It’s time to send out belated birthday wishes to a milestone
moment in aerospace history: June 21 marked the one-year
anniversary of SpaceShipOne’s first manned spaceflight
. In the intervening
380 days, the Scaled Composites team that built SpaceShipOne went on to claim
the $10 million Ansari X Prize for building the first practical, reusable,
privately funded spacecraft. Time sure flies when you’re inaugurating an era of
civilian spaceflight.

Excitement and symbolism have been the name of the game for
Scaled Composites’ so-called Tier One
spaceflight project from the beginning. For example, after several months of
glide testing, SpaceShipOne made its first powered flight test on Dec. 17,
2003, the centennial of the Wright Brothers’ first powered flight.

In addition, the X-Prize-winning spaceflight took place on
Oct. 4, 2004, exactly 47 years after the launch of the first manmade object
into space, Sputnik I. The local officials of Mojave, CA also got into the
public relations act by provisionally renaming the airport that SpaceShipOne’s
flights originated from to the Mojave Spaceport.

Even the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) played
along with the showmanship. Technically, SpaceShipOne is a conventionally
licensed civilian glider, thanks to the fact that it doesn’t take off under its
own power, and it doesn’t conduct a powered landing.

Therefore, the FAA granted SpaceShipOne a traditional
aircraft registry number—N328KF—but one with a hidden technical reference
inside. While all U.S.-based aircraft have registry numbers beginning with the
letter N, the 328KF portion of the
registry stands for 328,000 feet (100 kilometers), the officially designated
altitude for the “edge of space,” which SpaceShipOne had to reach to
claim the X Prize.

Lost in all that hoopla was the fact that the Tier One
project effectively wrapped up on Oct. 4, 2004, the moment it won the X Prize—and
met its goal. Tier One was all about creating and proving the technology in
order to lay the groundwork for future commercial uses of spaceflight,
particularly private space tourism.

And now, a partnership with Virgin Galactic, a venture from billionaire Richard
sprawling Virgin business empire, is helping realize that dream:
Virgin Galactic expects to use SpaceShipOne technology to accommodate
recreational spaceflights as early as 2008.

Of course, anyone who’s familiar with Branson’s exploits
knows that the PR blitz for SpaceShipOne has only just begun—despite the fact
that Tier One and its savvy self-promotion are over. Indeed, Branson has actually
arranged for his Virgin Galactic spacecraft—and himself—to make a cameo in a
major motion picture in 2006, two years before the real spaceflights will


What major motion picture that’s debuting in 2006 will
feature a cameo from a SpaceShipOne-style Virgin Galactic civilian spacecraft,
as well as one from billionaire Virgin founder Richard Branson himself?

The latest edition to the Superman franchise, Superman
, will reportedly include a rescue scene where the Man of Steel attempts
to save Branson and his fellow occupants (including Branson’s son Sam) from a
faltering Virgin Galactic flight. Currently scheduled for release on June 30,
2006, the film will offer a sneak peak of Virgin Galactic’s offering—even
though optimistic estimates say Virgin Galactic won’t begin undertaking
passenger flights until sometime in 2008. That’s the definition of using clever
marketing to prime the pump of consumer demand, even if it is a rather blatant
example of commercial
product placement

Of course, having your company’s founder meet a fiery demise
may not be the best way to drum up business, particularly for an unproven
venture like space tourism. Thus, even though the studio has sworn Branson to secrecy
about his role in the film, it’s a fair bet that the Last Son of Krypton
successfully pulls the Virgin Galactic craft back from the brink. Moreover,
rumors have also surfaced that the flight’s depicted danger is not due to
equipment failure—again, that could be bad for business—but because a certain
arch super-villain tries to shoot down the spacecraft as part of his nefarious

We’re not naming names, and Warner Brothers has been
somewhat tight-lipped about the film’s plot details, but we do know for a fact
that two-time Oscar winner Kevin Spacey—who earned his first Academy Award for
his role as Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects,
helmed by Superman Returns director
Bryan Singer—has signed on to play none other than Superman nemesis Lex Luthor.
We’ll find out exactly how and why the Big Blue Boy Scout has to catch a
falling spacecraft next summer, but smart money says ol’ Lex is taking potshots
at Branson.

All in all, it should make for some stellar popcorn
entertainment—and a healthy dose of future Geek Trivia.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of
this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article.
Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and
discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week’s quibble comes from a Classic Geek, the June 22,
2005 reprint of the June 30, 2004 edition of Geek Trivia, “Grand old
TechRepublic member Bill
offered some additional minutia to our discussion of the origins of
the U.S. flag.

“The single most famous flag of all in U.S. history
(and I’m talking a single flag, not a
design) is ‘Old Glory,’ which flew over Fort McHenry during the siege of Fort
McHenry during the War of 1812. It is immortalized in the poem, ‘The Siege of
Fort McHenry,’ which became the basis for the song, ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’
the U.S. national anthem.

“‘Old Glory’ still exists; it hangs in the main atrium
of the Smithsonian Museum’s American History Museum. It has 15 stripes, and 15
stars, and is very impressively
sized, as one of the largest flags flown in day-to-day usage. (It’s huge.)”

All great points, dear reader. Keep those quibbles coming.

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The Trivia Geek, also
known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who’s
duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic
books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.