SpaceShipOne, the privately funded space vehicle, has returned to earth with the $10 million Ansari X-Prize. That one small trip for a ship was a giant leap away from the government's monopoly on space travel.
In a press conference shortly after SpaceShipOne's prize-winning flight, Burt Rutan, founder of Scaled Composites and designer of the skybreaking spacecraft, explained that he has a "helluva lot bigger goal than [the aerospace industry giants] do….I absolutely have to develop a manned space tourism system that is at least 100 times safer than anything that has ever flown man to space." Rutan views the competitive commercial market as the best incubator of safe space flight. Private firms must satisfy consumers, insurers, and regulators–unlike the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which really must satisfy only Congress.
Since the successful SpaceShipOne launch, several NASA engineers have privately expressed frustration with their agency, which they describe as a risk-averse bureaucracy in deep paralysis. If they did what Rutan and Scaled Composites did, they argue, there would be a congressional investigation. Fortunately, NASA's timorousness no longer stifles space flight.