. - As soon as Monday, Burt Rutan could send his split-tailed space guppy past the envelope of blue sky for the second time in a week and at last lay claim to the $10 million Ansari X Prize.
Yet as Mr. Rutan prepares SpaceShipOne for a second launch next week, the traces of Wednesday's wobbling flight still hang over Mojave like a question mark. If SpaceShipOne's successes have planted a symbolic stake in the heavens, claiming them for anyone with the mind and the money to follow, then Wednesday's wild ride suggests that those who do will need strong nerves and stomachs of steel.
On one hand, it's hardly surprising that going to space is a dangerous business. Yet a clear goal of the X Prize is to make spaceflight routine - routine enough for British billionaire Richard Branson to announce the creation of Virgin Galactic this week. For now, however, SpaceShipOne's harrowing space shots are showing not only how far the private space race has come, but also how much farther it still has to go.
"If safety is the No. 1 objective of spaceflight, we're never going to do it," says Lori Garver, a former president of the American Astronautical Society in Springfield, Va.
"You take greater risks for things that could be more meaningful."
To space enthusiasts, few things could be more meaningful. The X Prize has come to represent the gateway to humanity's space-faring future. Since NASA has failed to find a way to get humans into space cheaply, reliably, and frequently, the X Prize donors asked private entrepreneurs to do it - for a $10 million reward.