Private spacecraft expected within two years, promoters say

The Columbia space shuttle catastrophe has put the U.S. human space flight program on hold, but private spacecraft builders say they will press on and predict a private space ship will be flown within two years.

In a highly unusual, first-ever space competition, at least 20 entrepreneurs from at least five countries are vying for a $10 million prize patterned after the $25,000 Ortega Prize for the first solo flight from New York to Paris, won by Charles Lindbergh.

His flight made history and touched off a series of other aeronautical prizes over the years and helped launched the modern aerospace industry.

The space prize is called "X Prize," established under a foundation and based in St. Louis. Businessman Peter Diamandis heads it and its backers include business owners, banks and authors such as Tom Clancy.

The organization said "a winner is expected in the next 12-24 months" and issued statements from many of the competitors saying that despite the Columbia tragedy they would push on in an effort to win the prize and spur commercial travel in space.

To win the prize, a privately made and privately financed craft capable of carrying three people must shoot into space with at least one person aboard, must go 62 miles into space and return to earth. That might be the easy part, since the ship and crew must repeat the flight again within two weeks.

Firms involved come from the United States, Canada, Israel, Argentina and Romania. The competition was organized in 1996.