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Allen, Melvill, Rutan
Paul Allen, Mike Melvill, and Burt Rutan pose for the media during a press conference Sunday afternoon at Mojave Airport. (credit: J. Foust)

Prelude to history?

Looking out the window of the media center at the Mojave Airport, you might imagine that you’re 150 kilometers to the southwest at LAX. Sitting in the distance on the airport tarmac is a line of jets: a Swissair DC-10, a Hawaiian Airlines DC-10, and a KLM 747, among others. These aircraft, of course, aren’t readying for takeoff; they’re just a few of the hundreds of jets in long-term storage at the airport. Those aircraft disguise the reality that this is a sleepy little airport, operating at just a few percent of its capacity.

Just because Mojave Airport is a relatively quiet place, though, doesn’t mean it has no ambitions for the future. Last week the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation awarded the airport a commercial spaceport license, the first ever awarded to an inland facility designed to accommodate RLVs rather than their expendable counterparts. And, of course, Mojave is being thrust into the global limelight as thousands of people, from leading media outlets to common folks, descend on the tiny town for what they hope to be a bit of history: the first commercial suborbital manned flight into space, by SpaceShipOne.

Confidence, excitement, and risk

One might imagine that the atmosphere at Scaled Composites to be hectic in the final days before the planned flight. However, at a press conference Sunday afternoon, Rutan exuded the calm and confidence of a person who had—or at least believed he had—everything in hand. Part of that was due to the schedule he set for his team: he believed after the last powered flight last month that the vehicle would be ready to fly again by June 15, but decided to add several days of cushion to the schedule by announcing the June 21 launch date. As it turned out, he was correct, and the vehicle was ready on the 15th. “If you had been in my shop yesterday, all day and all evening, the lights were out,” he said. “We’re not working on the spaceship. We’re ready.”

“If you had been in my shop yesterday, all day and all evening, the lights were out,” Rutan said. “We’re not working on the spaceship. We’re ready.”

Another reason for his confidence was the level of risk involved with the flight. While Rutan made it clear that flying to 100 kilometers is risky, the previous powered test flights retired much of the risk involved with the vehicle. “I personally believe we took more risks on the May flight,” he said, “because we went from subsonic all the way to 1.9 Mach number in our feathered reentry. I consider that the biggest step that we took in terms of learning new things on one given flight. I believe the risks we face tomorrow are small compared to the risks we took in May.”

Paul Allen, Rutan’s financial backer, shared in Rutan’s confidence. “There’s always a certain amount of nervousness, but I think it’s more excitement than anything else,” he said when asked how he was feeling. At a reception Sunday night sponsored by SpaceDev, the company that provides the hybrid motor that powers SpaceShipOne, company president Jim Benson expressed a similar sentiment. “I’m excited, very excited right now,” he said.

At the press conference, Rutan announced that Mike Melvill, the test pilot who flew the last powered flight of SpaceShipOne, would be at the controls for this potentially historic mission. In a brief statement, Melvill made it clear he was as confident as Rutan, Allen, or anyone else involved. “I enjoyed the last flight, and am hoping that this will be an exact repetition—just a little higher, a little faster—and I’m looking forward to it very, very much,” he said. Then he became more animated. “I am ready to go, boy, I am ready to go! We are going to win the X Prize! Put your money on it!”

Reading the tea leaves

As much as the media and public are interested in Monday’s flight, there has always been a lot of attention on what Rutan and Allen plan to do with SpaceShipOne afterwards. Rutan has made this difficult by not disclosing his flight test plans for the project until after the flights take place; announcing this flight nearly three weeks in advance was a significant and rare exception to that policy. However, Rutan dropped several hints during Sunday’s press conference about what the future might offer.

Monday’s flight, while flying to the magic altitude of 100 kilometers, will not be a qualifying flight for the Ansari X Prize. Scaled will have to make those flights later, although Rutan and Allen offered no hints when that might be. Rutan did say that since they believe their turnaround time for SpaceShipOne will be well under one week, they should be able to make three flights during the two-week window required to perform two flights to win the $10-million prize.

“I am ready to go, boy, I am ready to go!” said Melvill. “We are going to win the X Prize! Put your money on it!”

Rutan also laid to rest any concerns that SpaceShipOne might be underpowered to carry three people—or their equivalent mass—to 100 km: he said that if Melvill doesn’t turn off the engine Monday at the specified time, the vehicle would fly to nearly 130 kilometers. They don’t plan to fly the vehicle that high for now to keep from expanding the envelope too quickly.

After that, Rutan and Allen dropped vague hints that more test flights would be in the offing, in order to expand the envelope of the vehicle’s performance as well as understand how much it will cost to operate the vehicle. Rutan said his original contract with Allen included a provision called “Task 21” that would require Scaled to fly SpaceShipOne once a week for five months to get a better handle on operations costs. However, he said, “we jointly decided not to have that one funded, and see how the vehicle flew first.”

Whatever schedule of test flights that might be planned for the future, neither Rutan nor Allen see SpaceShipOne carrying passengers anytime soon. “Obviously these are test flights, and we’d like to see a lot more flights,” Allen said when asked if he wanted to fly. “Every flight that the SpaceShipOne has ever flown, including tomorrow’s flight, is an envelope-expansion flight,” Rutan added. “When you go out and stretch the envelope, go where you can, it’s not very prudent to carry passengers.”

Rutan has made it clear in the past that he did not intend to put SpaceShipOne into revenue service, but instead use it as a testbed for future vehicles to serve suborbital and eventually even orbital markets. Rutan noted that he and Allen formed a company, Mojave Aerospace, which actually owns the intellectual property associated with SpaceShipOne. The company is majority owned by Allen, because of the excess of $20 million he has invested in the project; Rutan has a minority stake because of the technology he has provided.

Rutan did drop some cryptic hints about what the future might hold. “The spaceship is model number 316 and the White Knight is model number 318. I will be making a presentation very quick of a model number 346,” he said. “Those are just numbers that I put on the napkin” that he used to sketch out the plan in his initial meeting with Allen. “The napkin will not be presented to the media until the spaceship resides in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington.”

He did suggest that while “barnstorming”, or carrying passengers for $100,000 or so, will take place soon, a mature space tourism industry won’t appear until vehicles are available that can carry passengers for $30,000-50,000, with a second generation that can lower the price to as little as $10,000. In any case, Rutan’s focus is on far more than just suborbital space tourism of any flavor. “Yes, we will be doing barnstorming,” he said. “However, we’re heading for orbit sooner than you think.”

Orteig vs. Kremer

Some people have compared Monday’s flight with some of the key milestones in aerospace, from the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903 to Lindbergh’s crossing of the Atlantic in 1927. The latter has been a particularly strong parallel: both Lindbergh and Rutan are competing for a prize, and both their flights have been, in some quarters, derided as little more than stunts. Proponents of Rutan and space commercialization have noted, though, that in the decades since Lindbergh’s flight transatlantic aviation has gone from a stunt to essentially its antithesis: a mundane, routine crossing in a jumbo jet, an experience to be endured more than anything. They are the ones who hope that Rutan’s flight heralds the beginning of an era where human space travel becomes, if not mundane, then at least more routine.

“The spaceship is model number 316 and the White Knight is model number 318. I will be making a presentation very quick of a model number 346,” Rutan cryptically said.

There’s no guarantee, though, that winning a prize and traveling to the edge of space will open such a golden era. Twenty-five years ago this month, a wisp of an aircraft called Gossamer Albatross crossed the English Channel, powered solely by the muscles of its pilot, Byran Allen. That flight won the aircraft’s designer, Paul MacCready, the Kremer Prize for the first such human-powered crossing. Yet in the last quarter-century the number of human-powered aircraft in service closely approximates zero. The Gossamer Albatross flight was a stunt, and little more.

Thus the multibillion-dollar question: is SpaceShipOne closer to the Spirit of St. Louis or the Gossamer Albatross? The answer, for now, is we don’t know: while there is reason to be at least cautiously optimistic about the markets that SpaceShipOne’s successors can address, either in suborbital or orbital missions, there’s no certainty that these markets will ever materialize, given the regulatory, financial, and technical hurdles that remain today. It will take years—maybe decades—before we truly know how significant Monday’s flight could be to the future of space development.

So what has brought hundreds of reporters, and thousands of ordinary people, to a small town in the middle of the Mojave Desert? Hope. Hope that this flight will represent a historic point, hope that June 21, 2004 will be more closely aligned with May 21, 1927 than June 12, 1979. Hope that SpaceShipOne and future vehicles will finally open space to the wider community of entrepreneurs and ordinary people that, for whatever reason, simply want to go. Hope may not seem like much alone, but hope is a powerful motivator. Here’s hoping for success for Rutan, Allen, Melvill, and all involved with SpaceShipOne on Monday morning.