johnston said. "I'm very excited about the privatization of the space industry." In the meantime, the two are attending events related to the space industry and "enjoying a speech from the third-richest man in the country" in the bargain, Johnston said.

That would be Paul G. Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft who financed SpaceShipOne. In a speech after signing the donation papers, Allen commended America's "long tradition" of contests and prizes that encourage innovation. He expressed pride in the accomplishment Rutan and the 20-person team that secured the X Prize on Oct. 4, 2004, when SpaceShipOne launched, flew to a height of nearly 70 miles and returned to Earth.

"Being in the control room and watching the team - I've never been involved in a project that took a human risk - and watching the flight data and the pilot come back safely. Your heart is in your throat," Allen said. While Allen wouldn't say when tickets for personal jaunts into space would go on sale, he did say that "progress is being made." "What it proves is that the American milestones of flight are not all behind us," Allen said.

It might be a milestone, but Jacob was not entirely sure he wanted to take a flight. "I'm not going to want to do it until it's really safe," he said. Gwendolyn wasn't so cautious. "Can children go into space?" she asked her mom. "Not today," her mother, Jenni Billings, 33, said. "I don't think they're sending children into space this week."

Billings, who home-schools her children here, brought them to the ceremony because she remembers how excited she was when the museum hung the Spirit of St. Louis. And because SpaceShipOne's first launch on June 21, 2004, happened to be on her 32nd birthday. "It's the beginning of space travel for their generation," Billings said. "The beginning of the space race in this time frame."

While Jacob would like to experience floating in space, what he really wants is for space explorers to communicate with extraterrestrials. "I don't think we're the only things," he said. "The universe is so big." "But, I think it will be hard. I don't think they'll speak Spanish or English."

Source: Scripps Howard Foundation