Another Perspective

Up, Up and Away

Now don’t get carried away by the Rutan "space plane."

By 10.6.04

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Before further pants-wetting takes place over the "space plane" antics in the Mojave, and before any rich fan plunks down a hundred or two hundred thousand for a seat when the act becomes commonplace, let's look at what these "space flights" really are.

They are hi-lofts, not orbital space flights. Powered shots straight up from a launch ship at forty-some thousand feet that carries the rocket-powered craft up beyond the atmosphere to around 60 miles, an area we call "space." But the Rutan ship is not to fly in space. It is to fall back into the atmosphere, and pick up enough lift for gliding flight that takes it back to a desert landing. The view from 60 miles is not that of a spectacular earth sliding beneath craft and viewer. It is a quick look straight down at an un-moving spot of California. And a few minutes of weightlessness as gravity reasserts its grasp.

Chances are the hour-long tethered flight up to the 40,000 foot launch height is more fun, and more scenic.

None of which is to take away from the private enterprise concept of spaceflight. Flight in space. That, too, may come someday. And it warms the cockels of the "we can do it better than NASA" heart to witness the effort. Rutan has already carved his place in the annals of aeronautics with his round-the-world-without-refueling flight in his Voyager craft. But Rutan, Paul Allen, and the others will have to bend a lot more cash and genius into the effort before true orbital flight or even ballistic flight happens.

What is lacking so far is some 17,000 plus miles an hour in orbital speed. And the capacity to slam back into the earth atmosphere without coming apart. And a means of returning to some place on earth where we are liked, or at least ignored.

Before plunking down a hundred thou or so for a ticket to get hurled straight up, consider that a chimpanzee did it for bananas nearly 50 years ago.

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About the Author

Reid Collins is a former CBS and CNN news correspondent.