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Witnessing race for space awe-inspiring

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I'd forgotten how surprisingly cold it can get at night in the desert, particularly when you're at an elevation of 3,000 feet above sea level.

But that's where I was early early Monday morning last week, goose bumps on my arms as I stood staring up into the vastness of the Milky Way while standing on the tarmac of the Mojave Airport in Mojave, Calif.

I had never before visited the fair city of Mojave, some 80 miles almost directly north of Los Angeles, but there I was, courtesy of a client, about to witness a true once-in-a-lifetime event.

What brought several thousand others and me to Mojave that cold, pre-dawn morning was a chance to see history in the making — the second commercial flight into space within a two-week period with the reward a $10 million prize.

The $10 million purse was offered to all commercial enterprises by the X Prize Foundation, a non-profit organization founded in 1995 by Peter H. Diamandis in Rockville, Md.

The purpose of the X Prize Foundation is to encourage commercial space flight, and under this goal, the organization moved its headquarters to St. Louis in 1996, the former center of the aerospace industry.

During the ensuing years, various individuals and organizations joined with the X Prize Foundation to create and back the funding of both the organization and an aerospace competition.

Interestingly, the establishment of aviation competitions has a long and successful history, with hundreds of aviation prizes being awarded between 1905 and 1935 as a means of advancing aircraft technology. The most notable such event was probably the $25,000 prize awarded in 1927 to Charles Lindbergh for flying non-stop from New York City and Paris, France.

By 2004 the now-named Ansari X Prize purse had grown to $10 million.

There were three conditions for winning the prize

1. Privately finance, build and launch a spaceship, carrying three people (or their equivalent weight) to 100 kilometers (62.5 miles) above the Earth;

2. Return safely to Earth; and

3. Repeat the launch with the same ship within two weeks.

Scaled Composites — a Mojave-based company founded in 1982 by noted airplane designer Burt Rutan, and later backed by Microsoft co-founder and multi-billionaire Paul Allen — put the first commercial ship into space on June 1 earlier this year, reaching an altitude of approximately 100 kilometers.

The 6,000-ton SpaceShipOne's first steps into space come on the back of another plane as it is lifted, piggyback style, to an elevation of approximately 50,000 feet.

After releasing from the "mother ship," SpaceShipOne kicks on its engine, burning a fuel comprised of nitrous oxide, or NOX, and the plastic container housing the NOX.

On Sept. 29, SpaceShipOne went into space again, reaching a peak altitude above the required 100-kilometer height, although the vehicle committed 29 unexpected rolls as it rocketed above the atmosphere.

While the cause of the rolls have not been fully explained by Rutan, pilot Mike Melvill, or Scaled Composites, the ship did safely return to earth, setting the stage for an attempt at the $10 million Ansari X Prize a week ago Monday.

So it was there I found myself in Mojave, watching the emerging sun in the east lighten the morning sky.

By 6:48 a.m. PDT Monday, Oct. 4, the level of excitement within the crowd in the VIP area was palpable as SpaceShipOne lifted off, strapped to its carrier plane, the Rutan-designed White Knight. (Note: The date carried special significance for Rutan and all other space flight aficionados as it marked the 47-year anniversary of the first flight of the space age: Sputnik I.)

Reaching an elevation of roughly 50,000 feet took nearly an hour as White Knight slowly corkscrewed upwards into the desert air.

By then, the carrier plane and two chaser aircraft were mere dots in the clear sky, the contrail of White Knight barely visible.

Following a 20-second countdown to separation, SpaceShipOne was on its own. Soon, a new contrail emerged shooting arrow-like straight up, away from Mother Earth.

Higher and higher reached SpaceShipOne, its exhaust showing the way as those in attendance fought the blinding rays of the sun to watch through watering eyes the flight above us.

Then the motor stopped, the fuel exhausted and the contrail ended. We turned almost as one to the huge portable video screen to watch the electronic image as the ship pushed past the atmosphere into the outer edges of space urged on by the powers of momentum.

The on-screen digital altimeter rolled on and on until I heard someone say, "He's done it."

And he was right. He (the pilot, Brian Binnie), and SpaceShipOne, and Rutan, and Scaled Composites had succeeded, surpassing 100 kilometers twice within a two-week period.

Radar confirmation later placed the actual altitude achieved at 367,442 feet, breaking the altitude record of 354,200 feet for winged flight set on Aug. 22, 1963 by the X-15.

As the minimum height was reached and the altitude record broken, I was overcome with awe, a surprising sense of pride filled my chest and I found my eyes watering once again.

"How cool," I thought. "They did it; they actually did it."

The flight — and the risk — were not over yet, but as most readers probably know by now, SpaceShipOne touched down safely nearly 90 minutes after initial lift off, meeting the Ansari X Prize conditions and winning the $10 million purse.

As so succinctly and eloquently captured by the opening voiceover of the original "Star Trek" television series, space is "the final frontier." The goal of reaching into space is "to boldly go where no man has gone before."

I believe the benefits of even attempting to reach into space far outweigh the potential risks and the very real costs of such efforts.

I highly applaud all involved with the X Prize Foundation and all of those individuals and companies doing what they can to reach for the stars, to make space flight a common and an affordable occurrence available to anyone interested in reaching heavenward in a very real way.

David Politis leads Politis Communications, a strategic communications agency that helps maximize corporate value for high-tech and life science companies. E-mail: dpolitis@politis.com.