The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Mike Melvill and SpaceShipOne
SpaceShipOne’s flight last month has been heralded as milestone for the “alternative space” movement, but more important is its role in a new space industry. (credit: J. Foust)

A new movement or a new industry?

In last week’s Space News Rick Tumlinson saluted the “New American Space Age” inaugurated by the first suborbital spaceflight of SpaceShipOne. The June 21st flight did indeed mark the beginning of something new and wonderful for the space community as a whole. The goal of the X Prize founders, to recreate the excitement and the risk taking found in the early days of aviation, has been largely fulfilled. Tumlinson was absolutely right when he wrote that “it signifies the beginning of the hand off from the government monopolized Lewis and Clark phase of exploration of near Earth space to private citizens who can now begin to explore and utilize space for themselves.”

However he also uses the phrase “Alternative Space movement” to describe the eclectic collection of small firms who are dedicated to carrying out the exploration and utilization he and we hope to see accomplished. It would be a mistake if this phraseology became the established nomenclature for these companies. To call this a movement is to move the effort out of the realm of business and entrepreneurs and into the realm of politics, and that would do no one any good.

These companies are not trying to change the world. Instead, they are trying to make a profit.

Of course politics will be involved, as it is in any human endeavor. The presence of Patti Grace Smith, the FAA’s associate administrator for commercial space transportation, in Mojave showed that even a purely private project such as SpaceShipOne still needs to be licensed and regulated by the government. As long as these new companies have to operate in the real capitalist economy of 21st century America their primary function is to make money. Unlike the civil rights “movement” or the conservative “movement” or the environmental “movement”, these companies are not trying to change the world. Instead, they are trying to make a profit. In doing so they will change the relationship between humanity and near-Earth space, but their function is to make money and provide jobs.

What we are seeing is the birth of a new industry, one that carries with it the hopes and dreams of space advocates all over America and the world. However, we should not confuse the legitimate desire for a new spacefaring civilization with the equally legitimate goal of building return on investment. Without the crutch of government subsidies or big contracts, this new industry has to compete out there in the cold hard world of the free market. There are tens or hundreds of thousands of companies and products clamoring for a piece of somebody’s disposable income. Soon Rutan and the other space tourism pioneers are going to be trying to sell tickets to a public that is overwhelmed with choices on how to spend not only their money but also their precious leisure time.

Passenger-carrying suborbital flight is going to be the most popular and widespread form of space tourism for a long time to come. Within a decade it will be as popular and probably as banal as recreational skydiving. A thrill that once was only confined to the military and to a few hobbyists and experts is now a recognized and regulated sport, similar is some ways to scuba diving. Being strapped into a rocket that someone else is flying can scarcely be considered a sport, but it is a leisure activity that will attract the bold and the brave for decades to come.

While investors may be willing to make a contribution to a movement, they will be extremely reluctant to invest in anything other than an industry.

For this new industry to truly thrive these vehicles will have to reach orbit. It will not be easy to get from X Prize-class craft like SpaceShipOne to a genuine orbital spaceplane. A genuine step-by-step process, with the companies or teams trying to outdo one another, is what it will take. In this respect the X Prize Cup project, to be held in New Mexico, will provide a locus for these competitive developments. It will be interesting to see if the anticipated improvements in performance come more from large investments for small incremental gains, or will they come from strokes of genius such as we have come to expect from Burt Rutan.

The most important thing is that Tumlinson has it right. “The door has been blown off its hinges.” Everything has changed, but what has not changed is the need for investors to see not only the huge potential returns from this new industry, but also they need to be reassured that they are putting their money into something solid and well thought out. While they may be willing to make a contribution to a movement, they will be extremely reluctant to invest in anything other than an industry.