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SpaceShipTwo construction
While Scaled Composites is making progress on the construction of SpaceShipTwo, the beginning of commercial service for the vehicle has slipped from 2007 to 2010 or later. (credit: Virgin Galactic)

Where’s my rocketship?

“It’s the year 2000, but where are the flying cars?” demanded actor Avery Brooks, standing on the Brooklyn Bridge and surrounded by conventional automobiles, in an IBM commercial from that year. “I was promised flying cars. I don’t see any flying cars. Why? Why? Why?” The timing of the commercial (as well as, perhaps, the fact that Brooks had just come off a seven-year run as Benjamin Sisko, commander of Deep Space Nine in the Star Trek spinoff of the same name, and thus was still strongly associated with science fiction) helped drive the point home: here we were at a year that had long been universally associated with the future, yet one of features often linked to that future—flying cars—was missing.

Of course, there are a lot of reasons why flying cars haven’t, well, taken off, with technology, finance, and safety at the top of the list. (IBM’s argument in its 2000 commercial, that flying cars weren’t needed since we can all work together on the web with its software, is less convincing.) Few would argue that, if those obstacles could be overcome, there wouldn’t be a significant market for a flying car—after all, who hasn’t fantasized about escaping a traffic jam by soaring up and away from it?—but for now flying cars remain something of a disappointment, a vision of the future that has failed to pan out.

“We’re not giving ourselves a date” for the beginning of commercial flights, Virgin Galactic’s Whitehorn said. “We’re not in a race with anyone. We’re actually in a race with the word safety.”

Some might feel the same way about the field of personal spaceflight, also (and perhaps better) known as space tourism. Four years ago last month, SpaceShipOne made its historic suborbital spaceflight in the skies above Mojave, California, carrying with it the promise of a new industry. Within a few years, companies and other promoters of personal spaceflight claimed, vehicles like SpaceShipOne would be in commercial service, carrying passengers (or spaceflight participants, to use the official regulatory term) on a regular basis.

Of course, it hasn’t quite developed as quickly as first hoped: the last SpaceShipOne flight, on October 4, 2004, is the last commercial suborbital manned spaceflight to date, and SpaceShipOne itself is now hanging in the National Air and Space Museum. Some ventures have come and gone, while others have pushed back their timelines so that it may be 2010—or later—before a new suborbital vehicle enters service. And the longer the wait is, the more people start to wonder if there is some kind of fundamental obstacle or set of obstacles that might prevent space tourism from taking off at all.

The waiting game

Perhaps the best-known venture in the entire personal spaceflight arena, and the one best positioned for success, is Virgin Galactic. With the financial resources and marketing might of the Virgin Group and the technical expertise of Scaled Composites, Virgin Galactic appears to have all the tools needed for a successful venture. Yet they have fallen well behind their original schedule.

In the September 2004 press release announcing the agreement to license the SpaceShipOne technology, Virgin Galactic predicted that “subject to the necessary safety and regulatory approvals [it would] begin operating flights from 2007.” However, in testimony before a House of Representatives subcommittee in April 2005, Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic, revised that timetable, instead predicting his company would begin commercial service “in either 2008 or 2009” (See “Two scenarios and two concerns for personal spaceflight”, The Space Review, April 25, 2005). By the time Virgin unveiled the cabin design for SpaceShipTwo in New York in September 2006, the timeline had been tweaked further, with flight tests scheduled to begin in late 2007 or 2008 and commercial service beginning in 2009 (See “A sneak peek inside SpaceShipTwo”, The Space Review, October 2, 2006.)

Further complicating those plans was the tragic accident in late July of last year in Mojave, when three Scaled Composites employees were killed in an explosion during a “cold flow” propulsion system test. At the International Space Development Conference in Washington in late May, Whitehorn did announce that SpaceShipTwo’s carrier aircraft, White Knight Two, would be unveiled in Mojave on July 28, with test flights to begin in August or September. However, he declined to estimate when the system would enter commercial service. “We’re not giving ourselves a date” for the beginning of commercial flights, he said. “We’re not in a race with anyone. We’re actually in a race with the word safety.”

Whitehorn said in his speech that Virgin “thought very hard” about building effectively a revised version of SpaceShipOne, which Whitehorn called “SpaceShipOne B”, rather than the larger SpaceShipTwo. Such a vehicle could have entered service much faster than SpaceShipTwo, Whitehorn acknowledged, but “it would have failed the customers if we did that, because they wouldn’t have experienced weightlessness in the true sense, strapped into that small cabin Burt [Rutan] designed to win the X Prize.”

Given the challenges that Virgin Galactic has faced, it’s not surprising other companies with lesser resources have encountered similar, if not greater, problems. Rocketplane Global encountered delays as company resources were focused on trying to develop the orbital K-1 vehicle as part of NASA’s COTS effort. Last October Rocketplane unveiled a revised design for the Rocketplane XP vehicle, abandoning the previous modified Learjet approach for a clean sheet design (See “Rocketplane reset”, The Space Review, November 5, 2007).

Rocketplane was aiming at the time to begin flights in 2010, although in a recent interview with the Oklahoma Gazette (a publication that has been critical of Rocketplane in the past) David Faulkner, chief technology officer and program manager of the Rocketplane XP, said that the company wasn’t going to set any specific dates until it raised the funding needed to develop it. “All I can say is that every investor who has come into this has certain expectations, and when you get into the design, it ends up being—for all of the players—a longer process. It’s taken longer; it’s cost more.”

“All I can say is that every investor who has come into this has certain expectations, and when you get into the design, it ends up being—for all of the players—a longer process. It’s taken longer; it’s cost more,” said Rocketplane’s Faulkner

Other ventures seem to be doing little better. Blue Origin, the secretive venture backed by founder Jeff Bezos, carried out three low-level test flights between November 2006 and April 2007 that required experimental permits from the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. However, the company hasn’t performed any such flights since then, although the company does appear to be actively hiring engineers. Starchaser, the British venture that vied for the Ansari X Prize, announced just last week that it plans to carry out a test launch from the UK in September 2009. That, though, will be a relatively low-level flight of the Nova 2 capsule “in order to put the vessel’s safety systems to the test”. Full-fledged suborbital flights are currently planned to begin “by 2013”, according to the company.

There is some good news out there, though. XCOR Aerospace appears to be making progress with its Lynx design, promising to have the initial version of the Lynx ready in a couple of years. Armadillo Aerospace is also looking to get into the suborbital market relatively early, with founder John Carmack saying earlier this year he believed Armadillo “every chance in the world” of beating SpaceShipTwo to market (see “One size may not fit all”, The Space Review, March 31, 2008). Yet, for every promising venture like them, there are others, from the DreamSpace Group to Benson Space Company, that have either gone into indefinite hiatus or out of business entirely.

Is there a common cause?

It’s tempting to see these delays and setbacks and wonder if they are linked by some common problem. At first glance it’s not obvious that they are. While some ventures are struggling to raise money, others appear to have strong, or at least sufficient, financial backing from their founders. The diversity of technical approaches being pursued—air launch and ground launch, horizontal takeoff and vertical takeoff, hybrid propulsion and liquid propulsion—doesn’t suggest a common technical issue holding up progress. Other issues, like regulation and market demand, don’t appear to be playing a role, either: Virgin Galactic, for example, has collected over $35 million in deposits to date from customers.

So are all of these delays and setbacks merely coincidence, a string of bad luck for the nascent industry? Perhaps. It might also be that the industry and its supporters failed to appreciate just how big of a breakthrough SpaceShipOne really was. After all, none of SpaceShipOne’s competitors for the Ansari X Prize were remotely close to being ready to fly when SpaceShipOne claimed the $10-million purse. (Although The da Vinci Project had announced a launch date for early October 2004 for its Wild Fire vehicle, it cancelled that launch and never rescheduled it.) SpaceShipOne also had the advantage of being developed in secrecy, revealed to the public only when Scaled was ready to begin test flights: the public doesn’t know if you’re falling behind schedule if they don’t know you exist.

So Virgin, Rocketplane, and others may have run up against miscalibrated expectations created by the success of SpaceShipOne and the hopes of enthusiasts that it would quickly usher in a new era in commercial spaceflight. Instead, the road ahead appears longer and rougher than first expected, although that doesn’t mean it can’t be successfully traversed by one or more ventures in the next several years. Right about now, though, a flying car would be awfully handy.