The man who is leading the race may not be familiar to you, but to astronauts, pilots, and aeronautical engineers – basically to anyone who knows anything about aircraft design – Burt Rutan is a legend, an aeronautical engineer whose latest aircraft is the world's first private spaceship. As he told 60 Minutes correspondent Ed Bradley when he first met him a little over a year ago, if his idea flies, someday space travel may be cheap enough and safe enough for ordinary people to go where only astronauts have gone before.
The White Knight is a rather unusual looking aircraft, built just for the purpose of carrying a rocket plane called SpaceShipOne, the first spacecraft built by private enterprise.
White Knight and SpaceShipOne are the latest creations of Burt Rutan. They're part of his dream to develop a commercial travel business in space.
"There will be a new industry. And we are just now in a beginning. I will predict that in 12 or 15 years, there will be tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of people that fly, and see that black sky," says Rutan.
On June 21, 2004, White Knight took off from an airstrip in Mojave, Calif., carrying Rutan's spaceship. It took 63 minutes to reach the launch altitude of 47,000 feet. Once there, the White Knight crew prepared to release the spaceship.
The fierce acceleration slammed Mike Melvill, the pilot, back in his seat. He put SpaceShipOne into a near vertical trajectory, until, as planned, the fuel ran out.
Still climbing like a spent bullet, Melvill hoped to gain as much altitude as possible to reach space before the ship began falling back to earth.
By the time the spaceship reached the end of its climb, it was 22 miles off course. But it had, just barely, reached an altitude of just over 62 miles — the internationally recognized boundary of space.
It was the news Rutan had been waiting for. Falling back to Earth from an altitude of 62 miles, SpaceShipOne's tilting wing, a revolutionary innovation called the feather, caused the rocket plane to position itself for a relatively benign re-entry and turned the spaceship into a glider.
SpaceShipOne glided to a flawless landing before a crowd of thousands.
"After that June flight, I felt like I was floating around and just once in a while touching the ground," remembers Rutan. "We had an operable space plane."