The Future Ain’t What It Used to Be: SpaceShipOne & the Triumph of Hype

Mike Melvill stands atop SpaceShipOne after a suborbital flight on Sept. 29, 2004. (Credit: RenegadeAven)
Mike Melvill stands atop SpaceShipOne after a suborbital flight on Sept. 29, 2004. (Credit: RenegadeAven)

Eleven years ago today, Brian Binnie flew SpaceShipOne to  an altitude  of 112.014 km (69.6 miles),  breaking a record of 107.8 km (67 miles) set by Joe Walker in the X-15 rocket plane 41 years earlier. As Binnie landed the small, experimental space plane at the Mojave Air and Space Port before a cheering crowd, he clinched the $10 million Ansari X Prize for Burt Rutan and his financial backer, Paul Allen.

The air during the post flight events was full of promises, boasts and hopes that today appear positively cringe worthy.

X Prize Founder Peter Diamandis declared a new era of spaceflight had begun, with the start of a new industry that would open up space to the masses. Sir Richard Branson promised to commercialize the SpaceShipOne technology and begin flying passengers in three years. In the first year alone, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo would fly 500 people into space — more than the number of individuals who ever flown there.

Of everyone who spoke on that triumphant sunny  day, it was Burt Rutan who was the most boastful and dismissive of NASA, then grounded by the Columbia accident, and the rest of the space industry.

“I was thinking a little bit about that other space agency, the big guys, I think they’re looking at each other now and saying, ‘We’re screwed.’,” he told a cheering crowd on the tarmac at Mojave. “Because I’ll tell ya something….I have a helluva lot bigger goal, and you know what that goal is? I absolutely have to develop a manned space tourism system that’s at least a hundred times safer than anything that’s ever flown man to space and probably a lot more. I have to do that.”

So, how’d that work out for you, Burt?

Not real well. By 2007, the year commercial service was supposed to have begun, Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites were still three years away from SpaceShipTwo’s first flight. The only significant event to that point was a tragedy — the loss of three Scaled engineers in a test stand explosion in July of that year.

Seven years later, SpaceShipTwo was destroyed on only its fourth powered flight test when the ship’s feather device — which Rutan had billed as the vehicle’s best safety featured — deployed prematurely during powered ascent due to pilot error. The resulting federal investigation found the feather should have been designed to prevent such an occurrence.

Co-pilot Mike Alsbury — who unlocked the feather too early — died in the crash while Pete Siebold miraculously survived. Alsbury was the fourth casualty in a program that has cost more than $600 million and failed to get anyone anywhere near space. That’s way under 100 times safer than previous space vehicles.

Today, Virgin Galactic is trying to pick up the pieces from that accident. Rutan is long since retired to Idaho. Far from being screwed, NASA flew out the remaining space shuttle flights without incident and is now funding the development of three crew vehicles. Operations of the International Space Station have continued continuously for 11 years. Boeing, Lockheed Martin and most of the other big space companies continue to thrive. And Elon Musk’s SpaceX has become a major force in the launch industry.

If any of these guys had been shaking in their boots 11 years ago, they’re not now. Instead, they probably look at SpaceShipTwo and the space tourism industry that Diamandis said would grow up around it with a mixture of sadness, disappointment and puzzlement. How could something so promising have gone so tragically wrong so fast? And what were these hypsters thinking back in 2004?

Probably the best thing to come out of SpaceShipOne and the Ansari X Prize is how it inspired people to pursue their dreams in space. A broader commercial space industry has developed. But, there is an interesting aspect that I don’t think very many people appreciate.

Rutan and his team had to produce a spacecraft to meet a set of criteria by a certain date in order to win the $10 million prize. That process involved a lot of decisions that they might have made differently if they had not been under pressure to meet those requirements. SpaceShipTwo subsequently became boxed in by some of those choices, including a hybrid engine that has proven difficult to scale up.

The folks who were inspired by the Ansari X Prize and SpaceShipOne were not under those same constraints. They could develop their systems, technology paths, and business plans in a more structured manner without having to meet someone else’s criteria and timelines.

And that’s the other lesson of the Ansari X Prize. The development of technology capable of making space routine, safe and affordable can’t always be done on an an arbitrary deadline set by a prize. The process is much more organic and unpredictable than that.