Published October 05, 2009
It has been five years since SpaceShipOne screamed its way into the history books as the first privately built and financed manned craft to reach space. While that roar from the ship's rocket engine has long since dissipated, the aftershocks from its suborbital space shots are still being felt.
Roaring upward over the Mojave, Calif., desert on repeat flights, pilots Mike Melvill and Brian Binnie individually controlled the craft to the suborbital heights - and within the span of a 14-day period. In doing so, on Oct. 4, 2004, the $10 million Ansari X Prize was won - and the vision of non-governmental spaceflight became sharply focused.
Designed by Mojave-based Burt Rutan - the lead out-of-the-box thinker of Scaled Composites and his team - and financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, the barrier-breaking vehicle earned its stripes.
Its victory was hailed by the banner: "SpaceShipOne, Government Zero."
Today, at the Mojave Air and Space Port all appears in readiness for the combined test flights of WhiteKnightTwo and the sleek two-pilot, six-person SpaceShipTwo - the world's first passenger-carrying suborbital spaceliner. This outing is backed by British entrepreneur, Sir Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic company. Like SpaceShipOne, the new SpaceShipTwo is designed to be carried to a high altitude by a mothership aircraft where it can launch on suborbital trips.
Above the fold
Burt Rutan reflects on the wake left by the pioneering SpaceShipOne flights, the winning of the Ansari X Prize, and a glimpse at the road ahead.
"Our big milestone of 2004 occurred on June 21, the date of the first non-government manned spaceflight. The X Prize flights were an opportunity for our sponsor and our employees to get a 'well-done bonus' and to show that our June accomplishment was not a lucky fluke...that it really is feasible for low-cost space access to be offered to the public," Rutan explained.
Rutan proudly spotlights a "Google Trends" search that also shows the importance of their first manned spaceflight. The Newsworthy Record , that is the number of world newspapers that carried the story above the fold, showed that the June 21st story was the second largest news event of 2004 - the first being the capture of Saddam Hussein. Three of the five manned space flights of 2004 were flown from Mojave, California.
"SpaceShipOne was my 39th manned aircraft type to be flight tested and was clearly the most significant," Rutan said. "It was my last design...an opportunity to hand over the reins to the very talented young designers at Scaled."
Rutan said that he has continued to design new concepts as Chief Technology Officer and Chairman Emeritus of Scaled Composites.
"I may design a future aircraft or two, but because of the rewarding experience of SpaceShipOne for all my employees, I personally feel that my aircraft development career is complete," Rutan told SPACE.com.
Historic, game changing
A witness to all three of the SpaceShipOne flights was Will Whitehorn, President of Virgin Galactic. "Those breathtaking X Prize flights were worthy of every cliche in the book...historic, game changing...all in all, the right stuff!"
When SpaceShipOne pilot Brian Binnie shot skyward on the second of back-to-back suborbital treks to snag the X Prize purse, Whitehorn considered that historic day as "one which will change the face of the space industry forever."
And as the wispy contrail from that prize-winning run turned invisible, there were a host of judgments remaining, Whitehorn told SPACE.com. "Big decisions had to follow...such as whether to rebuild SpaceShipOne as a commercial vehicle, or take the braver and more costly decision to build a truly capable integrated space launch system," he said.
Fast forward to the present: The WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo is viewed as that space launch system. The combo of flight hardware not only gives space tourists what they wanted, but also supports human-in-the-loop science and launching satellites as well, Whitehorn said.
"It is now five years on and where are we? Flying the launch vehicle...firing the rocket motor...on the cusp of unveiling the finished SpaceShipTwo and of course watching a runway unfold in the New Mexico desert," Whitehorn added, pointing to the development of Spaceport America – home base for Virgin Galactic commercial operations.
"Hundreds of Virgin Galactic, Scaled and Spaceport America people are working towards a true industrial revolution in space," Whitehorn concluded. "I, for one, can't wait, but will never forget the fact that the Ansari X prize was a real catalyst for these events."
Quiet before the storm
"Right now is the quiet before the storm," said Rick Tumlinson, a leader in the NewSpace movement and co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation. He points to a trio of past events that has brought about the emerging space squall.
"The winning of the X Prize, the takeover of the Mir space station by private investors and the flight of Dennis Tito to the space station were the three shots that convinced investors that there was a market for commercial human spaceflight, a way to capitalize on it in the near term...and people willing to put money into the idea," Tumlinson said.
Comparing it to the moment before the flag is dropped on a race track, "the teams are building their cars and rolling them out to the starting line," Tumlinson said.
The Tumlinson timeline: Within the next few months the first companies will begin flights and within two years the first paying customers will be flying. Within three years the first commercial facilities will be overhead and within five years you will be able to fly commercially to orbit on a private spaceship.
"NewSpace has been through some major shakeouts, with only a few of the many firms surviving that were around when the X Prize was won. In fact,
Scaled Composites may be the only one of the registered competitors that did survive," Tumlinson said.
"It is important to maintain perspective. Some would have us believe that the X Prize all by itself signaled the NewSpace revolution. It did not," he added. "There were a lot of people working on a lot of important projects for at least a decade before it was won, and by itself it would not have been anything more than a news blip."
Tumlinson said that beyond Scaled/Virgin Galactic, none of the other surviving NewSpace firms that really have a chance to succeed competed for the X Prize at all. "XCOR and Armadillo Aerospace refused to participate, and the billionaire guys like Bezos, Bigelow and Musk are doing their own thing completely," he added.
New set of investors
Peter Diamandis, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the X Prize Foundation has a different take on the spark stemming from the X Prize.
"Since the Ansari X Prize was won in 2004, over $1 billion in capital has been invested into the personal spaceflight industry," Diamandis said. "Of the 26 teams from seven nations that competed, I would guess that about a quarter of them remain viable and are pushing toward commercial operations."
In looking back over the past five years, Diamandis said that one of the most important results of the Ansari X Prize involves credentialing this slice of the industry as real, as well as stimulating this market sector.
"People now know and believe that they can buy a private ticket to space without having to be a government employee," Diamandis noted. "Other benefits include helping to clarify the regulatory regime and bringing a new set of investors and sponsors to fund the entrepreneurs who have dedicated their lives to this industry sector."
Claims, rhetoric, and drama
While SpaceShipOne's snaring of the X Prize showcased the possible, as well as what was attainable, hubris shouldn't be the propellant for pushing forward.
That cautionary view is espoused by David Livingston, the host of "The Space Show" - a popular talk radio and streaming Internet program. On one hand, SpaceShipOne's victory started opening a tightly closed door for investment which is opening even wider today.
"That said, accessing space is not easy or dirt cheap - be it suborbital, orbital, or actually going someplace rather than just orbiting Earth," Livingston said. "While I believe the entrepreneurs and businessmen and women know how to kick the door wide open and establish needed space economic infrastructure to develop this new industry, I have my doubts about policy makers, our elected officials, and those motivated to hold on to old agendas that won't work for the new space economy."
Livingston sees an increase in the claims and rhetoric by enthusiasts, dreamers, advocates, and those wanting to be very much a part of a truly space-faring world.
"The risk here is that as the extremes in the claims, rhetoric, and drama get exposed to the light of the day as being nothing more than what they are, they fuel the arguments and unenlightened ways of those in power - or in influential positions - and they add to the risks of sidetracking or slowing down commercial space development," Livingston asserted.
The bottom line is that real space development is essential for our future, Livingston said. "Let's keep it real so we can achieve our goals and improve our world."