Modern aerospace pioneers are racing 62 miles straight up for the X Prize, and the chance to begin private commercial travel in suborbital space
Originally published in LA citybeat May 2004
“Go to the Air & Space Museum at the Smithsonian and as soon as you walk in you’ll see two airplanes,” says Dick Rutan, “the one that made the world’s shortest flight and the one that made the world’s longest. One was built by the Wright Brothers, the other one’s mine, and they’re both home-builts.”
Dick Rutan has a place in aviation history, even if he never sits in a pilot’s seat again. His 1987 flight in the Voyager, a nine-day journey around the world without stopping or refueling, made him and co-pilot Jeana Yeager world famous. After leading a team of volunteers to build the Voyager and then flying that airplane around the world, he’s now plotting how to leave this world altogether.
On June 21, Rutan’s original company, Scaled Composites, plans to launch SpaceShipOne, the first privately built suborbital space cruiser, from their facility out on the dusty, underused airport in Mojave, California. Dick won’t be flying it, since he’s working with another company now. But SpaceShipOne is designed by his brother, Burt, who also drew up Voyager, and is partly financed by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen. Incredibly, it is only the first of many such craft taking to the skies this year in pursuit of a somewhat rarified award called the X Prize.
There are three parts to this award: a lovely, though improbably large trophy; $10 million in cash; and a place in the record books next to Charles Lindbergh and Neil Armstrong. All the winner has to do is fly a privately funded spacecraft 62 miles above the earth, to the rim of space, come back alive, and then do it again in the same vehicle within two weeks. Considering the cost of such a project, quite a few people are taking their shot: 25 teams are registered. If Scaled Composites wins the X Prize, Mojave could become as famous as Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where a pair of bicycle mechanics named Orville and Wilbur tried a few experiments in flight.
Scaled Composites is certainly better funded and organized than the Wrights, and much more experienced at turning ideas into useful products. The Wright Brothers were failures as aircraft manufacturers, largely because they refused to admit that their original design could be improved. A glance at the weird craft on Scaled Composites’ website shows that this team has no fear of innovation.
Though flights such as Voyager’s demonstrate technical brilliance as well as courageous piloting, whoever wins the X Prize will have proved much more. The contest’s requirement for two flights in quick succession is a demonstration of something the commercial world desperately needs, and our National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) hasn’t been able to achieve – a reliable, reuseable vehicle that is inexpensive to operate and can go to the edge of space. Suddenly the involvement of guys like Paul Allen makes sense; the commercial and military applications could be massive.
To advance that goal via a prize is a time-honored method. The X Prize is being awarded by a private foundation based in St. Louis, the city where Charles Lindbergh decided to make his pioneering solo transatlantic flight. Lindbergh was inspired to make that 1927 flight in order to win both aviation immortality and the Orteig Prize, a wealthy hotel owner’s offer to award $25,000 to the first person to fly between New York and Paris.
X Prize Executive Director Gregg Maryniak said that Lindbergh’s flight changed everyone’s ideas about commercial aviation, causing an explosion in the number of both private pilots and paying passengers. “After World War I, there were lots of aircraft around and plenty of people who knew how to fly them, but no markets,” Maryniak says. “Air mail wasn’t a going concern yet and there were no real commercial services. Pilots who loved flying and wanted to make a living at it took to giving people rides – they were called ‘barnstormers.’ When it comes to space, we haven’t even gotten that far yet – we’re still in the era after 1904, when people knew that heavier-than-air craft could fly but they couldn’t figure out any practical use for that knowledge.”
Dick Rutan may be one of the last barnstormers on earth, and he plans to be one of the first ones in space. His dedication to flight is especially unusual because Dick has coped with fear of heights all of his life. “I have an acute case of acrophobia, which can be debilitating. When I go hiking, I can hardly stand to be near the edge of a cliff, but when I’m flying, it’s not that bad. I find myself starting some days looking at an airplane that has never, ever been flown before, and someone has to put his pink fanny in it and see if it works. When it’s actually happening, I’m too busy to think about it. When the flight is over, I sit on the edge of the ramp and think about it, and then I throw up.”
Asked if his boldness in the air has given him an affinity for high-stakes gamblers and other risk-takers, Rutan dissects the question. “What is bold? Bold is something you go out and do foolishly. My life is about risk management. An old pilot told me that the most dangerous flights you ever make are the routine ones, because you get careless. I treat every flight as high-risk, even if I’m just putting around in a Cessna. Check, check, and double-check.”
Though he disagrees with being called a gambler, Rutan is happy to be called a pioneer. “I hate to walk on trails when I’m backpacking in the Sierras – when you’re on trails you only see what others have seen. I’m pissed off that I was born too late for the Lewis and Clark expedition. Now there was an adventure! I’ve read everything I could find about that trip, and I just wish I had been there.”
Unlike the X Prize flights, Lewis and Clark’s expedition was undertaken at government expense, and led by military officers for the purpose of the nation’s Westward expansion. Though government-
funded programs regularly deliver satellites to orbit and scientists to the space station, at the moment the chance for any average citizen to take a trip into space is slim. Gregg Maryniak thinks that this may be because a logical step in the commercial development of space was overlooked. “Because of the space race with the Russians, we developed the idea that if it isn’t orbital, it isn’t space flight. We leapfrogged a profitable, useful, and economically viable aspect, which is suborbital flight.
“We were on that path for a while, with the X series of experimental craft, which were reusable and depended on incremental improvements in the manner of aircraft design,” he adds. “Then the Russians succeeded first with Sputnik and then with Yuri Gagarin, and we changed our tactics and left those innovative flights behind. We abandoned a successful pattern of operations … the aviation style of incremental testing steps.”
BUT WILL IT FLY?
NASA missed a golden opportunity, but several major aerospace companies and dozens of small players have been working toward suborbital flight for decades. The X Prize has concentrated their minds. As the contest deadline of January 1, 2005 draws near, teams of engineers are working frantically to assemble craft that can do the job.
Though regarded as a major contender, the winner won’t necessarily be Scaled Composites or even a team from America, since over two dozen teams from around the world have filed papers with the contest’s administrator, and been judged worthy of competing. (To be accepted, each team must present a design that a panel of aerospace experts agrees is suitable for human flight.)
The design concepts among the various competitors show a surprising diversity. At the low end in terms of innovation is the Romanian team, which is apparently getting promising results from ideas that verge on archaic. (Not quite as archaic as the design by Conrad Hass, the Romanian who invented the three-stage rocket – but as Romanian engineers love to remind foreigners, he did so in 1529.) Their overall design is reminiscent of the V-2, a missile the Germans were shooting at London at the end of World War II, though the materials involved are up to date.
Several other entries look primitive, among them those built by Argentines, some small American companies, and what seem to be groups of amateurs. But there’s more than meets the eye here. The Argentine vehicle, named Gauchito (Little Cowboy) resembles a 1950’s cartoon of a spaceship, like a leftover prop from the film Destination Moon. It is tiny and comical compared to some other entries, but it has a very sophisticated engine design and a good chance of working. Some are using technology based on Russian designs, or actual Russian material, as the cash-strapped government there has sold space suits and other items to entrepreneurs from all over the world. Plenty of unemployed Russian scientists familiar with this equipment are happy to have a decent job maintaining it.
Some X Prize entries use technology that is almost in the realm of science fiction, even by the standards of visionary aerospace professionals. They look like finned needles, disks, Lear Jets with rocket packs, or alien craft as envisioned by someone with a taste for psychedelics. The vehicles begin their ascent into space on gigantic rockets or tethered beneath the world’s largest helium balloons, piggybacked on aircraft or taking off as aircraft themselves. They come down dangling from parachutes or giant parasails, splashing into oceans or landing at conventional airports either as a glider or under their own power. Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne begins its descent to earth looking something like a badminton birdie and converts to a winged aircraft as soon as the atmosphere is dense enough to sustain conventional flight. ´´
The variety of creative approaches doesn’t surprise Gregg Maryniak, who says innovation was long suppressed by the government’s Cold War monopoly on space missions: “There have been very few different approaches because there have been only two competitors, and they both picked variations on the same theme: Strap people to an ICBM, and either let them come down at the end of a parachute, or glide down like the shuttle does. Each government picks one technique and pours in money, and other approaches get ignored. Even so, the real revolution in private spacecraft isn’t about technology, it’s about the market.”
What is striking about so many of these risky-looking would-be space programs is the degree to which they’re supported by private enterprise. Most are outgrowths of small cutting-edge aerospace companies, for whom putting the first non-government sponsored astronaut in space would be the best possible advertising. A few teams are supported by businesses you might not expect. The Canadian Da Vinci Project is supported by Sun Microsystems of Canada, and Mesquite, Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace runs on money founder John Carmack made from creating the computer games Doom and Quake. Though all the corporate spokesmen make reverent noises about advancing the human presence in space, most have an obvious eye on the economics of the high frontier. While other teams proudly exhibit the awards they’ve gotten for technical prowess, the Israelis make every bit as much fuss about the award they won for their business plan. When the prestigious Wharton School of Business starts honoring private space programs for their financial expertise, change is really on the way.
Many X Prize competitors plan on making their millions in space tourism, even if they don’t win the prize itself. Maryniak says their expectations are reasonable. “To paraphrase Pogo, we have found the payload of the future, and it is us,” he says. “In a recent poll, seven out of 10 people said that if they could buy a ticket to space, they’d go.”
A few people already have, including Santa Monica businessman Dennis Tito, who hitched a ride on a Russian craft and paid $20 million for the privilege – twice the amount to be awarded to the winner of the X Prize.
Space tourism is one obvious money-spinner, but the market for budget satellite launches also has plenty of room to grow. Steven Bartlett, an aerospace professional and president of the Los Angeles-based space activist group OASIS (Organization for the Advancement of Space Industrialization and Settlement), cites studies that say that the potential for growth is huge.
“Every one of us every single day depends in some way on space, we just don’t realize it,” says Bartlett. “A network of satellites supports your cell phones, your pagers, GPS systems, your television broadcast signals. If you build a rocket that can cut the launch price to half or a tenth of current rates, then you can put up a lot more satellites. Many of the benefits will flow toward poorer countries rather than to America. You want to see reliable cell phone service in the third world, satellites that would help them monitor weather and crop growth? Bring the price down and it will happen.”
Bartlett’s group has been sponsoring lectures, tours of aerospace facilities, amateur rocketry programs, and a children’s space art contest, all to make the point that the development of space has the potential to change our world for the better. During the years when enthusiasm for space seemed to wane, this job has sometimes been difficult. “It can be frustrating when people around you say space is passé, when you’ve got young people who are looking at computers, biotech, or health care as the growing industries. Now we’ve got the Mars Rover bopping around the surface of Mars and indicating that at one time there were huge amounts of water and possible life. Now that we have people right in our neck of the woods who are crazy enough to build their own reuseable launch vehicles – when you’ve got enough people here who said ‘yeah, we did it once, we can do it again’– it is heartening.”
Bartlett is clear that when he says “we” he means all humanity. “I personally will celebrate as much if an Estonian or an Argentinean or a Rumanian wins the X Prize, because it will prove it can be done. It will break that ‘Hey we’re stuck down here and nobody can do anything’ defeatist attitude. If somebody proves they can do it, then there’s going to be 15 people behind them saying ‘I can do it better.’ We will all benefit.”
Maryniak is eloquent when making the case for private space development as a boon for all mankind. “For many years, we have known how to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems using space. We are an island in an ocean of resources, and we aren’t using them because the cost of accessing them is $10,000 dollars a pound. Back in 1985, I was involved in a project called Lunar Prospector that was going to assess the mineral resources of the moon. We figured we could accomplish the mission if we spent $1 billion. NASA could never scrape together the money, so that didn’t happen. At the same time, companies in America and Europe were routinely spending that much for North Sea oil rigs.”
Obviously, if a boom in space resources and tourism begins, the people who make all those launch vehicles can expect to earn a pretty return on investment. So if these programs have such economic benefits, where might those benefits be expected to show up? Not in Mojave, at least so far, says Scaled Composites Vice-President Kay Le Febvre. “We’ve had over $20 million in sales every year for the last five years, but most of our engineers live in Tehachapi, Palmdale, or Lancaster. Most of the economic impact besides salaries is probably in the Los Angeles area.”
In Space, No One Can Hear You Scheme
When asked about other Scaled Composites projects, Le Febvre declined to comment, citing confidentiality agreements with contractors who hire her company to test new designs. The company has 19 different projects currently in-house, but she gave no other details. This was no surprise from a company so notoriously tight-lipped. The most famous outfit in the business is not giving away trade secrets for free.
Most X Prize contestants are similarly reticent, but some free-enterprise aerospace companies are open about their plans. SpaceX, the El Segundo company founded by the entrepreneur who invented PayPal, made headlines when it offered to undercut Boeing’s satellite launch prices by almost 70 percent. The company never filed papers to join the competition for the X Prize, but its technical expertise and low cost must have Boeing worried.
Meanwhile, a few doors down from Scaled Composites in Mojave, a tiny company called XCOR has quietly made a business of crafting rocket engines that are tiny, powerful, and very reliable. The company’s showpiece is the world’s only rocket-propelled private aircraft, a contraption called the EZ-Rocket. The 1,750-pound plane is powered by a pair of liquid-fuel engines that each weigh two pounds and are not much bigger than a wine bottle. XCOR boasts that they have done over 2,000 test firings of this type of engine without an incident. As engineer Doug Jones puts it, “Our company was formed in the summer of 1999 with the idea that America went in the wrong direction when they decided to use modified munitions to get people into space. They got much more power that way at a considerable cost in safety. Safety, operability, reliability, maintainability, that’s where we’re at. Airline-style operations.”
XCOR isn’t in the running for the X Prize, but company executive Aleta Jackson says she has even higher hopes. “We want you to own your own space-plane, and that’s not an impossible goal – it can be done with current technology. Making that technology accessible to everyone is why our company exists. We believe that what we’re doing will pay off for us and our investors because space tourism is going to be a big business very soon. We have a contract with a company called Space Adventures. They’ve been encouraging companies to build a vehicle, but they’ve had a problem. Nobody has built a vehicle because nobody’s taking rides yet, and nobody’s taking rides because there is no vehicle. We just got our launch license from the FAA, the second one ever granted for a reusable vehicle, and we want to be first to break that cycle. Space Adventures has a contract with us for 600 rides, which they’re selling at $98,000 each.”
Dick Rutan is XCOR’s test pilot, and even though he hasn’t captained that first suborbital passenger flight himself, he’s certain plenty of people will line up for seats. “This is going to capture the imagination of the world. Within the next three years, we’re going to make more astronauts at Mojave than NASA has in three decades. They may not know how to fly any kind of airplane, they may not be doing science, they may be terrified when they realize what they’re actually doing, they may be screaming, but they’ll be astronauts nonetheless.”
Winning the X Prize will make one team famous and at least temporarily profitable. Opening the frontier of space to tourism and settlement could make many people rich beyond their dreams, and do for some community what the automobile industry did for Detroit. As space activist Bartlett points out, Los Angeles is well positioned to take advantage of any boom. “We already have the headquarters of a lot of the companies that are building hardware, flying rockets. We have the Jet Propulsion Laboratory that routinely builds missions to fly to other planets. Many of the people who were there from the beginning are still around L.A., and we’ve got resources that don’t exist anywhere else in the world. Huge production and rocket engine test facilities such as Rocketdyne’s Santa Susanna test facility – building something like that from scratch would take many years.”
Some people are already preparing for success. The Mojave Airport has filed to be certified as America’s first inland spaceport, and the field’s restaurant is named Voyager after Dick Rutan’s round-the-world craft. Bartlett thinks that many benefits will flow to more established centers for space-related products such as El Segundo, but concedes that there would be a certain logic if Mojave reaped some benefits. “It’s the Wild West out there. It’s where the Air Force goes to test its planes, where the Navy goes to build and test bombs, that’s where a lot of companies go to do things either that are very dangerous or they don’t want other people to see. You tend to get a very different mindset out there. You’ve got to be a little bit crazy to be out in Mojave.”
Information on the X Prize and the various development teams can be found at Xprize.org. The Los Angeles space activist group OASIS can be found at oasis-nss.org. The website for XCOR is XCOR.com.