From Miami.com :
Posted on Fri, Jan. 13, 2006
New high-flying adventure puts NASA on private mission
The Kennedy Space Center aims at new horizons, hosting the private GlobalFlyer aircraft and its thrill- seeking pilot.
BY MARTIN MERZER AND PHIL LONG
CAPE CANAVERAL - Trailing a drag parachute, a world-renowned aircraft made history and attracted considerable attention Thursday as it gently set down at the space shuttle's landing strip -- but it was not a space shuttle.
And it was not a military jet. In fact, it was not a government craft of any kind.
It was the weird flock of 13 linked fuel tanks known as the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer, and its arrival and looming adventure marked a notable widening of NASA's mission and of Florida's campaign to land a piece of the private aerospace research and tourism industry.
''This symbolizes a whole new way of doing business,'' said Winston Scott, a former shuttle astronaut who now serves as executive director of the Florida Space Authority.
And so, here came the single-engine, single-seat, double-tailed GlobalFlyer, repositioned by famed pilot Steve Fossett from its base in Salina, Kan., to its temporary home among the mammoth spaceships of the Kennedy Space Center.
''I really like the association with NASA,'' Fossett said after he landed. ``This is where the great things in aerospace start from.''
The symbolism is important, he said, but so is the space center's elongated, 15,000-foot runway. To get airborne, the GlobalFlyer needs a lengthy takeoff roll -- and not many runways that long are available.
Last March, Fossett piloted the GlobalFlyer on the first solo nonstop, nonrefueled flight around the world -- a 22,928-mile trip that began and ended in Salina, Kan.
By the end of February, if all goes well, he will attempt to set the absolute distance record for any aircraft -- the longest nonstop and nonrefueled flight by an airplane or balloon.
The experimental craft will take off from the space center, the first time that the world's most famous launch facility has served a private mission of this magnitude.
The rest of the plan: Fossett will head east, circumnavigating the globe, crossing the Atlantic a second time, landing at Kent International Airport near London after flying 26,084 miles in about 80 hours.
The effort is certain to attract widespread publicity, which is precisely what NASA officials -- who once smugly dismissed private aerospace projects -- want.
NASA has been tip-toeing into the private arena during the past year, hoping to leverage its under-employed facilities into a profit center for the federal government. In November, Zero Gravity Co. of Fort Lauderdale used the shuttle landing strip for flights that simulate weightlessness.
James Ball, NASA's spaceport development manager, said he yearned for 'people around the world to recognize that this experimental aircraft -- that was not a NASA aircraft -- took off from the Kennedy Space Center and think, `Gee, if they can do that, maybe we can have our project or program hosted at KSC as well.' ''
Representatives of Virgin Atlantic, which sponsors these flights, said NASA reached out to Fossett in July. They will present him with a bill, but the costs have not yet been determined, Ball said.
The relationship began during last year's flight, with NASA lending Fossett's crew sophisticated video gear that allowed ground controllers -- both entities use the term ''mission control'' -- to monitor the pilot and his cockpit conditions in real time.
''That was really a big deal for us, because it let our mission control folks feel really connected to the flight,'' said Brooke Lawer, a spokeswoman for Virgin Atlantic.
''The beauty of doing this at a NASA facility is a very tangible thing because it puts the science of what we're doing at the forefront,'' she said.
That science, Lawer said, involves experiments with materials development, fuel systems and fuel management.
''The whole point of this attempt is to push the boundaries,'' she said. ``We want to show people how these experimental techniques can be applied in very real ways.''
From the state's standpoint, any foothold in the private aerospace business is welcome.
''I think we would be remiss in Florida if we focused our entire space industry effort on NASA,'' said Pamella Dana, director of the state's Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development.
All of this comes as NASA's human space program remains in disarray.
Its aging space shuttles again are grounded -- this time until at least May -- for repairs to their protective tiles. The fleet is scheduled to be retired in 2010. Little progress is evident in the plan to develop a new vehicle by 2014.
Meanwhile, the initiative in human spaceflight has shifted to the private sector.
In 2004, the privately built SpaceShipOne rocket plane won a $10 million prize by carrying a human into space twice within two weeks, an achievement that still eludes NASA. SpaceShipOne and the GlobalFlyer were designed by Burt Rutan, an engineer who was rapidly becoming a thorn in NASA's side.
In addition, Richard Branson, the chairman of Virgin Atlantic, plans to launch a company called Virgin Galactic to carry passengers on suborbital space hops. For now, Branson calls Fossett's current project ``the ultimate flight.''
And space industry executives in Florida are anticipating a publicity bonanza when Fossett takes off -- or, as he says, ''launches'' -- on his next excellent adventure.
Said Scott: ``The whole project is exciting. We want to do our best to assist him.''