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Six years ago today SpaceShipOne flew to space, a milestone considered a victory by commercial ventures over government programs. (credit: D. Webber)

SpaceShipOne, government one?


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Six years ago today—like today a Monday—history was made in the skies above Mojave Air and Space Port in the California desert. A small rocketplane with a single pilot aboard detached from its carrier aircraft, ignited its hybrid rocket engine, and soared to an altitude of just over 100 kilometers before gliding to a landing back in Mojave. That vehicle, of course, was SpaceShipOne, and on June 21, 2004, it became the first manned private vehicle—built by Scaled Composites and funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen—to fly into space, if only suborbitally.

Who needed bloated, slow government space programs when the private sector now appeared capable of taking over the crown jewel of spaceflight: carrying humans into space?

One of the most iconic images of that day actually came well after the landing, when SpaceShipOne was towed over to a public viewing area. Mike Melvill, who flew SpaceShipOne on its historic flight, can be seen standing on top of the vehicle clutching a sign handed to him from one of the thousands who came to see the flight. The sign’s message: “SpaceShipOne, Government Zero”.

The sign seemed to encapsulate the message from that day. Who needed bloated, slow government space programs when the private sector now appeared capable of taking over the crown jewel of spaceflight: carrying humans into space? With the successful flight of SpaceShipOne—carried out, advocates noted, for a fraction of the cost of a government-run program—commercial human spaceflight, at least suborbitally, seemed right around the corner. It would only be a matter of time, proponents argued, before these vehicles evolved into orbital vehicles that would open up the solar system to anyone with a sufficient balance in the bank account.

Six years later, a more sober assessment of commercial human spaceflight is in order. SpaceShipOne flew two more times, the two flights it needed to capture the $10-million Ansari X PRIZE, later in 2004. SpaceShipOne was retired after the prizewinning flight, and now hangs in the National Air and Space Museum alongside the Spirit of St. Louis and the Bell X-1. Since that last flight there have been precisely zero commercial suborbital human spaceflights, despite the promises made by some in those heady days six years ago.

There is no single reason that the era of commercial suborbital spaceflight has taken longer to emerge than many originally expected or hoped. Some companies have struggled with raising funding, especially those who don’t have a wealthy backer or founder supporting them. Conventional, institutional sources of capital are still reticent to enter this market, unsure about the risks, rewards, and just how long it will take for them to realize a return on investment. Many companies are forced to rely on smaller “angel” investors, who are more willing to accept the risks and more patient to wait for a return on their investment.

Even well-capitalized companies, though, have been slow to turn their plans into vehicles. When Virgin Galactic initially announced their deal with Scaled Composites in September 2004 to develop a commercial follow-on to SpaceShipOne, they anticipated starting operations in late 2007. Today, nearly three years after that initial start date, Virgin and Scaled are still in the test phases of SpaceShipTwo, which itself wasn’t unveiled until late last year. SpaceShipTwo has so far performed two “captive carry” flights, where the vehicle remains attached to its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft; there are rumors that a drop test could come as soon as this summer.

“We do not give a date for the start of commercial operations,” new Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said last month, nearly three years after the company originally planned to begin suborbital flights.

The reasons for the delays may be many-fold. Virgin officials have indicated that they revised their plans for SpaceShipTwo from a smaller vehicle that would have been an incremental upgrade from SpaceShipOne to a larger vehicle that could carry more people and have room to allow people to float freely during the zero-g phase of the flight after receiving feedback from their initial customers. There have been setbacks, too, including the July 2007 accident during a propulsion flow test of the vehicle’s engine that killed three Scaled employees and injured three others. And questions remain about potential technical problems with the vehicle: some point out the ten-month gap in tests of that engine, dubbed RocketMotorTwo, between May 2009 and March 2010.

Virgin officials have maintained that they are not driven by artificial schedules to enter service, focusing instead on making sure the vehicle is safe to fly. “We do not give a date for the start of commercial operations,” new Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said at the International Space Development Conference in Chicago last month. “Frankly, it will come when it’s safe, when the flight test program has given us the comfort to be sure that the individuals that we put on board SpaceShipTwo will come home safely.”

Virgin, though, is practically an open book compared to Blue Origin, the suborbital vehicle developer founded and funded by Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos. That company has been developing a suborbital vehicle called New Shepard behind a tight veil of secrecy that only now is the company raising, if just a bit (see “Blue is a little less black”, The Space Review, February 22, 2010). The company made a few test flights of a prototype, Goddard, in late 2006 and early 2007, but any tests since then have at least been small enough not to require an FAA experimental permit, as the Goddard flights did. Whether this is a sign of technical setbacks or a slow-but-steady development program is only a matter of speculation.

Advocates of government space efforts, though, should restrain any feelings of schadenfreude about the delays suffered by commercial vehicle developers. When SpaceShipOne first soared into space the Vision for Space Exploration was in its infancy, promising for a bright future for government human spaceflight by returning humans to the Moon by 2020 and setting the stage for missions beyond. What form those missions would take had yet to be determined, but many were optimistic that the Vision would get NASA out of the rut of low Earth orbit.

Today, the Vision—or, more accurately, the implementation of the Vision called Constellation—is at best in intensive care and, at worst, mortally wounded. In the last several years a human return to the Moon by 2020 looked increasingly unlikely given current and projected funding and the pace of progress on elements of the program like the Ares 1 launch vehicle and Orion spacecraft. The Obama Administration now seeks to cancel Constellation, salvaging Orion literally as an afterthought, repurposed to serve as a lifeboat for the ISS (and, cynics argue, a life preserver for jobs in the swing state of Colorado.)

So if big government human spaceflight programs are receding into the past, but commercial human spaceflight, even of the suborbital variety, is still in the future, where does that leave us today?

Even if Congress rejects the administration’s plan to kill Constellation, it seems doubtful that the program will just carry on as before, particularly since Congress has not in the past funded Constellation at the levels needed to achieve that initial timeline. With budgets likely to get only tighter in the years to come, as the country grapples with massive budget deficits and an expanding debt, securing additional money for government-run human spaceflight programs looks increasingly unlikely.

What this means is that, in short, the “Apollo paradigm”—large, well-funded government human spaceflight programs with specific goals and deadlines—might finally be dead. “The fact is that we have been trying to relive Apollo for the last 40 years,” NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver observed in a speech earlier this year. “We have not been able to recreate that since, and I am not even sure that we would want to, given even that did not provide us with a sustained presence in space.”

So if big government human spaceflight programs are receding into the past, but commercial human spaceflight, even of the suborbital variety, is still in the future, where does that leave us today? The initial answer would seem that we’re in a period of uncertainty: uncertainty about the future of Constellation, uncertainty about the timelines and capabilities of commercial providers, and uncertainty about the purposes and prospects of human spaceflight in general.

A more considered answer, though, is that we’re in a period of transition. Few would disagree that commercial ventures have growing capabilities. Given enough time and effort—and likely a fair share of failures—commercial providers will develop suborbital and orbital crewed vehicles on their own, particularly as the pool of private capital expands (see “Individuals pick up the space development torch”, The Space Review, this issue.) Is it possible, though, to accelerate that?

NASA is attempting to do just that with the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, supporting the development of launch vehicles and spacecraft to transport cargo to the ISS. Without COTS the two awardees, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, might well have at least pursued the development of their respective launch vehicles, the Falcon 9 and Taurus 2, but at later timetables and with different business cases. Thanks to COTS, not only will NASA have in the near future critical alternatives to international partners for delivering cargo to the station once the shuttle is retired, the companies will have vehicles that can pursue business elsewhere—as SpaceX demonstrated last week when it won a launch contract from Iridium valued at nearly half a billion dollars.

The commercial crew initiative in the budget proposal promises to follow in the footsteps of COTS. A commercial orbital human spaceflight system could have significant demand outside of NASA, from serving Bigelow Aerospace habitats for research and government customers to space tourism, but commercial investors are unlikely to offer the necessarily investment themselves, given their reticence to date in investing in less expensive suborbital systems. Government, in this case, is not so much the investor of last resort but perhaps the investor of only resort.

The realities of budgets, investment, and contemporary capabilities suggest that pragmatism, not ideological purity, is required if both government programs and commercial ventures are to be successful in the long run.

Critics argue that many commercial providers are unproven, but that argument is harder to make now after the successful launch earlier this month of the Falcon 9, let alone when examining the track record of vehicles like the Atlas 5 and Delta 4. While SpaceX and Orbital have both fallen behind their original COTS schedules—another argument of critics—schedule delays are, for better or worse, common to aerospace and other ventures, be they privately or publicly funded. To give but one example, the Boeing 787 jetliner was slated to make its first test flight in the summer of 2007; it instead flew last December, nearly two and a half years behind schedule.

NASA is also, indirectly, lending a helping hand to commercial suborbital vehicle developers with its Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research (CRuSR) program. This effort doesn’t fund vehicle development directly, but instead would fund the flights of experiments—and potentially one day researchers—on commercial suborbital vehicles. This benefits NASA and the research community by providing a less expensive, more capable option to carry out a wide range of experiments, but it also benefits commercial vehicle developers by allowing them to diversify their business beyond just space tourism, and perhaps making it easier for them to raise money by providing a more attractive business case to investors.

What this suggests is that, contrary to the rhetoric of past years, the future of human spaceflight is more likely to be a partnership between the public and private sectors to some degree rather than parallel, separate programs. Such partnership might be distasteful for those who still seek to relive Apollo or want commercial ventures untainted by government money and influence. Yet the realities of budgets, investment, and contemporary capabilities suggest that pragmatism, not ideological purity, is required if both government programs and commercial ventures are to be successful in the long run. The sign Mike Melvill held up six years ago today suggested a victory for the commercial sector over the government. Today a partnership of the two might eventually be a victory for us all.


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