Dawn of the Space Age?

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Early morning on the Mojave Spaceport flightline. June 21st, 2004

I have just returned home from the space flight of Scaled Composite's Space Ship One, and I have a lot to write about and a few pictures of my pilgrimage to share.

I ask if this is the dawn of the Space Age because I am not yet sure of the answer. The refrain that the space age was back in the 60's rings hollow. But what about Gagarin, Shepard, Glenn, Sputnik, Apollo, and so on? Let me explain, with an analogy to the "information age".

The information age was generally recognized in the 1990's with different people placing the start of it at various times from the 1970's through the 1990's. Yet there were very important advances that preceded it. The information age did not start with the Gutenberg press, nor the first electronic wide-area network built by Morse. Nor did it start with Babbage's designs, Bell's invention, the discovery of a spider preventing a contact on an early computer, or even exceeding IBM's projection of 5 machines for the entire world. All of these were very important steps to bring us into the information age, but I would contend that we were not in the information age until the majority of people had computers and network connections. Likewise, we have not entered the Space Age until any of us can call a travel agent and get a space flight for about the same price as a week long vacation, or we can go to work and live in space.

So we are not yet in the space age, but is this the dawn of it? I'll just present some of what has been going on for the past two months and let you decide.

As I reported here CSXT became the first amateur group to put a rocket into space. They proved that regular people, hobbyists, can build a rocket capable of going to space in their spare time on a minimal budget. Rockets really are much simpler than what NASA makes it look like. In fact, the routers that forwarded this post to your web browser are magnitudes more complex than rockets. On June 6, another amateur group, Paragon Labs, tried to launch into space. This one failed due to the loss of the rocket engine nozzle, which prevented the rocket from developing sufficient thrust to make to space. One week ago, John Carmack posted notes on a perfect flight test that reminded me of the McDonell Douglas DC-X. Be sure to check out the flight video.

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The Mojave Airport received their Spaceport operator's license. This license allows the airport to conduct space flight operations. BTW, Burt Rutan's SpaceShip One did not need the airport to have a launch site license. SS1 launches from White Knight at approximately 50k feet. The airport wasted no time putting up the new sign.

On Sunday I traveled down to Mojave to visit friends and watch the Monday space launch. From Sunday afternoon until Monday afternoon, XCOR opened their doors to the public to show off some of what they are up to.

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Sci-fi author Larry Niven operates the XCOR tea-cart engine under the watchful eyes of rocket plumber Doug Jones.

The biggest event occurred Monday morning. One of "us", that is to say, a small, privately funded group, has put a man in space. This is no longer a government only operation. Yet there is still something wrong; it was still a hot shot test pilot. It was not some regular guy (or gal) with extra cash to spend that made the trip. This is not to denigrate astronaut Mike Melville or any of the Scaled Composites crew, it is a big step in the right direction.

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White Knight carrying SpaceShip One to its launch point

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SpaceShip One returns to Earth

Whether or not we are witnessing the dawn of the space age is, in my mind, still unsettled, but at least the eastern sky is looking a bit brighter.

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