Franchising The Race To Space

The Senate is poised to pass the Space Commercialization Act, legislation that would allow private companies to send up reusable launch vehicles like the space shuttle. If the act passes, many say the commercial space race is on, reports CBS News Correspondent Vince Gonzales.

Rocket rides into space, orbiting hotels, and privately-funded colonies on the moon? Space enthusiasts believe free enterprise can make it all happen on the final frontier if only government will get out of the way.

"It's time. We're ready. The ideas are ready. The people are ready. And the door is locked," says Rick Tumlinson, President of the Space Frontier Foundation.

The key to the cosmos, say researchers gathered at the space frontier conference in Los Angeles, is commercial, reusable spacecrafts. Right now. the law protects NASA and the space shuttle from competition. Businesses can only launch one-way rockets.

"That's sort of akin to some government regulator running alongside Orville Wright, going, 'You can't come back down,'" says Tumlinson.

In California's Mojave Desert, one company is trying to win the space race with a novel concept: a new spacecraft that uses regular helicopter rotor blades that will have rocket engines mounted on the ends. It is called The Roton.

Dan Delong and the Rotary Rocket Company aren't waiting for the law to be changed. Delong hopes the vehicle he's building now will be the spacecraft of the next millennium. And the Roton is definitely different from other spacecrafts. It will release and retrieve satellites in orbit. But on re-entry, the Roton becomes a high-tech helicopter, flying in on its rotors.

NASA tried rotor technology during the Apollo program, but never developed it. Part of the reason was the cost. Today's private rocket researchers say they can get to space faster and cheaper.

"NASA and the other space agencies have done an excellent job exploring up 'til now, but it's time for us to get out there," Tumlinson continues.

The Roton could be out there, in orbit, in 2000. But unless the laws change, the spacecraft won't be able to come home again, and the commercial space race could very well be grounded.