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Space Commodity 

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The celebration of the next era in space flight took place in a gravel parking lot a couple hundred feet from the main runway at Kern Airport, in the desert town of Mojave, California. A half-dozen RVs and SUVs, including a 40-foot-long school bus with tie-dye drapes and the words “Mama Sutra” airbrushed along the side, formed a half-circle demarking the party bounds. George Whitesides, the executive director of the National Space Society, has shown up in a camper van packed to the gills with food for 600. Dezss Molnar, who used to be chief engineer for Craig Breedlove back when Breedlove was trying to drive a car through the sound barrier, and has since been playing in and producing the band Casino Mansion, has brought a DJ, a light show and various other party favors. The dance floor is crushed gravel, scrub brush, and barbaric little thorns that slice through anything. The music is pumping. The thorns are piercing. Fifty guys, mostly ex-NASA types with sport shirts and cell phones clipped to their belts, are getting soggy drunk with the handful of locals who have shown up for the only thing going for roughly a hundred square miles. A teenager in a “Go Burt Go” T-shirt bounds past screaming, “Oh, my God, I just talked to Peter Diamandis.”

“Go Burt Go” refers to aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan, owner of Scaled Composites, a company that since 1982 has rolled out an unmatched 38 experimental aircraft including the Voyager, which made the first nonstop, non-refueled flight around the world, and the Proteus, which holds the world record for altitude, distance and payload lift. The next morning, Rutan will attempt to launch SpaceShipOne, the first privately developed rocket plane, on a mission to become the world’s first commercially manned space vehicle.

Peter Diamandis, on the other hand, is the founder of the X Prize Competition — $10,000,000 awarded to the first privately funded person or team to travel to and from the edge of space twice in two weeks. The edge of space is deemed to be 62 miles straight up. The two weeks part ensures that both the rocket and its crew remain reusable — which is a polite way of saying still alive. Rutan built SpaceShipOne to compete for the X Prize, though the next day’s flight isn’t technically an X Prize event.

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Instead, this affair is known as Paul Allen’s SpaceShipOne, since the billionaire Microsoft co-founder has funded the whole momentous ride. Either way, folks have come out to celebrate because everyone knows that if Rutan’s ship makes it, then this little fiesta in the desert will be remembered as the moment when outer space finally opened to private enterprise.

Now, though, people are heading in the opposite direction. The first one to go is a Bermuda-short-clad Grizzly Adams type who falls face-flat in the dirt. He’s too drunk to stand. By the time the party winds down, somewhere around 4 a.m., the campground is littered with beer bottles and fallen genius. “It looks like the final episode of the nerd Survivor,” says one partygoer, before he too topples.

Considering the scale of the debacle, you would expect the next morning to dawn ugly. But by 6 a.m., everyone’s stumbled out to the tarmac to join some 3,000 others who have also gotten up early for their chance at seeing history. Loudspeakers blare the theme song to Bonanza, and in between bars some senator mumbles about “the first major transportation revolution of the 21st century.” Then SpaceShipOne, piloted by Rutan’s ace guinea pig, Mike Melvill, roars past. The launch has begun.

A couple of space pioneers have set up a coffee stand near the runway, so most of the wait is spent drinking hot, black tar and trying to forget the previous night. Finally, a voice over the loudspeaker tells everyone to stare into the sun. People count down with the countdown — five, four, three, two — and then a trail of white smoke appears, silhouetted against the bright yellow orb. Burt Rutan and his garage full of backyard mechanics have just done what NASA and the governments of a handful of nations have long failed to do: make space affordable.

Down on Earth, a thunder of cheers erupts and pretty much stays erupted until the barrier has broken and Melvill has landed. Someone on the PA says “Welcome to Mojave Airport, the world’s first landlocked space port.” In the distance, last night’s first casualty, the Grizzly Adams–like rocket scientist, high-fives a gal waving the red, green and blue flag of Mars. From his spot in the VIP area, Peter Diamandis is smiling the smile of victory, while Burt Rutan humbly thanks folks for coming. And then everyone piles into a jam of cars and trucks and motor homes, and heads home the old-fashioned way.

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