Archive for Monday, October 11, 2004

Private space travel takes off

October 11, 2004


It somehow seemed appropriate that SpaceShipOne took off from an airstrip in the Mojave Desert just a few miles from Edwards Air Force Base. For it was at Edwards that a postwar generation of test pilots with ice water in their veins -- members of what Tom Wolfe called the "Brotherhood of the Right Stuff" -- took up one experimental rocket plane after another to push the envelope.

Their leader was Chuck Yeager, the drawling World War II fighter ace from the coal fields of West Virginia. In 1947, he broke the sound barrier notwithstanding a couple of broken ribs that had made it almost impossible for him to seal his cockpit hatch before blastoff. Yeager's plane was designated the X-1, and it was the first in a series of rocket planes that would eventually reach the lower limits of outer space (now defined as 62.5 miles above sea level). The last was the X-15, which between 1961 and 1968 set a number of speed and altitude records for piloted flight.

The Air Force was planning even more ambitious piloted rockets, like the X-20, an orbital space plane, but those plans were scrapped in favor of NASA's quick-and-dirty approach of lofting capsules into space aboard disposable rockets and recovering the capsules at sea. All the resources went to the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, while the dream of a truly reusable space plane was put on hold.

The space shuttle program, which began in 1972, was but a pale simulacrum of that hope. The cost per launch, which was supposed to be $10 million to $12 million, soared to more than $450 million. The turnaround time between flights, supposed to be a few days, became a few months even in the best of times. This isn't the best of times because a catastrophic accident, the explosion of the Columbia orbiter in 2003, has put the entire program on hiatus. Yet, while the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's shuttle has been grounded the private sector has roared ahead.

Skeptics will scoff at what Burt Rutan, the designer of SpaceShipOne, accomplished. They will note, rightly, that spending a few minutes in suborbital flight is no more than what Alan Shepard achieved in his Mercury capsule 43 years ago. And the method Rutan used, hauling a cigar-shaped rocket plane into the sky aboard a mother ship, duplicates the approach of the X planes from that same long-gone age.

Rutan's achievement is nevertheless enormous: He rescued manned spaceflight from the dead end that NASA reached after the last of the Apollo moon landings in 1972. SpaceShipOne has shown the way toward the development of a space industry that can pick up where government left off by turning space travel into something approximating airplane travel in the 1930s: an attainable luxury for regular, if well-to-do, folks.

Where SpaceShipOne is leading, plenty are eager to follow. Richard Branson announced that Virgin Atlantic would license Rutan's design to take tourists into space in 2007. Several other private firms are also building suborbital spacecraft. Still others are working to collect a potential $50-million prize for the first private manned vehicle to orbit the Earth.

What's NASA's role in all this? The president's space commission, which issued its report in June, had the right idea: NASA needs to get out of the business of hauling cargo into orbit. It should leave that mission to the private sector and concentrate on deep-space exploration and scientific research, sharing the fruits with industry.

The model should be the early days of aviation in the 1920s and 1930s. Washington didn't set up its own airline. Instead, it offered contracts to private carriers to deliver airmail. Many of them began hauling passengers on the side, giving birth to major airlines like United, American and TWA. Likewise, space travel needs to be developed primarily by private companies with some federal subsidies.

That represents a huge change from the government-centric paradigm that the United States, Russia, Europe and others have been pursuing for decades, and it is sure to be resisted by old NASA hands. But who can argue with success? SpaceShipOne has just blasted a hole in the argument that private space travel can't get off the ground.

-- Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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