The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Binnie pointing skyward
Brian Binnie points to the skies after his October 4 flight, as (from left) Paul Allen, Peter Diamandis, Burt Rutan, and Richard Branson look on. (credit: J. Foust)

Now what?

It was an event more than eight years in the making. For the second time in less than a week, a piloted reusable suborbital spacecraft—SpaceShipOne—soared into the outskirts of space, more than 100 kilometers above the Earth’s surface, before gliding back to a safe landing at Mojave Airport in California. With that, the Mojave Aerospace Ventures (MAV) team—incorporating the technical expertise of Scaled Composites and the financial support of Paul Allen—won the $10-million Ansari X Prize.

The entrepreneurial space, or “”, community had long seen winning the Ansari X Prize as a major milestone towards opening suborbital and orbital space to a variety of new commercial applications. A number of people who gathered in Mojave Monday morning for the flight compared it to the Wright Brothers’ historic flight, and called Mojave the new Kitty Hawk. Others have long been skeptical of the viability of space tourism or commercial suborbital spaceflight and are more apt to dismiss the accomplishment as an interesting technical feat but a commercial dead end.

Who’s right? The answer to that question won’t become clear for perhaps many years, as events linked to winning the prize unfold. In the near term, though, there are a number of questions people are asking about the X Prize victory that can be answered.

Has the SpaceShipOne team officially won?

By all accounts, yes. Within minutes after SpaceShipOne touched down and was towed over to the VIP and media areas, prize foundation chairman Peter Diamandis announced the victory. “It is out pleasure to announce today, in Mojave, California, that SpaceShipOne has made two flights to 100 kilometers and has won the Ansari X Prize.”

A number of people who gathered in Mojave Monday morning for the flight compared it to the Wright Brothers’ historic flight, and called Mojave the new Kitty Hawk.

Two hours later, at a press conference at the airport, Rick Searfoss, the former astronaut who chairs the judging committee, made it official. He ticked through the various requirements, including altitude, schedule, and vehicle reusability, and concluded that SpaceShipOne had far exceeded all of them. “So in my official capacity as chief judge of the Ansari X Prize competition,” he said, “I declare that Mojave Aerospace Ventures has indeed earned the Ansari X Prize.” There may still be some formal i-dotting and t-crossing left to do, but there’s little doubt SpaceShipOne won.

While SpaceShipOne and Mojave Aerospace Ventures have won, they haven’t actually received the prize yet. The formal award ceremony, where the team receives the $10 million and the Ansari X Prize trophy, is scheduled for St. Louis on Saturday, November 6. Scaled is reportedly considering sending its entire staff—more than 100 employees—to the event.

What about the other teams?

One team winning the X Prize means that about two dozen other teams lost their chance at $10 million. One would imagine that they would be grousing or depressed about losing, but for the most part the active teams have remained upbeat. Many team representatives came to Mojave to witness the SpaceShipOne flights.

One example is Brian Feeney, leader of The da Vinci Project (formally known as The Space Program Powered by the da Vinci Project.) That team had come the closest to challenging SpaceShipOne, planning a launch for October 2 from Kindersley, a small town in western Saskatchewan. A little over the week before the launch, though, the team delayed the launch, citing delays in receiving key components needed for their Wild Fire vehicle.

So, on Monday Feeney, decked out in a black and yellow flight suit with his sponsors’ logos prominently displayed, watched the SpaceShipOne flight from the VIP area. Despite missing out on the chance to challenge SpaceShipOne, he remained upbeat as he said his team would go ahead with plans to launch their vehicle even those they can’t win the prize. “If we are second to the most accomplished aerospace engineer in this century or the last, that’s not too bad,” he said even while SpaceShipOne was completing its prize-winning flight.

“We need to have a competitive market,” said Diamandis. “We need to have not only the Apple, but the Dell and Gateway and HP of space.”

While over two dozen teams signed up for the X Prize, only a handful have made significant progress to date. Besides MAV and da Vinci, Armadillo Aerospace, Canadian Arrow, and Starchaser have all made strong technical and financial progress, although none are that near to flying a vehicle. Other teams like Rocketplane Ltd. and TGV Rockets have made significant financing progress, but are still in the design phase of their vehicles. A few, like ARCA in Romania and Advent and Space Transport Corporation in the US have made some technical progress, but haven’t demonstrated the requisite financing to be able to develop a full-scale vehicle. Many other teams registered for the competition have made little, if any progress, and show no signs of change.

Nonetheless, the X Prize Foundation wants to encourage the other teams to remain in the game. “We have one winner here today, but it’s insufficient to have a monopoly once again,” Diamandis said. “We need to have a competitive market. We need to have not only the Apple, but the Dell and Gateway and HP of space.”

Feeney is all for it. “It’s important that this is done by other groups and in different ways and at different funding levels,” he said.

What’s the X Prize Cup?

The X Prize Cup is the foundation’s mechanism for maintaining competition in the commercial suborbital spaceflight arena. It is planned to be an annual competition of X Prize-class suborbital vehicles; existing teams as well as other developing similar vehicles will be invited to participate. The event is scheduled to begin as early as 2005 as an exhibition of suborbital vehicles at White Sands in New Mexico. By around 2007 the event will switch to the Southwest Regional Spaceport, a commercial spaceport under development near White Sands.

A lot of the specifics of the competition have yet to be worked out, but at the SpaceShipOne flight as well as past events Diamandis has discussed a number of events for vehicles to compete in, ranging from maximum altitude to downrange distance, a new category Diamandis said cup organizers are considering. Few other organizational details about the Cup have been reported, although the competition does have its first major sponsor, International Fuel Technology, announced Monday morning.

Diamandis hopes the Cup provides a way for various efforts to continue to push the cutting edge in the “personal spaceflight revolution.” “While private spaceflight from companies like Space Adventures and Virgin Galactic are going to take it to a level and make it safe, we need a playground, we need a sandbox, in order to push the envelope, to go higher, to go further, to go faster,” said Diamandis.

Will SpaceShipOne fly again?

Perhaps, but not as a commercial vehicle. There had been speculation that, once it had won the X Prize, MAV would try to put the vehicle into some kind of commercial use, carrying experiments, but not passengers. (The current SpaceShipOne launch license from the FAA, which runs through March of 2005, does not permit for-hire passengers on the vehicle.) “A year ago, my gut feel was to go out and try to make a little bit of money flying payloads for DARPA and NASA,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of requests to do stuff like that.”

“We need a playground, we need a sandbox, in order to push the envelope, to go higher, to go further, to go faster,” said Diamandis

Rutan, though, now sees SpaceShipOne as an experimental testbed for follow-on vehicles, such as the one he will be building for Virgin Galactic. “Because of the announcement made on the 27th of September, my gut tells me that the additional flying we may do on this airplane should be focused on developing the very best space tourism vehicle, SpaceShipTwo,” he said. “We may find reasons to fly SpaceShipOne in a research mode to gather more data, to get a few more pieces of information that will help us do a world-class job on developing a commercial spaceliner.”

Assuming the vehicle successfully completes any additional flights, its likely final destination will be the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, perhaps as early as next year. “We do recognize the significance, historically, of this airplane, and we’re very attuned to wanting to preserve it,” Rutan said. One tiny part of SpaceShipOne, though, will be traveling much farther. At the post-flight press conference Monday he said a small sample of the vehicle would be incorporated onto New Horizons, the Pluto flyby mission scheduled for launch in January 2006.

What’s the future for space tourism?

By winning the Ansari X Prize, SpaceShipOne has overcome one of the key hurdles towards developing a commercial space tourism industry: it has demonstrated that there is at least one way to develop a suborbital reusable vehicle at modest costs that can be turned around for another flight in a matter of days. It also overcame the financing hurdle, by both finding an investor willing to bankroll its development, and, more recently, finding someone willing to buy new versions of the vehicle.

There are, however, several more obstacles the industry has to overcome. In at least the United States, there is a degree of regulatory uncertainty, particularly on issues like passenger liability. HR 3752 was meant to address those issues, and while it passed the House of Representatives by an overwhelming margin, it has bogged down in the Senate for months and now may be altered to the point where even advocates of the bill don’t want it passed. At best, advocates may need to start over next year and hope they haven’t lost the momentum that has built up over the last year.

“My gut tells me that the additional flying we may do on this airplane [SpaceShipOne] should be focused on developing the very best space tourism vehicle, SpaceShipTwo,” siad Rutan

There’s also the question of just how large the market is. Studies have shown that there appears to be considerable demand for suborbital space tourism, and Space Adventures boasts a waiting list of more than 100 people interested enough to pay a deposit on a flight even though they don’t know what vehicle they will fly on. How that demand will translate into actual passengers—and profits—is something that won’t be clear for a few years, once the first suborbital tourist vehicles enter service. There’s the risk that an early, highly-visible accident could have a chilling effect on the industry.

Those issues won’t be answered tomorrow or next week, but rather over the next few years. There’s no guarantee of success, but there appears to be no shortage of qualified people willing and able to try. Suborbital space tourism might be dismissed as joyrides for the rich, and at that superficial level those critics are correct. But it may also be the first stepping stone towards routine, affordable access to space for all sorts of applications, the cornerstone of many a space advocate’s vision of a spacefaring civilization. On Monday, SpaceShipOne took a big step forward towards that goal.