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SpaceShipOne June 21, 2004
Pilot Mike Melvill emerges triumphantly from SpaceShipOne after his historic flight on June 21, 2004, as Burt Rutan (in yellow shirt) and Paul Allen (in blue shirt) rush over to greet him. SpaceShipOne made history that day, but it wasn’t necessarily the harbinger of the future that many in attendance thought it would be. (credit: J. Foust)

Ten years later, still waiting for the future to arrive

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Ten years and two days ago, thousands of people traveled to a small airport in the high desert of southern California, expecting to witness history and the beginning of a new era in spaceflight. They certainly saw the former. On the morning of June 21, 2004, the White Knight airplane took off from Mojave Airport, with SpaceShipOne attached to the underside of its fuselage. An hour later, at an altitude of 14,300 meters, White Knight released SpaceShipOne. The small spaceplane, with test pilot Mike Melvill at the controls, fired its hybrid rocket motor, soaring to an altitude of just over 100 kilometers before gliding back to a landing in Mojave. SpaceShipOne became the first privately-developed and -funded crewed vehicle to fly in space.

Had you asked those people in Mojave ten years ago what suborbital spaceflight would be like in 2014, the debate would likely be whether such flights were a daily or merely weekly occurrence, not whether they would be taking place at all.

The expectation among the crowds celebrating the flight was that this event was also opening the door to a future where trips to space were more frequent, less expensive, and within the reach of individuals rather than government agencies. SpaceShipOne demonstrated that a relatively small team—Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites—backed solely by private funding—Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who spent less than $30 million of his own money on the project—could develop vehicles to carry people into space. One of the lasting images of the day was Melvill, standing atop SpaceShipOne after the vehicle has been towed down to the public viewing area, holding a sign handed to him from the audience: “SpaceShipOne, Government Zero.”

The future though, like it so often does, turned out a little differently. After SpaceShipOne’s historic flight in June 2004, there have been only two more commercial human suborbital spaceflights: the two flights by SpaceShipOne in September and October of 2004 that won the $10-million Ansari X PRIZE. Had you asked those people in Mojave ten years ago what suborbital spaceflight would be like in 2014, the debate would likely be whether such flights were a daily or merely weekly occurrence, not whether they would be taking place at all.

SpaceShipOne’s successor

One reason why this outcome would have been a surprise a decade ago was that there appeared to be a vibrant industry forming around suborbital spaceflight. The Ansari X PRIZE attracted more than two dozen teams from around the world. However, many of them made little real progress on their suborbital designs, and either abandoned their suborbital plans or faded away entirely in the years after SpaceShipOne claimed the prize. (One competitor, Interorbital Systems, is still in existence today with plans to develop a series of suborbital and orbital launch vehicles, but still has yet to send a small payload, let alone a person, above 100 kilometers.) In an industry noted for its bangs, many companies have disappeared with barely a whimper.

One of the last X PRIZE competitors to fade away was Armadillo Aerospace. In the years since the prize was won, Armadillo worked on a variety of suborbital vehicle designs, including vertical takeoff and landing concepts that won it part of the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge competition, also run by the X PRIZE Foundation, in 2008 and 2009 (see “A wild finish for the Lunar Lander Challenge”, The Space Review, November 9, 2009). In 2010, Armadillo announced a partnership with space tourism company Space Adventures to develop suborbital vehicles.

By last year, though, Armadillo’s future looked uncertain. “The situation that we’re at right now is that things are turned down to sort of a hibernation mode,” Armadillo Aerospace founder John Carmack said at the QuakeCon videogame conference in Dallas last August. After one of Armadillo’s reusable suborbital sounding rockets crashed during a test flight early last year at New Mexico’s Spaceport America, he said he concluded that “we just weren’t going to get where we needed to go with that.” With the “crazy money” he set aside to support Armadillo expended, he said the company would stay in hibernation until a new investor stepped forward.

That leaves, among the X PRIZE teams, the successor to Scaled’s prize-winning SpaceShipOne. On the eve of SpaceShipOne’s prize-winning flights in 2004, Scaled Composites announced a partnership with Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group. Branson’s new venture, Virgin Galactic, would license the SpaceShipOne technology from Scaled and Paul Allen, and work with Scaled to develop a new vehicle, logically named SpaceShipTwo. At that time, Virgin saw SpaceShipTwo entering service as soon as late 2007.

“One of the things I think we’ve proven is that we’re not going to rush things,” Whitesides said. “We don’t have a company if we don’t have a safe thing, so we’re going to take our time.”

As of June 2014, six and a half years beyond that original date, SpaceShipTwo has yet to make its first flight into space, let alone begin commercial flights. Part of that delay was due to a design change: the company originally envisioned developing a vehicle very similar to SpaceShipOne—a “SpaceShipOne B,” as Virgin Galactic’s then-president, Will Whitehorn, said in a 2008 speech (see “Where’s my rocketship?”, The Space Review, July 7, 2008)—but decided to develop a much larger one to accommodate more people and given them room to float around the cabin. Technical challenges, particularly involving SpaceShipTwo’s hybrid rocket motor, have pushed SpaceShipTwo’s schedule back since then.

Last month, Virgin Galactic announced it was changing SpaceShipTwo’s rocket motor. Previously, the company was planning to use a hybrid motor that uses liquid nitrous oxide and solid hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene (HTPB)—a form of rubber—as its propellants. Sierra Nevada Corporation had been developing that motor for Virgin for the last several years. (Sierra Nevada previously acquired SpaceDev, the company that built the hybrid motors used by SpaceShipOne.) Now, though, Virgin will use a motor developed by Scaled Composites that uses a “polyamide-based” solid fuel instead of HTPB. The company describes the new fuel as a “benign thermoplastic.” Polyamides can come in a number of forms, including nylon.

In an interview on May 23, the day Virgin announced the motor change, company CEO George Whitesides said there was no single reason for the change. “We just saw better performance on a few different criteria,” he said, declining to quantify those improvements. “We think that our burn duration will be longer and therefore we think there’s the prospect of increased apogee.”

Some outside observers claimed that the HTPB-based hybrid motor suffered from severe vibrations that could have damaged SpaceShipTwo had it burned for the full duration of about one minute (the three powered SpaceShipTwo flights to date fired that motor for less than 20 seconds each time.) Whitesides, though, said that while “smoothness of the burn seems more promising” with the new fuel, vibrations were not an issue.

“We had gotten through the toughest part on both motors,” he said. “I think we actually could have put HTPB into the program and we were considering that strongly, but in the end the most recent data that we had looked really good for plastic.”

As of last month’s interview, Whitesides said the company was planning to resume powered test flights of SpaceShipTwo (the last, with the HTPB motor, was in early January) later in the summer. The company has been working on several other aspects of the vehicle in the meantime, including outfitting the SpaceShipTwo cabin as well as upgrading the landing gear of its carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo.

WhiteKnightTwo had been in the news last month because of reports of defects in the wings, variously described as cracks or imperfections. Whitesides said the issue came up during the first annual inspection of the aircraft performed by Virgin Galactic; previous such inspections had been handled by Scaled. “To be honest, we’re, if anything, being overly careful,” he said. The imperfections, which he described as extra adhesive for the wing’s composite material sticking out, didn’t have flight implications, but Virgin decided to buff them out. “That work is nearly done,” he said in last month’s interview.

So when will SpaceShipTwo start commercial service? “One of the things I think we’ve proven is that we’re not going to rush things,” Whitesides said last week in an interview on “The John Batchelor Show” radio program. “We don’t have a company if we don’t have a safe thing, so we’re going to take our time.”

The company does have internal schedules, he acknowledged. “We have an internal milestone, basically, to fly Richard [Branson] by the end of the year, and we’re going to try and accomplish that,” he said. “But we’re going to take the time it needs.”

Virgin’s competition

While none of the other teams that competed for the Ansari X PRIZE a decade ago remain in the suborbital human spaceflight business, Virgin is not without competition. Two companies that stood on the sidelines of the prize race a decade ago are developing suborbital vehicles as well, although both of them have seen their development go at a slower pace than expected.

XCOR Aerospace, for the time being still Scaled Composites’ neighbor on the flightline at Mojave Air and Space Port (the company is planning to move to Midland, Texas, once the airport there has a spaceport license and completes the refurbishment of a hangar that XCOR will use), has been working on suborbital vehicle designs for more than a decade, initially with a concept called Xerus. In 2008, it rolled out a new design, called Lynx, which the company is developing now (see “One size may not fit all”, The Space Review, March 31, 2008).

“And it probably is a good thing we don’t have a billionaire writing checks for us because that would enable us to hire a lot of people, and then we eat a lot of money,” Greason said. “It’s hard to figure out how to make things cheaper by spending a lot of money.”

XCOR’s progress has been limited less by any technical issues than by financial ones. The company has relied on modest amounts of investment from “angel” investors and contract work, rather than wealthy founders or institutional investment, to support the company. That has slowed progress at times: as a recent article in Forbes noted, the company at one point had to lay off half its staff and its executives went more than a year without taking a salary during the financial crisis several years ago.

The financial situation appears to be improving for the company, though. Last month, XCOR announced a “first closing” of a Series B financing round, led by one of XCOR’s customers, Space Expedition Corporation (SXC). That $14.2-million round, plus some additional funding the company expects to raise in the near future from other investors the company said it’s in discussions with, will allow the company to bring the Lynx to market.

That doesn’t mean, though, that Lynx will begin commercial flights soon. Company officials have indicated that they expect the Lynx Mark I prototype to start flying later this year, but it will go through an extensive test program. “We think that 12 to 18 months is a reasonable length for a flight test program,” Rick Searfoss, the former astronaut who is XCOR’s chief test pilot, said in a presentation at the International Space Development Conference in Los Angeles in May. He said he estimated a test program of 40 to 50 flights, gradually expanding the vehicle’s flight envelope, but it would depend on the progress they made in the test program. “It’s going to take more flights than you think.”

XCOR has raised a total of about $30 million, plus revenue from projects. By contrast, Virgin Galactic has rasied several hundred million from Virgin Group and Abu Dhabi-based Aabar Investments. That contrast in funding has shaped XCOR’s development philosophy.

“We are moving towards an orbital system, but we have to take it step by step because we don’t have a billionaire writing checks for us,” XCOR CEO Jeff Greason said Friday in a talk at the ideacity conference in Toronto. “And it probably is a good thing we don’t have a billionaire writing checks for us because that would enable us to hire a lot of people, and then we eat a lot of money. As I sometimes say, it’s hard to figure out how to make things cheaper by spending a lot of money.”

Another Virgin competitor that does, in fact, have “a billionaire writing checks” for it is Blue Origin, the company founded and funded by CEO Jeff Bezos. Blue Origin has also been around for more than a decade, working on designs for suborbital and orbital crewed spacecraft. The company, though, is perhaps best known for the veil of secrecy that surrounds its operations, making it difficult to tell what progress it is making, or difficulties it is encountering.

Last December, the company lifted that veil a bit to discuss a technical milestone: the successful test of a new rocket engine, the BE-3, that the company plans to use on its New Shepard suborbital spacecraft and a future orbital vehicle (see “Blue Origin takes another small step towards human spaceflight”, The Space Review, December 9, 2013). The company offered few hints of its future plans, though, declining to discuss issues like flight schedules and pricing, other than it hopes to have New Shepard flying in “the next several years.”

Certainly some of the reason behind Blue Origin’s slow development—a 2006 environmental impact study for its West Texas launch site projected suborbital launches beginning in 2010 with a flight rate of up to once a week—has been with technology. The company originally started work using hydrogen peroxide engines, but BE-3 uses liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. The company also suffered the loss of a vehicle in an August 2011 test when the vehicle lost control at an altitude of nearly 14 kilometers and a speech of Mach 1.2. “Not the outcome any of us wanted, but we're signed up for this to be hard, and the Blue Origin team is doing an outstanding job,” Bezos wrote in a rare update of the company’s website shortly after the failed test flight.

But in the space industry, visions and reality often suffer from violent mismatches, and early accomplishments are no guarantee of sustained activity.

Blue Origin’s progress may also be explained by a relatively unhurried approach, confident that the vehicle will be ready, someday, to serve customers. Bezos is willing to take the long view: among his other ventures is support for “The 10,000 Year Clock” being developed by the Long Now Foundation. The clock, as the name suggests, is designed to operate for 10,000 years. Bezos is providing the land on a Texas mountain where the clock will be located as well as funding its development. “Bezos is also active in designing the full experience of the Clock,” the foundation’s website notes.

Visions versus reality

As the differing paths taken by Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and XCOR Aerospace show, there’s no single reason to explain the long delay in commercial human suborbital spaceflight. Sometimes it’s the technology, sometimes it’s the financing, and sometimes the companies working on these vehicles are not in as great a hurry as the advocates and enthusiasts anxiously awaiting their flights.

But in the space industry, visions and reality often suffer from violent mismatches, and early accomplishments are no guarantee of sustained activity. In 1969, few watching the launch of Apollo 11 could foresee that there would be a gap in human missions to the Moon that is now more than 40 years long. In 1981, few watching the first Space Shuttle launch could foresee that the system would not only fail to achieve its cost and flight rate goals, but that it would also be retired in 30 years without a successor vehicle in place. And, in 2004, few watching the launch of SpaceShipOne could foresee such a long delay in beginning regular commercial flights of such vehicles.

So, is the space community, like Vladimir and Estragon, waiting for a future that will never arrive? Or will suborbital spaceflight be different: a future merely delayed? As these three companies move closer to launch, we may soon find out if that new era of spaceflight envisioned by the crowds that saw SpaceShipOne fly a decade ago can, in fact, be realized.