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Rutan and Whitehorn
Burt Rutan (right) discusses his vision for commercial spaceflight during a hearing of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee on April 20. To the left of Rutan is Will Whitehorn of Virgin Galactic. (credit: J. Foust)

Two scenarios and two concerns for personal spaceflight

If you happened to be on Independence Avenue on Capitol Hill in Washington a little after nine Wednesday morning, you might have seen a solitary figure striding swiftly down the street in the direction of the Rayburn House Office Building. For anyone in space community—or who remembered his image after seeing it emblazoned on TV programs and magazine covers—his trademark sideburns and leather jacket gave his identity away: Burt Rutan. Yet, he went virtually unrecognized among the crowds of staffers, lobbyists, and tourists who swarmed the sidewalks that morning.

Once inside the hearing room a few minutes later, of course, it was a different story: he became the center of attention as the room filled with members of Congress and their staffs, fellow witnesses, and others who attended the hearing. Once the proceedings started, Rutan used the hearing as a platform to describe two distinct visions for the future of space tourism, one considerably more robust than the other. However, he reiterated his previously-stated concerns that the current regulatory environment is ill-suited to permit the grander vision to become a reality.

Two scenarios

In his extended opening remarks (which lasted for just over 15 minutes; witnesses are usually asked to summarize their remarks to no more than five minutes) Rutan described two different scenarios for “personal spaceflight”, a phrase that Rutan said “we tend to use nowadays instead of space tourism.” (See “Is it time to dump the t-word?”, The Space Review, November 29, 2004.) In the first scenario, personal spaceflight will use lower-cost versions of classic boosters and spacecraft. “This activity might properly be compared to the trekking outfits that take courageous adventurers to the top of Mount Everest,” he said, adding that it would likely share the four-percent fatality rate currently experienced by Everest expeditions. Such systems could enter service in the next four to six years and initially carry 50–100 passengers a year, eventually topping out at no more than 500 per year.

Rutan believes relative safe, affordable suborbital spaceflight will attract huge numbers of passengers. “By the twelfth year of operations 50,000 to 100,000 astronauts will have enjoyed that black sky view,” he said.

Five hundred passengers a year doesn’t sound too bad, given that fewer than 500 people have flown into space since the beginning of the Space Age. However, Rutan found this scenario to be unappealing. As an alternative, he presented “a scenario in which the players do not find the dangers of spaceflight acceptable and recognize that extensive improvements in safety are more important than extensive improvements in affordability.” Such a scenario, he said, requires technological breakthroughs that improve safety at least to the level of early commercial aviation, which was 100 times safer than current spaceflight. Such systems, he said, “will be more like airplanes and will operate more like airplanes than the historic systems used for government manned spaceflight.”

Those required technological breakthroughs don’t exist for human orbital spaceflight, Rutan said, but do exist today for suborbital spaceflight, as amply demonstrated last year by SpaceShipOne. Successors to SpaceShipOne, taking advantage of those technological innovations, could open a gigantic market: up to 500 passengers in the first year alone, and 3,000 a year by the fifth year of operations. “By the twelfth year of operations 50,000 to 100,000 astronauts will have enjoyed that black sky view,” he said.

There is some evidence that such a high demand exists. Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic, the subsidiary of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group that plans to purchase several of Rutan’s next-generation passenger spacecraft, said at the hearing that 29,000 people have signed up to date on his company’s web site. “That’s 29,000 people who have said they’re willing to pay deposits of up to $20,000 for spaceflights within a range of prices of up to $200,000,” he explained. In addition, 100 people have signed contracts with Virgin Galactic to pay the full $200,000 up front. (See also “Banking on £805 million of promises”, The Space Review, March 7, 2005.)

To cater to those giant audiences, the vehicles will have to be much different than the relatively spartan SpaceShipOne. “This will not be the experience like you saw in SpaceShipOne, where you had a small cabin, people were strapped down, and they had little windows,” Rutan said. “The very first generation of commercial suborbital spaceships will be experience-optimized.” This, he explained, means large cabins with big windows, and an opportunity to float around the cabin during the four to five minutes’ worth of microgravity during the flight.

“We are working very hard on ensuring that this will be extremely attractive to the public, that it will be extremely affordable, and that it will be at least as safe as the early airliners,” he summarized. If those goals can be achieved, “I think this is going to be a much, much bigger market than anyone imagines.”

SpaceShipTwo and its brethren will feature large cabins and big windows, among other amenities. “The very first generation of commercial suborbital spaceships will be experience-optimized,” said Rutan.

In fact, it is a market so big that Rutan assumes that Virgin Galactic will not be his only customer for commercial suborbital spacecraft. “I expect to see, say, between five and ten years into operations, that we’ll have three to four operators with multiple sites,” he said, with potentially dozens of companies trying—and most failing—to establish spacelines to compete with Virgin. To ensure the safety of these vehicles, Rutan said he is considering a franchise-like model for selling these spacecraft, “like a Wendy’s: you buy our product, but you have to follow very carefully our rules on how to maintain it and how to operate it.”

“I don’t know if you want to use Wendy’s as an example,” interjected Congressman Ken Calvert (R-CA), chairman of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, alluding to the recent controversy in which the fast-food chain has been embroiled.

“Well, a McDonald’s franchise, then,” Rutan replied after the laughter in the hearing room subsided. “The important thing is, because of where we stand in the marketplace, I think we will be able to ensure that all the operators operate it safely.”

The trouble with regulations

Rutan reserved his harshest words of the hearing for the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), the branch of the agency charged with issuing launch licenses and ensuring the safety of third parties—the “uninvolved” or “non-involved” public—during launches. In the past, Rutan made it clear that he preferred to be considered as an aircraft and deal with the FAA’s aviation safety office (AVS, formerly AVR), a point of view that has put him at odds with much of the rest of the incipient commercial suborbital industry. On Wednesday he reiterated that position in strong language.

“The AST process, focusing only on the non-involved public, just about ruined my program,” he claimed. “It resulted in cost overruns, increased the risk for my test pilots, did not reduce the risk to the non-involved public, destroyed our ‘always question, never defend’ safety policy, and removed our opportunities to seek new innovative safety solutions.”

Rutan blamed this on AST’s history of dealing with “scenario one” types of vehicles, namely, expendable boosters. “Their process deals primarily with the consequence of failure, where the aircraft regulatory process deals with reducing the probability of failure,” he said. “The regulatory process was grossly misapplied for our research tests, and, worse yet, is likely to be misapplied for the regulation of the future commercial spaceliners.”

“The AST process, focusing only on the non-involved public, just about ruined my program,” Rutan claimed.

Rutan said he would very much like to see regulation of spacecraft like his shifted within FAA to AVS, but sees that as unlikely because of a current staffing shortfall within AVS. (Such a move would also be against the intent of the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act, approved last year, to leave the regulation of suborbital spacecraft within AST.) While AVS doesn’t have enough people, Rutan said, AST is “overstaffed” for handling launch licensing. “Much of the work done in an attempt to misapply the expendable-booster process to our aircraft was repeated numerous times with a staff that were not equipped to make relatively easy decisions and incapable of applying the needed waiver process.”

Rutan also took a swipe at another suborbital vehicle developer during his criticism of AST, noting that “while my company was already flying initial test flights and waiting for time-critical responses from AST, during 2003 and 2004, AST found time to expend extensive resources processing and awarding a launch license to a company that did not even have a vehicle in construction, or even funding for the project!” While Rutan didn’t mention the company by name, XCOR Aerospace received a launch license for a proposed (but as yet unbuilt) suborbital vehicle a few weeks after AST awarded a license to SpaceShipOne in April 2004.

Few members of the committee who attended the hearing, however, picked up upon Rutan’s criticism of the licensing process, at least in public. One member, Congressman Mark Udall (D-CO), the ranking Democrat on the space subcommittee, did ask Rutan if he had talked with FAA yet about the regulatory process for SpaceShipTwo, as the vehicle under development for Virgin has been generally called. Rutan said that he has had several meetings with FAA administrator Marion Blakey about this and finally succeeded last month in getting a meeting in the administrator’s office that included representatives from both AVS and AST. At that two-hour meeting “I made my point that the FAA does need to stand up to the responsibility of ensuring the safety of the passengers,” he said.

That process, he said, can be structured in such a way that it has only a “very minor effect” on the cost of vehicle development. “However, this is a subject that FAA seems to be afraid of,” he concluded. “They seem to be happy that they’re not required under the new legislation to certify these ships. I think it really comes down to the problem that they flat don’t have the people that are qualified to do it.”

Export control problems

While most people paid attention to the licensing concerns expressed by Rutan at the hearing, a separate regulatory issue could also pose problems for those developing commercial spacecraft. While export controls—most notably the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR)—have been a bugaboo for the space industry for the last several years, suborbital vehicle developers and operators are just now running into these obstacles.

While Whitehorn said in his testimony that export control issues, while not an issue of major concern yet, have caused delays in the program, including placing a formal order for the SpaceShipTwo vehicles. “After US government technology transfer issues are clarified and addressed if deemed necessary, we hope to place a firm order for the spacecraft,” he said. “At this point, due to uncertainty about possible licensing requirements, we are not able to even view Scaled Composites’ designs for the commercial space vehicle.” It wasn’t clear from his testimony if this delay has had anything to do with his later statement that Virgin hopes to begin commercial service “in either 2008 or 2009,” slightly later that the 2007 date when the venture was formally announced last September.

These problems have cropped up because Virgin Galactic is a British company, even though there are no immediate plans to export SpaceShipTwo outside the US. “I thought Britain was a relatively friendly nation,” Rutan quipped. Those export control issues, he said, “have been one of the reasons that we have had to move away from the basic concept of this being a foreign-funded development of the ship,” he said, although he did not elaborate on the financing issues.

“At this point, due to uncertainty about possible licensing requirements, we are not able to even view Scaled Composites’ designs for the commercial space vehicle,” said Whitehorn.

While SpaceShipTwo will initially not be exported, eventually there will be operators who will want to use the spacecraft outside the country; Rutan said he has received interest in the vehicle from a group in Dubai, among other places. The technology associated with such vehicles, though, means that Scaled and potential foreign buyers “run into very severe restrictions. We have wrestled with this problem in terms of technology transfer to Virgin Atlantic for about five months now, and it has been difficult.” Rutan said that, as a result, he has been discouraging potential foreign buyers “until there are routine commercial operations going on in this country, and it can be shown that, for the same reasons that we sell airliners to countries that we don’t want to have technology, that they don’t have to have the technology in order to operate a spaceline.”

Rutan and Whitehorn weren’t the only people at the hearing to express concerns about export controls. SpaceX founder Elon Musk, part of a second panel of witnesses overshadowed by Rutan, also noted his concerns about such regulations. “I think it’s important to minimize the regulatory burden,” he said. “Right now we have the greatest difficulty just dealing with people from New Zealand, UK, and Canada.” Later he concluded that “we really need to do something about ITAR. It is really hurting US industry.”

Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), former chairman of the committee, used statements like these to argue—as he has in the recent past—that a revision to export control regulation is in order. He has proposed a two-tier approach, with streamlined regulations for countries like the UK that are allied with the US. By the end of the hearing Rep. Calvert, the current chairman, promised to work to Rohrabacher to achieve “some streamlining to make this process work” more smoothly.

If these regulatory concerns can be worked out, Rutan believes that personal spaceflight could dramatically alter spaceflight in general. “The space market has never had any product, any payload, that is high volume,” he said. Because of that, many purchasers of launch services have not complained about the costs, because they spend so much more on one-of-a-kind payloads. “If we reach our goals on affordability and safety, it will affect everything else that’s done in space.”