LOS ANGELES — When a private spaceship soared over California to claim a $10-million prize, daredevil venture capitalist Alan Walton was 68 and thought he’d be on a rocket ride of his own soon.
Walton paid $200,000 to be among the first space tourists to make a suborbital thrill-ride high above the Earth, aboard a Virgin Galactic spaceship.
Now he intends to ask for his deposit back if there’s no fixed launch date by his 74th birthday in April.
“This was going to be the highlight of my old age,” he said.
It’s been five years since SpaceShipOne, the first privately financed manned spacecraft, captured the Ansari X Prize on Oct. 4, 2004, by demonstrating that a reusable rocket capable of carrying passengers could fly more than 62 miles high twice within two weeks.
Enthusiasm over SpaceShipOne’s feats was so high that year that even before the prize-winning flight, British mogul Richard Branson announced an agreement to use the technology in a second-generation design, SpaceShipTwo, to fly commercial passengers under the Virgin Galactic banner by 2007.
It seemed that anyone who had the money would soon be experiencing what SpaceShipOne pilot Brian Binnie called “literally a rush.”
Turning the dream into reality has taken longer than many expected, and spaceflight remains the realm of government astronauts and a handful of extraordinarily wealthy people who paid millions for rides on Russian rockets to the International Space Station.
But X Prize founder Peter Diamandis says things have not been at a standstill.
More than $1 billion was invested in the industry, regulatory roadblocks have been addressed and as many as three passenger spaceships will emerge within 18 to 24 months and begin flying, he said.
“You’ll get another large injection of excitement in public interest once those vehicles begin operating and the public starts getting flown,” he said.
Freight business owner Edwin Sahakian has seen signs of progress. He and four other Virgin Galactic customers got a peek at SpaceShipTwo this summer during a visit to the Scaled Composites plant at the Mojave Airport.
“This is not a grandiose mock-up. This is the real thing,” Sahakian said.
The completed SpaceShipTwo is expected to be unveiled in December. Test flights are to begin next year, and full-fledged space launches are to take place by or during 2011, said Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic.