The first privately manned space flight took place this week above the Mojave Desert. Pilot Mike Melvill received the world's first commercial astronaut's wings after peeking outside the earth's atmosphere and safely falling back to earth. He got to see the earth from 62 miles up which he called "nearly a religious experience."

I've got news for Mr. Melvill. Anytime I go up in an airplane, it's a religious experience. I'm silently praying the whole trip, and every time we hit an air turbulent and I realize the aircraft was built by the lowest bidder, I say, "Oh my God!"

And when we land, I give "thanks." I am not given any wings, but sometimes I jump up and down and flap my arms. The only way we could make this event any more religious would be to pass the collection plate and sing all stanzas of "Just As I Am."

Now if Melvill can pilot his SpaceshipOne into another similar flight within 10 days, the project wins the $10-million Ansari X Prize. The spacecraft to win this money must be a three-seater (like Melvill's) to demonstrate the capacity to haul paying passengers. This one flight cost an estimated $20 million provided by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. So one more flight and he could have nearly twice that in the project. So minus the $10-million prize and factoring that he doesn't have to rebuild the rocketplane, Allen is only out a maximum of about $30 million. Hey, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that part out.

Now if one of these commercial flights was to pay for itself, you can figure what those three passengers are going to have to ante up. The biggest question, however, is where are you going and what are you going to do once you get there?

Now I don't want to be classified as a naysayer here. I know that the spirit of adventure has brought about many new discoveries and innovations. Think about it. Without space flight, we probably would never have had Tang. I'm not sure but what a few folks think the moon rover is up there right now looking for that fountain from which Tang springs forth.

So eons from now, this adventure may have practical application. But right now, the only objective to hitching a ride would be to look back at earth and see if the map makers were right.

They say that one can see two man-made events from outer space -- the Great Wall of China as well as a garbage dump in New Jersey. I also expect that the glow of a few egos can be seen from that distance.

Sure, there are going to be a few rich guys who would pay for this experience of "extreme flight." Now this differs a lot from "extreme sports." Extreme sports doesn't require an expensive ticket. The village idiot without a dime in his pocket can tie a rope to his leg and dive off a high bridge. He's just got to be crazy enough but good enough at mathematics to measure his rope correctly. Also, he may want to have a friend on standby to help get him down once he stops bouncing. That point doesn't require an oversight committee, but it would save the embarrassment and extreme discomfort of hanging upside down all night screaming for help.

Now as impressive as this flight may seem, I just looked at a photo of this rocketplane that Mr. Melville piloted. It's about as long as a large SUV, and it looks like one of those old Buck Rogers rockets that you could get out of a box of corn flakes in the 1950s. Yet it got the pilot there and back, though I don't think he'll be driving it to Ectar or Zulof any time soon to help set up an intergalactic library.

Now in the spirit of Yankee ingenuity, we must applaud this private space shuttle flight for what it could mean to the future. After all, we've got to have some way to get all that Tang back down here.



(Dwain Walden is editor/publisher of The Moultrie Observer, 985-4545. e-mail: dwain.walden@gaflnews.com)

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