LOS ANGELES — When a private spaceship soared over California to claim a $10 million prize, daredevil venture capitalist Alan Walton was 68 and thought he'd soon be on a rocket ride of his own.
Walton plunked down $200,000 to be among the first space tourists to make a suborbital thrill-ride high above the Earth aboard a Virgin Galactic spaceship.
Now he intends to ask for his deposit back if there's no fixed launch date by his 74th birthday next April.
"This was going to be the highlight of my old age," he said.
It has been five years since SpaceShipOne, the first privately financed manned spacecraft, captured the Ansari X Prize on Oct. 4, 2004, by demonstrating that a reusable rocket capable of carrying passengers could fly more than 62 miles high twice within two weeks — showing reliability and commercial viability.
Enthusiasm over SpaceShipOne's feats was so high that year that even before the prize-winning flight, British mogul Richard Branson announced an agreement to use the technology in a second-generation design, SpaceShipTwo, to fly commercial passengers into space under the Virgin Galactic banner by 2007.
It seemed that anyone who had the money would soon be experiencing what SpaceShipOne pilot Brian Binnie called "literally a rush — you light that motor off and the world wakes up around you." And then the sensation of weightlessness and the sight of the world far below.
Turning the dream into reality has taken longer than many expected in those days, and spaceflight remains the realm of government astronauts and a handful of extraordinarily wealthy people who have paid millions for rides on Russian rockets to the International Space Station.
X Prize founder Peter Diamandis says, however, that things have not been at a standstill.
More than $1 billion has been invested in the industry, regulatory roadblocks have been addressed, and as many as three different passenger spaceships will emerge in the next 18 to 24 months and begin flying, he said.
"You'll get another large injection of excitement in public interest once those vehicles begin operating and the public starts getting flown," he said.