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SS1 landing
SpaceShipOne lands at Mojave Airport on June 21, 2004, completing its historic suborbital spaceflight. Why can’t tourists fly to space on vehicles like this today? (credit: J. Foust)

SpaceShipOne plus two

Two years ago last Wednesday—June 21, 2004—the space world’s attention was focused on a small airport in the desolate high desert 150 kilometers from Los Angeles. Or, more precisely, in the skies above Mojave Airport, as a small winged spacecraft, built using lightweight composites and powered by an engine that effectively used laughing gas and rubber as propellants, became the first privately-developed manned vehicle to cross the 100-kilometer boundary that serves as the demarcation line for space.

From a technical standpoint, that achievement was not that impressive: governments have been sending people into orbit, and not just brief suborbital hops, for over four decades. What set SpaceShipOne’s flight, and the two that followed later in the year, apart was in part that the vehicle was developed privately by a renowned designer (Burt Rutan) for a renowned billionaire (Paul Allen), who spent on the order of $25 million on the project. More important, though, was the belief that SpaceShipOne had opened the door to spaceflight by a much wider portion of humanity: people for whom the “Right Stuff” referred to not their physical prowess, flying expertise, nor academic credentials, but instead primarily the size of their bank account.

If SpaceShipOne opened the door, two years later people are still waiting to cross the threshold. While many people who attended the historic flight at Mojave likely felt that such flights were imminent—after all, there was a privately-developed spacecraft capable of carrying paying passengers right there in the skies above them—two years later there’s still no company offering suborbital space tourism flights today, and while several companies are currently selling reservations for flights, those may not begin until 2008 or beyond. This leaves some space tourism advocates scratching their heads and asking themselves, “What’s taking so long?”

A one-vehicle race

One of the reasons people were so optimistic about the imminent beginning of the suborbital space tourism market two years ago was that SpaceShipOne was not the only vehicle that appeared to be under active development. Some two-dozen teams had registered for the $10-million Ansari X Prize by 2004, with a number of them reporting active development on their vehicle concepts. In addition, there were companies not registered for the competition, like XCOR Aerospace and Blue Origin, developing suborbital vehicles as well. Even if SpaceShipOne faltered for some reason, it appeared one or more other companies would keep pushing ahead.

While many people who attended the historic flight at Mojave likely felt that such flights were imminent—after all, there was a privately-developed spacecraft capable of carrying paying passengers right there in the skies above them—two years later there’s still no company offering suborbital space tourism flights today.

What happened instead is that when SpaceShipOne captured the X Prize in October 2004, it took the sails out of many of its competitors. Teams that were working hard on their vehicles, thinking they had an outside chance of winning the prize should SS1 falter, instead backed off and retooled their efforts—or, in some cases, all but faded away. (See “X Prize losers: still in the race, not doing anything, or too seXy for the X Cup?”, The Space Review, September 26, 2005)

The lack of competitors was recently singled out by Rutan. “What happened to the other X Prize players? Have they given up?” he asked during a luncheon speech at the International Space Development Conference (ISDC) in Los Angeles last month. “I don’t see anything out there… it could be that some have given up.” (See “The space industry’s curmudgeon”, The Space Review, May 8, 2006)

Two years ago the prize organizers went to great lengths to play up the competitive aspect of the quest for the prize, going so far as, in late July 2004, announcing the launch dates of both SpaceShipOne and its perceived nearest competitor, Canadian team The da Vinci Project, at a press conference. This, despite the fact that while SpaceShipOne had already flown to space once, the da Vinci Project had yet to complete a full-up test of its balloon-launched vehicle. It was little surprise, then, that while SS1 flew to space on schedule on September 29, its Canadian competitor had already indefinitely postponed plans for an early October launch from Kindersley, Saskatchewan. In fact, despite plans for new vehicles, and an appearance at the X Prize Cup in New Mexico in October 2005, The da Vinci Project has yet to fly its vehicle.

X Prize officials have since said that they wished they had offered a second-place prize as part of the overall competition (an oversight they have rectified with the Lunar Lander Challenge they are managing on behalf of NASA’s Centennial Challenges program). It’s not clear in retrospect, though, that a second-place prize would have helped that much: SpaceShipOne was simply so far ahead of the rest of the field—the combination of competent engineering and strong financial support—that it might have taken the better part of a year, or longer, for a team to claim second place, assuming the prize was big enough to compel teams to strive for it.

Even this would not have been a problem provided that SpaceShipOne was still flying. The assumption among many space tourism advocates was that the winner of the prize would put their vehicle into commercial service soon afterwards. After all, the $10 million would likely only partially defray development costs, so it would make sense to put the vehicle into revenue service to recover the remainder of development costs and generate cash flow that could go towards a next-generation vehicle or simply a tidy profit. Who would build a vehicle to win a prize and then retire it?

But that’s just what Mojave Aerospace Ventures—the Rutan-Allen venture created to commercialize SpaceShipOne—did. With a contract in hand from Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, they could afford to take the lessons learned from SS1 and focus instead on developing a bigger, better vehicle, commonly known as SpaceShipTwo. SpaceShipOne didn’t fly into space after its second X Prize-qualifying flight on October 4, 2004; one year later, it was hanging from the roof of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, alongside another prize-winning aircraft, the Spirit of St. Louis.

“What happened to the other X Prize players? Have they given up?” Rutan asked last month. “I don’t see anything out there… it could be that some have given up.”

While some companies are still pursuing smaller vehicles, including Rocketplane Kistler and its Rocketplane XP vehicle, there does seem to be a trend towards larger vehicles. The Cosmopolis 21, a Russian X Prize competitor, has evolved into the larger Explorer with the backing of space tourism firm Space Adventures. Secretive Blue Origin has also been working for some time on a larger vehicle (more details below). Bigger vehicles offer economies of scale that can make all the difference in whether a business plan closes or not, but also can take more time and money to develop.

Good things come to those who wait

The fact that there are no commercial suborbital manned vehicles operating today, two years after SpaceShipOne’s historic flight, can be discouraging to many people. Worse, it may be two years—or more—before such vehicles enter commercial service, based on the public pronouncements made by the leading companies. That’s an awfully long time to wait for people who were ready to buy a ticket and fly two years ago.

This delay hasn’t necessarily diminished the interest in space tourism: according to Virgin Galactic, the number of people who have expressed interest in taking a suborbital spaceflight with them is in the tens of thousands, while 100 “Founders” have already paid the estimated $200,000 ticket price to secure a place at the front of the line. Space Adventures has been taking reservations for suborbital flights since even before SpaceShipOne flew, with over 100 people at last report putting down deposits for flights, despite not knowing exactly what vehicle they’d be flying in.

The challenge has been in part the classic problem of trying to manage expectations, particularly given the lack of information about the status of the various vehicles reportedly under development. Scaled Composites and Space Adventures have provided only limited information about SpaceShipTwo and Explorer, respectively, although Rocketplane Kistler has been a little more open about the status of the XP. Even these companies, though, would be considered open and communicative compared to secretive Blue Origin, the company created by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos to develop some kind of suborbital space tourism vehicle.

The challenge has been in part the classic problem of trying to manage expectations, particularly given the lack of information about the status of the various vehicles reportedly under development.

However, within the last week there has been progress on this front. Late last week the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation published on its web site a draft environmental assessment for Blue Origin’s planned launch site in west Texas. That document has provided observers with their best glimpse yet of what kind of vehicle the company is planning.

The “New Shepard” RLV, according to the 229-page document, is a vertical-takeoff vehicle loosely based on the DC-X Delta Clipper subscale demonstrator vehicle developed and tested over a decade ago. The vehicle will have a “roughly conical shape”, seven meters in diameter at the base and 15 meters tall. A propulsion module in the base will have one or more engines (an illustration on the cover shows four, although it’s not clear how closely this illustration matches the current design; no other vehicle illustrations are in the document) using “high test peroxide” (90-percent concentration hydrogen peroxide) and kerosene as propellants. A separate crew capsule (CC) atop the propulsion module would be able to carry “three or more space flight participants”, according to the document.

Blue Origin plans to have the propulsion module and crew capsule lift off from a pad, with a total thrust of 1,023 kilonewtons. New Shepard would fly under rocket thrust for 110 seconds, to an altitude of 38 kilometers. Under one scenario, the two portions of the vehicle would remain attached as the vehicle continued its ballistic upward climb to about 100 kilometers and then descend; the propulsion module would refire its engines at less than half-thrust to permit a vertical landing on another pad a few kilometers to the north of the launch site. In a second scenario, the CC would detach from the propulsion module shortly after engine cutoff; the propulsion module would make a powered landing while the CC landed elsewhere “using devices to induce atmospheric drag, such as parachutes.” Liftoff to landing would take no more than ten minutes. The CC would also be able to separate from the propulsion module, using solid rocket motors, in the event of an emergency.

Blure Origin states that commercial operations “may commence” with the New Shepard in 2010, but no sooner, with tests of various prototype vehicles planned during the interim.

The New Shepard launches will take place from a 75-square-kilometer tract of land within a larger parcel called Corn Ranch, about 40 kilometers north of Van Horn, Texas, which in turn is about 200 kilometers southeast of El Paso. The private spaceport would have training and maintenance complexes and basic support facilities, but little more, according to the document. The company anticipates needing an average of about 45 workers during the construction phase of the project and 20 to 35 full-time employees during operations.

That should be good news to space tourism advocates, right? Another vehicle, presumably well-funded, appears to be making solid progress towards operations. There’s a catch, though: according to the document commercial operations “may commence” with the New Shepard in 2010, but no sooner, with tests of various prototype vehicles planned during the interim. “The flight rate would depend on market demand,” the document states, “but Blue Origin anticipates rates up to approximately 52 launches per year of the New Shepard RLV.”

The lesson to be learned from all this? While prospective suborbital space tourists need several key attributes, such as good health and a fat bank account, the most important quality of all may be a healthy dose of patience.


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