When the first American flew into space in 1961, Burt Rutan was a 17-year-old college freshman. Listening to news of Alan Shepard's groundbreaking suborbital flight on the radio, Rutan was euphoric. He too hoped to go into space one day--and was disappointed that a cautious NASA had allowed the Soviets to beat the U.S. to the prize. "We could have had the first man in space," Rutan recalls, "and we sent a monkey instead."
The possibilities back then seemed limitless, and it was easy for Rutan's generation to imagine they would all get to taste zero-gravity one day. It didn't work out that way. After NASA reached the moon in 1969, its focus shifted to unmanned probes, orbital experiments and a costly low-orbit shuttle system. The imagined future of Everyman as astronaut evaporated. This year, more than four decades after Shepard's flight, only two Americans have made the jump into space from U.S. soil--both launched not by NASA but by Rutan's tiny company, known for build-your-own-airplane kits.
Rutan personally designed their craft, SpaceShipOne, a vehicle as improbable as it is revolutionary. The size of a small biplane, SpaceShipOne is a shell of woven graphite glued onto a rocket motor that runs on laughing gas and rubber. The nose is punctuated by portholes, like an ocean liner. Inside, the critical instrument is a Ping-Pong ball decorated with a smiley face and attached to the cabin with a piece of string, which goes slack when the pilot reaches the zero-gravity of suborbital space.
Despite its Flash Gordon looks and unorthodox design, SpaceShipOne was able to more than match Shepard's trailblazing journey. In June it became the first privately funded spacecraft. In October it clinched the $10 million Ansari X Prize as the first such craft to travel to space twice in two weeks. Thanks to the backing of two starry-eyed billionaires,
SpaceShipOne is set to become the first in a new line of space-tourism craft coming in 2007. "It's a spaceship that fits in your two-car garage, and you can take it to space every other day," says X Prize founder Peter Diamandis. "That's pretty cool."
We agree. For solving the problems of suborbital flight and re-entry with ingenious design, for boldly going where NASA now fears to tread and returning without a scratch, but most of all for reigniting the moon-shot-era dream of zero-gravity for everyone, SpaceShipOne is TIME's Coolest Invention of 2004.
Success for Rutan's maverick creation was by no means assured. There were 24 teams competing for the X Prize purse, which was set to expire at the end of this year. Modeled on the Orteig Prize--which motivated Charles Lindbergh's celebrated transatlantic flight in 1927--the X Prize was created to fuel a competition in space liners, just as its predecessor inspired the early airlines. Imaginations ran wild. The Canadian Da Vinci Project wanted to launch its rocket from 80,000 ft. after lifting it there with a reusable helium balloon. John Carmack, creator of the Doom video games, intended to blast his wife into suborbital space with a new kind of engine that runs on alcohol. (Carmack's prototype crashed; Da Vinci's effort was hampered by missing parts.)