Astronaut visits SA after SpaceShipOne trip

space30/03/05 Cape Times Spaceship aviator: SpaceShipOne pilot Mike Melville stands beside a Long Ez aircraft of which the design was used to built the SpaceShipOne. Photo: Alan Taylor

By Miriam Mannak

About nine months after piloting the first privately sponsored flight to space, SA-born astronaut Mike Melvill, 63, visited the Stellenbosch Flying Club for a presentation on this landmark achievement in the history of space aviation.

In September Melvill became the first civilian astronaut to reach space in a privately financed spacecraft, the SpaceShipOne. Until then only governments had undertaken flights into space.

Melvill - who moved from South Africa to the US in the 1960s - said a childhood dream came true when he travelled into space, saw the Earth from above and reached the level of weightlessness.

It was a dream he had thought could not be realised.

"I never thought it would happen as the money was a serious issue. We needed R1.5 billion to realise the project."

This obstacle was overcome two and a half years before SpaceShipOne took off with space as its destination.

"Co-founder of Microsoft Paul Allen decided to take on the financing. He just gave us the money and we did the job. Simple as that. Allen did it without questioning our plans - which was quite extraordinary," said Melvill.

Flying into space was not his only dream.

"My next goal is the cultivation of space tourism," he said. "I want to take thousands of people to space and share with them the experience of being up there. I want to show them how planet Earth looks from up there, how it feels to be weightless.

"Seeing the bright blue sky turning pitch-black and seeing stars appear while it is day time is absolutely mind-blowing."

Melvill said he aimed to take 3 000 civilians to space within the next three years - despite the high costs of such a venture.

"At the moment travelling to space will cost about $2-million (R1,6-million) for each person."

Such a trip would be more affordable in five years, Melvill said.

"I estimate a trip to space (then) will cost about $10 000 for each person," he said.

Other than working hard on realising this dream, Melvill travels the world telling people about the experiences he had in space.

"It is the first time in eight years that I am here in South Africa. I don't come here often as it is a long trip. And an expensive one, too."


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