By Irene Mona Klotz
in Mojave, California
For four decades people have watched US astronauts, Russian cosmonauts and a handful of guest fliers climb into rocketships and blast off into space. Some have not returned.
One more successful flight...
The physics of flight will not be any different when SpaceShipOne, the only space vessel ever created and flown by a private company, attempts the journey for a third time on Monday.
There were surprises on both of its previous flights, though nothing the pilot could not handle.
"I will feel immense relief when this is over," SpaceShipOne creator Burt Rutan says on Sunday as he considers the big day ahead.
At stake is a $10m prize promised to the first team that successfully flies a three-passenger ship beyond Earth's atmosphere twice within two weeks.
For Rutan, whose project was financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the flight will also seal a new venture to develop a commercial spaceliner for Virgin Atlantic Airways.
The winds are unusually still in the Mojave Desert on Sunday night, the great expanse easily swallowing the sounds of celebrations. Hundreds of people are gathering to witness history unfold.
SpaceShipOne is fuelled and ready, mounted beneath the mothership that will carry it to about 50,000ft before it separates and flies solo into black sky.
"We really have nothing else to do," Rutan says. "All we've been doing for the last few hours is taking people's pictures in front of the airplane."
Among Rutan's guests is Marion Blakey and her team from the Federal Aviation Administration, the US government agency assigned to oversee commercial space operations.
Rutan (l) knows the team have to complete the job
For the most part, Rutan has stayed diplomatically silent about his dealings with the FAA. He is acutely aware that regulations could strangle the dream of developing a private space transportation industry.
"Evolving the regulatory environment that's going to foster an industry is a process, not an event," adds Jeff Greason, who heads XCOR Aerospace, another Mojave-based company pursuing passenger space vehicles.
'No turning back'
It is an event, however, that brings Blakey to Mojave - the culmination of an eight-year project intended to ignite what X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis calls "the personal spaceflight revolution".
"We are all going to get a chance to go to space in our lifetimes," Diamandis tells his team of volunteers at an information meeting-turned pep rally on Sunday afternoon.
MONDAY'S X-PRIZE FLIGHT
Take-off: 0700 local (1400GMT)
Ignition: 0800 local (1500GMT)
Landing: 0830 local (1530GMT)
"Once you get the genie out of the bottle, there is no turning back. It's happening here and it's happening now."
The parties press on throughout the night. Herbie Hancock entertains a crowd of VIPs and X-Prize guests. Space movies are showing at the Mojave Airport public parking area. A pair of newlyweds honeymoon in the trailer parking lot.
The Mojave flights have proved to be a big draw
At dawn, an elegant wisp of an aircraft called White Knight will roll down the runway with the guppy-shaped SpaceShipOne tucked beneath its belly .
"I will pray tonight that everything goes well," says Anousheh Ansari, whose family holds the title sponsorship for the X-Prize flight. "I just really want this to turn out great."