For those of you stuck in perpetual Iraq/Abu Grabe/al Qaeda mode, you probably didn't realize that history was made this morning.
Today marked the first time ever that a civilian pilot took a privately-funded spacecraft into space.
Yes, there have been civilians in space before. They've been passengers onboard a government-funded vessel whether it is the space shuttle, the European Arienne, or the Russian rockets.
There have also been privately-funded spacecraft launched into space before. All satillites.
But never before in the history of humanity did any civilian pilot take the helm of a privately-funded, civilian spacecraft and send it outside Earth's atmosphere and bring it back down safely.
That of all changed today, June 21st, 2004, when SpaceShipOne, the first private space shuttle, took off on the belly of the jet White Knight, brought to an elevation of 47,000 feet, and cut free and launched past Earth's atmosphere into a suborbital level of 62 miles before being brought back to the same runway it launched from.
Michael W. Melvill, an experienced test pilot and Vice President/General Manager of Scaled Composites, LLC, became the first truly civilian astronaut by taking SpaceShipOne into space.
The Tier One Project was part of a larger challege called the "Ansari X Prize", which is run by Microsoft Founder Paul Allan. The goal is to create and successfully launch-and-land a privately-funded 3-seated spacecraft outside of the atmosphere, not just once, but twice within two weeks. Tier One just did the first part... now they have to repeat the magic two weeks from today.
Why is this important, you ask? Because America's space program has needed a shot in the arm and a kick in the ass ever since the Shuttle Challenger blew up!
NASA, America's government-run space organization, has been coasting since going back into space. And then, with Columbia dissintegrating upon reentry, the space program has become skittish. The shuttles are old and need to be replaced, but NASA cut all research into replacement models. They don't want to replace the shuttles. They don't even want men in shuttles until they can get everything safe and flawless.
NASA officials have even told researchers that they weren't going to keep the Hubble Space Telescope repaired and updated. Too risky, they said. Too dangerous. They would rather just ferry personell back and forth from the International Space Station, which is "safer" according to the paper-pushers because its in a much lower orbit.
So how about this idea? Once Tier One wins the Ansari X Prize, how about Allan and the others get together their next challenge... take SpaceShipOne up to the Hubble Telescope and fixing it, and then taking it over. Call it reverse-eminent domain. If NASA doesn't want to maintain it, then they have abandoned it.
Private space exploration has just begun and it has already done what NASA has refused to. They created a reusable spacecraft that can easily replace the aging space shuttle fleet, and to do so without the need for bulky solid rockets, fuel tanks, or extravagant launch facilities.
Sadly, though, most people won't even realize the importance of this moment. They'll be too busy talking about Iraq and terrorists and politics. Shame on them for not appreciating this moment!
Take some pride, folks... you don't need the government to get into space anymore.