Rutan and Virgin plan tourist trips

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Scaled Composites lands five-vehicle deal for SpaceShipOne, but major design changes may be needed

Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne team enters this week with a newly minted licensing deal for five vehicles, a chance to claim the $10 million Ansari X-Prize with a third successful suborbital round-trip and - thanks to a publicly revealed design flaw - nagging concerns over vehicle stability beyond the atmosphere.

Scaled Composites pilot Mike Melville has landed two vehicles after suborbital flights compromised by bouts of uncommanded roll, most notably recovering after more than 20 revolutions while soaring to 337,000ft (103,000m) on 29 September, the first of two qualifying X-Prize flights.

The episode eerily evoked SpaceShipOne's first suborbital flight on 21 June. In that case, an uncommanded roll upon rocket ignition was quickly recovered, but the stress caused a brief failure of primary flight controls as Melville reached the top of his climb. Again, Melville regained control with ease before re-entering the atmosphere a few minutes later.

That both flights ended safely is a tribute to the robust design of SpaceShipOne and the skills of the unflappable Melville. But the incidents may force Scaled Composites to consider major design changes before making the vehicle available for commercial service.

Meanwhile, Virgin Atlantic Airways founder Sir Richard Branson launched Virgin Galactic at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London on 27 September, promising the first commercial suborbital space flights early in 2007.

According to Branson, Virgin Galactic's partnership with Scaled Composites is effectively the marketing wing of the venture. Branson says he is investing $100 million in Virgin Galactic, but says the suborbital spaceflight technology development will be left to Scaled Composites and its principal investor, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

Rutan says he does not expect problems gaining certification for commercial space transport operations from the US Federal Aviation Administration's Commercial Space Transportation agency.

Branson's business plan, however, risks outpacing the regulatory agency, which now lacks the authority to establish standards for space vehicles carrying paying passengers. New legislation intending to provide that authority, HR 3752, is held up by the US Senate.

The fate of the bill once hinged on a deadlock about the bill's definition of a suborbital vehicle, which had neglected to include hybrid rocket-jet propulsion designs. Legislators have hurdled that debate, but face a new challenge against the bill's plan to leave passengers to fly at their own risk, sources say.

Instead, a panel of Senate Democrats wants the FAA to establish vehicle safety rules. Authors of the legislation in the US House, however, contend the field of suborbital vehicle technology is too young to burden with regulations.

In Virgin Galactic's early days from 2007, Branson envisages a fleet of five vehicles, the first to be named Virgin Space Ship Enterprise, each able to carry five passengers. The first flights would cost about $150,000 per passenger.

STEPHEN TRIMBLE / WASHINGTON DC & DAVID LEARMOUNT / LONDON