by Courtesy Scaled Composites

The White Knight will carry SpaceShipOne to 50,000 feet before releasing it.

Even as they embraced him as amiably as suburbanites welcoming a newcomer to the neighborhood, leading X Prize contenders had a message for Burt Rutan: Bring it on.

“Many people seem to be overreacting,” says John Carmack, a computer-game legend (Doom, Quake) and founder of Armadillo Aerospace in Dallas. “Burt is somewhat further along than we had hoped. But we still feel we have a solid shot of getting there first.”

Adds Randa Milliron, CEO of Interorbital Systems in Mojave, California: “We’re rocket experts and, frankly, Burt Rutan is an airplane expert. So let’s see who wins.”

Armadillo, Interorbital and most other X Prize competitors intend to mimic NASA’s successful Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, shooting a rocket from a ground-based launchpad and landing vertically with a parachute. Rutan’s craft, by contrast, takes off as an airplane, then at 50,000 feet launches a rocket that later lands like a glider.

Although Rutan’s rivals admire the elegance and audacity of his design, many contend it doesn’t make sense. “Our view is that a rocket shouldn’t have wings,” says Bill Sprague, team leader of American Astronautics in Oceanside, California.

Also, because Rutan’s rocket rides piggyback on an airplane, critics say it’s too small to launch cargo–or tourists–into space and so will never be commercially
viable. “He’s going after the X Prize, and he’ll likely win the thing,” says Jim Akkerman, president of Advent Launch Services in Houston. “But as far as low-cost access to space, he’s not going to get it done.”

The X Prize is the carrot luring teams into space, but for most teams it’s not the ultimate goal. “The big challenge is to have a business when you’re done,” says Pat Bahn, founder of TGV Rockets in Bethesda, Maryland. “Lindbergh won fame and fortune, but [DC-3 creator Donald] Douglas made a lot more money.”