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A Giant Leap For Commercial Space Travel

Pioneering aerospace designer Burt Rutan claims early lead in race for Ansari X Prize

6 min read
Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne rocket is cradled below a turbojet aircraft
Photo

Looking like something out of a Japanese sci-fi cartoon, the futuristic space plane dropped from its mother ship 14 kilometers above Edwards Air Force Base, east of Mojave, Calif., and lit its rocket engine. The winged craft shot straight up, up, and still up, marked by a milky white smoke trail. It didn't curve toward any horizon, the way most rockets do, as they head toward a stable orbit as quickly as possible. More than 30 000 viewers in the desert tilted their heads back farther and farther, mouths agape, necks starting to ache, for the 76 seconds that pilot Michael W. Melvill let the engine burn [see photo, " Is It a Bird? A Plane?"].

It was the most momentous suborbital hop since Alan Shepard rode his Freedom 7 capsule to an altitude of 187.4 km in 1961. IEEE Spectrum was on hand at Mojave Airport in California on 21 June for the launch of the unusual privately funded space plane, SpaceShipOne , which was designed by Burt Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites LLC in Mojave. Paul Allen, Microsoft Corp.'s cofounder, funded Rutan's project, ostensibly to win the US $10 million Ansari X Prize for the first workable "space tourist" vehicle. But Rutan and Allen's gaze was directed far beyond that prize [see photo, Guinness Record"]. Considering they spent more than twice as much money as they could win, clearly they were looking to participate in a future of commercial space travel for ordinary--albeit rich--people.

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Top Tech 2023: A Special Report

These two dozen technical projects should make significant advances in the coming year

2 min read
Top Tech 2023: A Special Report
Edmon DeHaro

Each January, the editors of IEEE Spectrum offer up some predictions about technical developments we expect to be in the news over the coming year. You’ll find a couple dozen of those described in the following special report. Of course, the number of things we could have written about is far higher, so we had to be selective in picking which projects to feature. And we’re not ashamed to admit, gee-whiz appeal often shaped our choices.

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