The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

SpaceShipOne raises its wings and tails to demonstrate its reentry profile for attendees of the rollout. (credit: J. Foust)

Rutan aims for space: A look at SpaceShipOne

<< page 1: technical interview

Why build it?

So, why go through the effort—and considerable expense—of developing, in essence, a rocket-powered glider? SpaceShipOne’s characteristics, notably its peak altitude of 100 kilometers and its three-person capacity, strongly suggest that it was developed as an X Prize contender. Rutan freely admits that he has been “inspired” by the X Prize, noting it was a driving force when he started conceptual work on the vehicle in April 1996.

However, Rutan believes that there is a greater significance for SpaceShipOne than simply winning a $10 million prize. Rutan points to the early history of aviation as another source of inspiration. In 1908, he noted, only ten pilots had flown, but by 1912 thousands had flown hundreds of different types of aircraft. A “renaissance” in aviation took place between 1909 and 1912, he stated, “because there was a feeling worldwide that ‘if a couple of guys in a bicycle shop can fly, then I can do it too.’”

By contrast, space has yet to see a similar renaissance 42 years after Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight. History is littered with a series of manned vehicles, “each abandoned when a more expensive one is available,” Rutan said. Political justifications for manned space, as well as the risk-adverse nature of space agencies, have resulted in few spacecraft concepts ever having been tried. “Space travel is primitive,” he said.

The lack of innovation in human spaceflight in the last four decades indicates to Rutan that “space travel is primitive.”

Despite the current state of human spaceflight, Rutan believes that it is possible for vehicles like SpaceShipOne to create a renaissance like the one in aviation nearly a century ago. “I believe I can do it,” he said, “and if I can, there will be a lot of other people who will also believe they can do it too.” He added that one group who will benefit from such a renaissance will be today’s youth who “have no reason to believe they will fly in space.” “If we bore our kids right now like we bore them with space travel,” he claimed, “we won’t have our future leaders.”

Veil of secrecy

Friday’s event was a rare public opportunity to get a detailed look at Rutan’s efforts. Although the project had been underway for two years, there had been little information about it other than rumors and the occasional photo of the White Knight that appeared in magazines like Aviation Week. While many had guessed that White Knight was designed to serve as a first stage for a suborbital winged spacecraft of some kind, there was no hard data about the design of SpaceShipOne—or even its name—until the rollout.

That veil of secrecy is expected to fall back into place immediately after the rollout. Rutan said that an extensive series of flight tests are planned, starting with captive carry tests (where SpaceShipOne is flown under White Knight but never released), followed by unpowered glide tests, and, once the propulsion system is ready, a series of powered flights eventually leading up to a full suborbital flight. However, Rutan declined to release a schedule of such flights, other than saying that captive carry flights would begin in the very near future with glide tests to follow in a couple of months. One rumor floating around the event was that Rutan was planning to make the first suborbital spaceflight on December 17, 2003, the one-hundredth anniversary of the Wright Brothers’ first flight. However, a source with one of the two companies developing propulsion systems said that a winning engine design would not be selected until late this year, suggesting that the vehicle might not be ready for suborbital flight by the anniversary date.

Part of that reticence to discuss a flight test schedule, Rutan explained, is that he doesn’t know how many test flights will be required. “We don’t announce a schedule of flight tests,” he said. “The bottom line is that we don’t know when we’re going to fly this.” He did say that Scaled would provide a monthly update on flight test activities on its web site. Those updates, though, would discuss only those tests that have taken place in the previous month, not those planned in the coming month.

A similar uncertainty hangs around the financial status of the project and its future plans. Rutan said that when Scaled started work on the project in April 2001, “I went out to look for money and immediately found it.” Rutan would not disclose how much he raised, or from whom, but when asked if the $10 million X Prize would allow the program to pay for itself, he simply answered, “No.” A list of frequently asked questions provided by Scaled said that the total cost of the development program is not known yet but “projections place it close to a Soyuz ride,” suggesting a cost on the order of $20 million.

Rutan hinted that “you might think of [SpaceShipOne] as a subscale proof-of-concept design for a ten-person spacecraft.”

While SpaceShipOne is clearly designed to win the X Prize, a competition designed to foster space tourism, there is no evidence that SpaceShipOne will ever see commercial service. Rutan said that SpaceShipOne would be certified as an “experimental research and development glider”, which means that the spacecraft could not be put into commercial service. According to Scaled documents there are no plans to offer rides in SpaceShipOne; the vehicle will instead be used for flight tests to determine what the operational cost of the vehicle would be “without the burden of regulatory costs.” Rutan suggested that “you might think of this as a subscale proof-of-concept design for a ten-person spacecraft” that would be better suited to serve space tourism markets.

What does the future hold?

Friday was not the first time a commercial manned spaceship has been unveiled to the public in Mojave. Four years and one month earlier, Rotary Rocket Company held its own rollout ceremony at Mojave Airport, displaying the Roton Atmospheric Test Vehicle (ATV) for the first time. Like the Scaled Composites event, the Roton rollout attracted a large crowd of aerospace professionals, space activists, journalists, and minor celebrities. There were speeches on that sunny, windy day proclaiming the opening of a new era in space transportation, where reusable commercial vehicles like the Roton would carry passengers and cargo into orbit for only a fraction of the cost of contemporary expendable vehicles.

It is tempting to draw comparisons between the two events, and use those to extrapolate into the future, knowing the sad fate that Rotary and the Roton ATV would eventually meet. Any such comparisons, though, should be made with caution. SpaceShipOne is a very different vehicle than the Roton, made by a different company and pursuing very different applications and markets. The failure of one should not imply the failure—or success—of the other. Time will tell whether Friday’s rollout was indeed the opening of a new chapter of space transportation or just another false promise.

While focused on the near-term development and testing of SpaceShipOne, Rutan seems content to wait decades for history to judge his efforts. “If, 20 or 30 years from now, there is super-affordable space access, people will look back and they’ll say that what we went out and did helped make that happen,” he said. “If that happens, if there is even just a tiny bit that we did that inspired others, then that’s everything.”