Space Toy

1 minute read
Lev Grossman

At 6:45 one morning last week, Michael Melvill, 63, was just a shy grandfather of four. By 8:15 a.m., he had ridden a privately funded, rocket-powered glider 328,491 ft. into the morning sky, becoming the first person ever to fly a civilian craft into space. By the end of the week, he was a motivational speaker at a conference for TV marketing executives–a last-minute substitute for hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons.

The flight of SpaceShipOne–brainchild of aerospace whiz Burt Rutan and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen–was hailed as a giant leap toward opening space flight to tourists. Indeed, the craft was impressively small and lightweight (about the size of an SUV) and relatively cheap (about $20 million, compared with the $400 million-plus that NASA drops on each space-shuttle launch). But don’t call your travel agent just yet. Melvill made it to just the edge of space, only about a quarter of the way to the International Space Station. And he ran into a scary glitch: during its ascent, SpaceShipOne lost its trim control, which keeps it from rolling and pitching. If the backup system hadn’t kicked in, Melvill would now be a crater in the Mojave Desert. –By Lev Grossman

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