Paul Allen’s past (and future) in space
by Jeff Foust
|Allen’s relationship with Scaled Composites and its legendary founder, Burt Rutan, started with a meeting in Mojave in September 1996.|
Allen had shown little public interest in spaceflight, commercial or otherwise, prior to his involvement in SpaceShipOne (which itself was not announced until after the first powered flight of the vehicle in December 2003, eight months after its unveiling in Mojave, California.) And, after Mojave Aerospace Ventures (MAV), the joint venture formed by Allen and Scaled to develop SpaceShipOne, formally claimed the prize in late 2004, Allen dropped from the suborbital spaceflight scene as Richard Branson’s new venture, Virgin Galactic, started work turning the SpaceShipOne technology into a new commercial vehicle.
Now, a new book offers insights and details into Allen’s support of SpaceShipOne. Much of the public interest in Idea Man, Allen’s recently-published memoir, has focused on its passages dealing with Microsoft and Allen’s sometimes contentious relationship with Gates. However, one chapter, simply titled “Space”, is devoted to Allen’s interest in space and his work on SpaceShipOne.
Like many people of his age, Allen’s interest in space dates back to his childhood during the early Space Age, as the United States and the Soviet Union competed to achieve a series of firsts in spaceflight. This included voracious reading of any books he could get his hands on about space and aviation, and some experiments with homemade rockets. “Other enthusiasms came and went, but my obsession with rocketry endured,” he wrote. In April 1981, for example, he traveled to Florida to see the first space shuttle launch with another Microsoft employee, Charles Simonyi.
Allen’s relationship with Scaled Composites and its legendary founder, Burt Rutan, started with a meeting in Mojave in September 1996, according to the book. “Burt had already begun thinking about a supersonic plane that could fly above the atmosphere,” Allen writes. Two years later, in Seattle, this idea took the form of a crewed suborbital rocket. At the time, Allen said he had a relatively narrow goal: “I wanted to do something in rocketry that no one had done before.” He was attracted to Rutan because of his perfect safety record, noting that for space tourism to be viable, it would have to have safety “comparable to the early airline industry.”
There was just one problem: Rutan didn’t have a working design yet for the vehicle. It wasn’t until the next year that Rutan came up with the concept of the “carefree” reentry, where the spacecraft’s wings are feathered to give it stability during reentry. After finding a specific design that worked, Allen and Rutan signed an agreement in 2000 to develop what would become SpaceShipOne and its carrier aircraft, White Knight; in 2002 the two formed MAV.
Although Rutan attended the St. Louis event in May 1996 that formally announced the X PRIZE and was the first to register for the competition, Allen notes in the book that their effort was not originally designed to win the prize: in fact, the original vehicle design was apparently only intended to carry a single person. Only when the Ansari family donated the money in 2002 needed for the “hole-in-one” insurance policy that would fund the prize purse did Scaled modify the vehicle to carry three people as required by the prize rules. That redesign caused the price of the project to more than double, from $9 million to $19 million, according to Allen.
|Allen recalled watching SpaceShipOne’s final prize-winning flight with Richard Branson, who, as they watched the vehicle ascend towards space, said to Allen, “Paul, isn’t this better than the best sex you ever had?”|
As they competed for the Ansari X PRIZE, Allen writes that Rutan in particular didn’t think that they had any real competition from the more than 20 other teams that registered for the contest. In one case, Rutan called The da Vinci Project, the Canadian team that proposed launching a vehicle from a high-altitude balloon, “especially far-fetched.” (The da Vinci Project would make a last-ditch dark horse bid to win the prize, scheduling a flight for early October 2004, but never flew.) Curiously, Allen writes that they were concerned about “rumored covert efforts in Eastern Europe”, without offering more details.
Allen remained behind the scenes during the development and unveiling of the vehicle, emerging in December 2003 when SpaceShipOne made its first powered flight on the centennial of the Wright Brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk. That flight was not without incident when pilot Brian Binnie landed the vehicle too hard on the runway, causing the left landing gear to buckle and the spacecraft to spin off the runway. Fearing the worst, the incident in fact caused only minor damage to the vehicle. “I think we can get it back,” Rutan said to Allen; the repair work set their effort back about two months. (The hard landing, Allen said, was due to a vibration damper that made the flight controls less responsive after being cold-soaked at high altitudes. Engineers wrapped the damper in an electric blanket to keep it warm on later flights.)
One theme that emerges in the chapter is that, despite being cognizant of the risks of spaceflight, Allen was quite concerned about the potential for pilots to be injured or killed on these experimental flights. As Mike Melvill struggled to keep SpaceShipOne on course during its ascent on its first suborbital spaceflight on June 21, 2004, Allen recalled, “I can honestly say that all thoughts of the X Prize vanished. I kept repeating to myself: I just want him safe on the ground again.”
In a more humorous vein, Allen recalled watching SpaceShipOne’s final prize-winning flight with Richard Branson, who, as they watched the vehicle ascend towards space, said to Allen, “Paul, isn’t this better than the best sex you ever had?” Allen didn’t respond, but according to his book he did think, “If I was this anxious during any kind of interpersonal activity, I couldn’t enjoy it very much.”
After SpaceShipOne’s June 2004 flight, where the vehicle just barely made it above the von Kármán line (100 kilometers), Allen recalls there were concerns about whether SpaceShipOne could do the X PRIZE flights with a heavier load (it had to carry the mass equivalent of three people, although all the flights had only a single person, the pilot, on board). “In fact, SpaceShipOne hadn’t been pushed as close to its limit in June as it had seemed,” he writes. The vehicle was remarkably sturdy, with aerodynamic safety margins of 2.1 to 3 for various components (compared to 1.6 for a typical airliner), and engineers were able to reduce the vehicle’s weight to improve its performance. They also found they could put more nitrous oxide in the vehicle’s oxidizer tank by reducing the ullage, or empty space, that wasn’t needed since the oxidizer didn’t heat up and expand as much as first thought, in part because they took off in the early morning and quickly climbed to higher, colder altitudes.
While Scaled was working on preparing the vehicle for what would be its prize-winning flights, Allen was negotiating the vehicle’s future. A month before the June flight, he writes, Branson approached him about licensing SpaceShipOne’s technology. That led to an agreement signed in September 2004 “that could net me $25 million over the next fifteen years,” Allen writes.
|Allen said on the Charlie Rose show that space is “an area where I’m considering doing further initiatives.”|
When SpaceShipOne landed on its final flight on October 4, 2004, winning the X PRIZE, Allen felt a mixture of relief and excitement. “[N]o one had been hurt; I felt a huge burden lifted,” he writes. As they towed SpaceShipOne passed the assembled crowd in Mojave that day, “it struck me that SpaceShipOne was more than some momentary spectacle. It offered hope to everyone who aspired to journeys beyond the Earth.” Allen said that original plans called for one flight a week for five months after winning the prize, but those plans were cancelled after Branson expressed his interest in the project and the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum sought to display SpaceShipOne.
In the book, Allen discloses that the entire project cost him not $9 or $19 million but $28 million, a price in line with outside assessments that estimated the project’s cost on the order of $25 million. (When SpaceShipOne was unveiled eight years ago this month, a Scaled document stated that the cost of the project was projected to be “close to a Soyuz ride”, about $20 million a seat at the time.) Allen writes that not only was this “money well spent”, it generated a “net positive return” by 2006, thanks to the prize money (which Allen split evenly with Scaled), licensing fees, and the tax writeoff he got for donating the vehicle to the Smithsonian.
After winning the prize, though, Allen dropped out from the commercial spaceflight scene. “For a time I was tempted to stay involved in the effort to commercialize space tourism,” he said, noting his good working relationship with Rutan. “But I stepped back some months before we won the X Prize and watched from afar as Branson began development of SpaceShipTwo.” He adds later that he’s “betting it will succeed” and that there’s a “real chance of large-scale orbital space tourism within a decade.”
And, intriguingly, there’s a chance Allen will get back involved in those efforts. Interviewed last Monday by Charlie Rose on his eponymous talk show, Allen took questions on a wide range of subjects, including commercial spaceflight. “A lot of people talk about the privatization of space. What’s the future?” asked Rose.
After Allen described both suborbital and orbital space tourism, Rose asked if Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com who is now funding commercial space startup Blue Origin, is involved in the field. “Right, right, he’s very secretive about some of those things,” Allen responded. Then he added, almost offhandedly, “and I think it’s an area where I’m considering doing further initiatives.” Asked by Rose what he would like to do, Allen wasn’t specific, talking in general about the difficulties of orbital spaceflight versus suborbital. He also praised the “amazing, amazing things” Elon Musk and SpaceX have done developing vehicles to carry cargo and people into space.
At the end of the “Space” chapter of Idea Man, Allen describes going to Baikonur in 2009 to watch the launch of his former Microsoft colleague and fellow shuttle launch observer Charles Simonyi, who was making a second trip to space as a tourist. Allen writes that while he was once interested in going himself, he is no longer. “But seeing up close what’s involved in spaceflight gave me pause. I’m not an edge walker,” he writes. But his experience with SpaceShipOne, he said, helped him recapture “my boyhood sense of wonder when I’d looked up at the starry night.” He may, it appears, soon be supporting another way to capture and share that sense of wonder about the cosmos.