Waiting for the future for 15 years

Fifteen years ago, Mike Melvill celebrated a successful suborbital spaceflight on SpaceShipOne that, at the time, appeared to herald the beginning of a new era in commercial human spaceflight. (credit: J. Foust)

Sometimes the future takes us by surprise, advancing in different directions or at faster speeds than expected. (Take, for example, the smartphone you might be using to read this article, or the social media post that directed you to it.) Sometimes the future lingers out of reach, its promises unfulfilled for years or decades. Think of flying cars, for example, or fusion power. Or, commercial human spaceflight.

Fifteen years ago last Friday, June 21, that future appeared to have arrived in Mojave, California. SpaceShipOne, built by Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites and funded by billionaire Paul Allen, soared to an altitude of just above 100 kilometers before gliding back to a landing at the just-renamed Mojave Air and Space Port in California. It was the first time a privately built and privately funded human spacecraft had flown to space, albeit suborbitally, and seemed to open the door to a new era when “ordinary” people (at least those with fairly large bank accounts) could fly to space.

“I am absolutely delighted that we’ve been able to make a manned spaceflight,” Rutan said in remarks on the tarmac at the airport shortly after landing, with Allen and pilot Mike Melvill standing beside him. With only a few design changes, SpaceShipOne “looks like what it did in my mind back in 1999.”

I stumbled across those comments, and others, recently. When I went out to cover the flight back in 2004 (see “SpaceShipOne makes history — barely”, The Space Review, June 24, 2004), I brought with me a handheld video camera, with the intent of recording what promised to be a historic flight. The video, though, didn’t turn out well (it didn’t help that, during its powered ascent to space, SpaceShipOne’s contrail passed right in front of the sun). In that pre-YouTube era, I set the MiniDV tapes aside to review at some later date.

That later date finally came a few months back, when I stumbled across the camera in the corner of a closet. The tapes, remarkably, were still playable, although with distortions in some places. With a slightly jury-rigged setup, it was possible to transfer the standard-definition video to a computer for editing and uploading to YouTube.

The video of the flight itself was as bad as I remembered, including the struggles to follow the vehicle as it soared up across the sun. But also on the tapes were briefings held the day before the flight and a few hours after the flight. Those events were largely unaffected by my lack of cinematography skills: it was pretty simple to put the camera on a tripod, aim it at the podium, and hope people didn’t get in the way (which of course they did, sometimes, in that crowded auditorium.)

That pre-flight press conference was perhaps the more interesting of the two. Rutan, typically reticent to talk about his projects until they’re flying, was willing to discuss what motivated SpaceShipOne and what he foresaw it leading to. “We talked about a vision. We talked the fact that this would be an important thing to do,” he said, recalling a meeting with Allen. “It could inspire and open up a new industry.”

“I think we shared a common belief that unless it happens, there’ll be decades more of just government-funded” spaceflight, he added.

That led into a vision of suborbital spaceflight being commonplace in 10 to 15 years. “We have been studying that extensively,” he said, including the operating costs for doing so. “But I’m not a businessman, I’m not a person that runs the airline. I think while the airline’s being run I’ll be working on orbital or going to the Moon or something.” He was looking forward to orbital vehicles in that briefing, suggesting that the feathering technique used for SpaceShipOne could be applied to an orbital version as well.

While SpaceShipOne was competing for the Ansari X PRIZE (and would win it with two flights in late September and early October of 2004), Rutan was looking beyond that competition. “Ladies and gentlemen, you are seeing the pinnacle of our program tomorrow,” he said. “The pinnacle is the demonstration that you can, very safely and with very low operating costs, fly people up and let them look at the black sky and go weightless.” Competing for the prize offered a “significant return” on that effort, but wasn’t the reason he developed, or Allen funded, SpaceShipOne.

Pressed for what he saw as the historical context of SpaceShipOne, Rutan looked back nearly a century to the early days of aviation. “In four years, in 39 countries, there were hundreds of airplane new types and there were thousands of pilots,” he said, which he traced back to the 1908 flights by the Wright Brothers in Paris.

“I believe our real significance of this program is that realization” that spaceflight is not just for governments, he argued. “That realization will attract investment, and that realization will attract a whole bunch of activity and, very soon, it will be affordable for you to fly.”

Allen then recalled being inspired by Alan Shepard’s Mercury suborbital flight in 1961. “We hope this generates the same kind of inspiration for more private vehicles, private flights, that can give people the experience of space.”

At one point, Rutan was looking ahead to a second generation of vehicles that could fly people to space for $10,000 to $12,000. That, to him, was real space tourism, which he differentiated from the “barnstorming” of early flights at ticket prices of $100,000.

The post-flight press conference, by contrast, was less forward-looking. It instead focused on the flight itself, including the anomalies that Melvill had to overcome at the controls to keep the vehicle on track and just make it beyond the Karman Line. For his effort he received the first commercial astronaut wings, awarded by Patti Grace Smith, the FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, while the SpaceShipOne team received an award from the Guinness Book of World Records for the first commercial human spaceflight.

Melvill did take time to talk about the experience of the flight, including the views he saw, from the jet-black sky to the Earth below. “The Earth is so beautiful. The colors of the Earth, the colors of the high desert, along the coastline; all that fog or low stratus that’s over L.A. looked exactly like snow.”

“It was, really, an awesome sight. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” he continued. “It blew me away.”

Near the end of the press conference, Rutan revisited the future he saw in suborbital spaceflight. Larger vehicles, carrying six or ten people, would be more cost effective than smaller vehicles like SpaceShipOne, he said. He also talked about the importance of space hotels given that those flying on orbital vehicles wouldn’t want to spend their whole trip inside a cramped spacecraft.

Fifteen years later, that promising future remains just a promise. That blossoming of suborbital spacecraft, like what took place in aviation a century ago, didn’t materialize as Rutan predicted. The opposite happened: the number of companies involved in suborbital human spaceflight shrunk as most of the Ansari X PRIZE teams withered away after SpaceShipOne captured the prize. Others pressed ahead only to eventually run out of money: Rocketplane Global, Armadillo Aerospace and, most recently, XCOR Aerospace. All that’s left today is Virgin Galactic with its SpaceShipTwo, and Blue Origin with New Shepard.

Both companies assure us that commercial flights with its vehicles will start soon (see “Suborbital space tourism nears its make-or-break moment”, The Space Review, May 28, 2019). Virgin Galactic performed two flights to the edge of space (above the approximately 80-kilometer boundary that the US government uses for awarding astronaut wings, but below the 100-kilometer Karman Line) last December and this February. The company announced last month it will be moving operations this summer to Spaceport America in New Mexico, where it will complete its flight test program.

New Shepard last flew in early May, but that flight, like all its previous ones, carried no one on board. Company founder Jeff Bezos reiterated as recently as last Wednesday, at a “Space Summit” at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, that the company would start flying people later this year. Those will likely be company personnel initially, as the company has yet to start selling tickets or even announce a price.

But even if both companies do successfully enter service, suborbital spaceflight is no longer that essential step that Rutan argued 15 years ago was needed to avoid decades of government-funded spaceflight. Commercial space has attracted investment and “a whole bunch of activity,” as he put it. It’s just that the funding has gone to smallsats, particularly communications and remote sensing constellations, and vehicles for launching those spacecraft. If anything, there’s a glut of activity here, with an inevitable shakeout to come. But, at least some of these satellites and rockets are flying now, or will be soon.

Fifteen years ago, SpaceX will still a small startup yet to launch its Falcon 1 rocket. Today, it is a standard-bearer for the commercial spaceflight industry, launching satellites and space station cargo missions and, soon, astronauts to the space station (albeit with significant government financial support.) It’s starting to deploy its own Starlink broadband satellite constellation and developing the next-generation Starship vehicle that, with its Super Heavy booster, could help founder Elon Musk achieve his goals of making humanity interplanetary.

Jeff Bezos has his own big ambitions at Blue Origin that go beyond the New Shepard suborbital vehicle, which he has been increasingly open about talking about (see “Blue Moon and the infrastructure of space settlement”, The Space Review, May 13, 2019). When SpaceShipOne was making its first flight to the edge of space, little was known about Blue Origin beyond its existence. Now it is a major player, with the advantage of Bezos’ immense wealth backing it.

Suborbital human spaceflight may soon enter commercial service, with flights from New Mexico and West Texas and perhaps other locations, taking a half dozen people at a time on a weekly or other regular basis, enabling those people to realize their dreams of flying in space. But such flights are no longer on the critical path for the growth of the commercial space industry. In some sense, that general vision of 15 years ago, of a future expanded commercial space industry not dependent on the government, has already arrived. It just doesn’t involve—for now—flying people.

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