Burt Rutan and Scaled Composites successfully completed the first civilian space launch, this morning in the Mojave Desert. Congratulations to Mike Melvill, the first civilian astronaut from a private space program!
Particularly shocking is the cost. Paul Allen (of Microsoft fame) funded Scaled Composites for $20 million. This can be contrasted with Airbus's A380 development, which cost $11 billion, or Boeing's 777 cost of between $7B and $10B (source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer). Of course, the A380 and B777 are commercial aircraft, intended for major mass production, while SpaceShipOne is a flightworthy technology demonstrator.
What does it mean? Only good things. It shows that Rutan's group is the frontrunners for the X-prize. It demonstrates that a small group of American engineers can do something that whole nations have never been able to accomplish. It shows that spaceflight is not the sole providence of governments and militaries, but rather the technology has advanced to the point that private industries can assume the risk. It signals the beginning of the next Space Race: Not dominated by those who seek the best vantage points for their missiles, but rather those who seek to profit by opening inexpensive gateways for free people to the incredible potential of space.