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Private space

Many, many bloggers have already posted about Friday’s flight of SpaceShipOne — the first privately-funded space ship to reach 40 miles in altitude, or 212,000 feet. It definitely looks like Burt Rutan, creator of the ship, has a good shot at claiming the X Prize, the $10 million award for the first private company that can send three people to 100 kilometers high, return them safely to Earth, then repeat the feat within two weeks.

So you’ve probably heard about this. But you may not have seen the utterly mind-frying video that was taken by a tiny webcam on the corner of the craft’s wing. CNN has it online here (go halfway down the page), and I totally urge you to check it out. You see the ship’s engine blasting away for 30 seconds or so, then shutting off, whereupon the craft spins around in an atmosphere so thin that you can see the blackness of space, and the sun looking more like a huge star than, well, the sun. Far down below you see the Earth, and though I suspect some of this effect is due to the webcam’s fisheye lens, it looks awfully rounded — precisely the sort of view you’re accustomed to seeing from the Shuttle.

All of which is why this video so thoroughly blew me away. I’ve known about the X Prize for years, and expected someone to win it pretty soon. But it was only after seeing this video that I realized just how nutty it was that a private company would — with a budget laughably tinier than NASA’s Shuttle payments — send people into space. This video has something of the emotional effect you get when you see the video from the Saturn V launch that blasted the first humans at the moon. It seemed so crazy and outlandish that, when I first clicked on the CNN footage, I thought I was looking at at CGI animation of the SpaceShipOne flight — not the real thing.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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