As a female voice coos, "Welcome to space," six passengers in skintight spacesuits unbuckle their seatbelts and somersault in zero gravity, occasionally peeking back at Earth through the private spaceship's large portholes.
A third person died Friday from an explosion at a rocket test pad operated by a private company in California's southern Mojave Desert, according to the nursing supervisor at Kern Medical Center in Bakersfield.
An explosion at an airport home to Scaled Composites -- the builder of the first private manned rocket to reach space -- killed two people and left four seriously hurt Thursday, a Kern County Fire Department official says.
A mere three years after Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne skimmed the edge of space to capture the $10-million Ansari X Prize, more than half a dozen companies are furiously building and testing spacecraft designed to take paying passengers on suborbital journeys and beyond.
If you want to view the entrepreneurial future of space travel, start in Los Angeles. Drive 100 miles northeast until you reach sun-baked Mojave (population 3,800). Head to the local airport. Don't expect to see launchpads or fancy command centers--there are none to be found. Yet history is being made here: In 2004 the Federal Aviation Administration certified Mojave Airport as a civilian spaceport. Burt Rutan's company, Scaled Composites, has its headquarters near the runways, and it was from here that his SpaceShipOne became the first private spacecraft to carry a passenger beyond the stratosphere.
NASA is implementing President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration issued this January, which directs the space agency to retire the shuttle program by 2010, develop a new manned exploration vehicle, develop a manned lunar program and base around 2020, and prepare to send humans to Mars.
If all goes well over the California desert Monday morning, Michael Melvill, 62, a veteran test pilot, will become the first civilian flier to earn his astronaut's wings aboard a privately financed spacecraft.