SpaceShipOne: new vision in space exploration?

 - July 25, 2007, 5:19 AM

Based on the success of the SpaceShipOne (SS1) suborbital craft’s ascent on June 21 (AIN, July, page 2)–becoming the first privately funded manned spacecraft to reach 100 km (328,000 feet)–designer Burt Rutan is confident that he and his company, Mojave, Calif.-based Scaled Composites, will win the $10 million Ansari X Prize by year-end. This despite problems with trim control and rocket engine that occurred during the inaugural space flight.

Rutan confirmed to AIN that the trim anomaly that caused SS1 to veer approximately 20 miles off course was “merely a brief lockout due to a servo being forced to its stop. It actually began working normally within three seconds, at which time we were operating on the backup system.” Wind shear was the cause of the unexpected 90-degree roll to the left shortly after rocket launch, which also prevented SS1 from reaching its intended altitude of 360,000 feet.

SS1 pilot Mike Melvill revealed the suspected cause of the crumpled rear fairing around the rocket nozzle during an interview with MSNBC on July 8. According to Melvill, a piece of solid tire rubber used as one of two ingredients in the fuel (the other ingredient being nitrous oxide, or laughing gas) jammed the nozzle, causing pressure to build for only a second or so before the piece was blown out. “There was a very loud explosion, a lot of shaking going on, and I wasn’t sure I hadn’t lost part of the aircraft at that point,” Melvill said during the televised interview. “So that was scary for me.” Melvill said he had contacted mission control at that time, but “they didn’t see any anomalies on their instruments, so we just pressed on and hoped for the best. It was just something weird we hadn’t seen happen before with that rocket motor.”

Melville also revealed during the interview that Scaled Composites is working toward a late-September attempt to win the X Prize, which requires a piloted, privately funded spaceship to carry three people (or the weight equivalent) to 100 km, return safely to Earth, and repeat the launch within two weeks. Although Rutan would not confirm dates, he did indicate that the next flights of SS1 will be the X Prize attempts, with the first flight carrying only the pilot and 396 pounds of ballast to simulate two passengers. Rutan intends to make three flights during the two-week period to provide extra insurance of winning the prize, and has not ruled out the possibility of carrying passengers in the last two flights.

Scaled Composites’ suborbital space program is being funded solely by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who has reportedly sunk more than $20 million into the project. Although it seems like a poor business decision to spend $20 million on a $10 million prize, the SS1 program may generate licensable technologies that Allen’s company, Vulcan, would own. “With a relatively modest budget we can take off-the-shelf technology and… lead the way forward for future initiatives, whether it’s something that Burt and I work on or we work on with other partners,” Allen said during a June 20 press conference.

Space–The New Tourism
Allen indicated that he might have an interest in creating a space-tourism business from SS1 or similar programs. “If you grew up as a kid in the 1960s and saw the missions NASA launched back then, to have something like [SpaceShipOne] available as an option is pretty exciting,” Allen said. “Obviously, we’d like to see a few more test flights, though, before we start talking about [revenue-generating] passengers.”

Scaled Composites isn’t the only company going for the X Prize, although it is undoubtedly the farthest along. Of 26 teams listed on the X Prize Web site (, apparently only three have made it to the flight-test stage, and of those only SS1 has reached the 100-km mark. Assuming Scaled does win the X Prize, privately funded space activity is not expected to cease as organization officials have already begun preparations for an X Prize Cup, an annual “race” that pits all X Prize team vehicles against each other during a multiple-day spaceflight exposition.

In addition, another Mojave-based company, XCOR, obtained the second reusable launch vehicle license from the FAA’s Office of the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (AST) in April (SpaceShipOne having received the first). Although it is not competing for the X Prize, XCOR is developing a two-person rocket-powered aircraft designed to fly into suborbital space.

The recent increase in privately funded actual spaceflight activity has resulted in a need for low-cost launch sites. Until June, the U.S. had only four commercial spaceports, all of which are coastal-based: Spaceport Florida at Cape Canaveral Air Station (adjacent to NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center); Western Commercial Spaceport at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California; Virginia Space Flight Center (adjacent to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center) on Wallops Island; and the Alaska Spaceport on Kodiak Island. However, just three days before SS1’s historic June 21 flight, Mojave Airport received its launch site operator license from the AST office, making it the first inland FAA-licensed spaceport in the U.S.

A number of other airports are racing to become licensed spaceports, including the Southwest Regional Space Port in Las Cruces, N.M., site of the proposed X Prize Cup and located near NASA’s White Sands Space Harbor; the closed Clinton-Sherman Air Force Base in western Oklahoma, now named the Oklahoma Spaceport; and three proposed spaceports in Texas.

With the flurry of space-related activity seemingly generated from the $10 million X Prize, the U.S. government is considering similar tactics to help jumpstart the manned space vehicle industry. NASA held its first Centennial Challenges workshop on June 15 and 16 to solicit ideas for technology-based competitions in the next year-and-a-half, for which cash prizes will be awarded. Further, a Presidential commission on space policy advised Congress on June 16 to provide “incentives and [create] significant monetary prizes for the accomplishment of space missions or technology developments.”

All of this comes at a time when NASA is in a state of transition. Still reeling from the Columbia shuttle reentry breakup in January last year, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe in late June revealed an agency transformation designed to “streamline the organization and create a structure that affixes clear authority and accountability.” The new organization places most functions within two main directorates–mission and mission support–and creates a strategic planning council to “improve the decision-making process.”

O’Keefe indicated that the agency transformation was a response to President Bush’s new “Vision of Space Exploration” announced in January, in which the International Space Station is completed in 2010, a new crew exploration vehicle replaces a retired space shuttle fleet by 2014, and humans return to the moon by 2020. O’Keefe acknowledged that these challenges are too vast for NASA to accomplish alone.

“This transformation will be an evolutionary process, exploring new ways to move forward and implement change,” said O’Keefe. “We’ll also be engaging other government agencies, industry, academia and the international community to assist us in developing the tools and processes we need to successfully advance the Vision for Space Exploration. Doing so will enable us to take the next bold steps into space and rekindle the innovation and entrepreneurial skills that are our legacy to humankind.”