On this date in 2004, Mike Melvill lit the candle on SpaceShipOne as soared into history as the first astronaut to fly a privately-built spacecraft to space.
Fourteen years. It seems like only a lifetime ago.
I was on the flight line that day (I’m the guy with the video camera) not far from where I write this today. The excitement and optimism of that day — that feeling that a new era of spaceflight would soon be upon us — was palpable. The future was within our grasp.
The last 14 years have been a lot like the movie, “Groundhog Day.” Not in the sense of the same day being repeated endlessly, but the same old promises being made over and over. And still, space tourism remains just out of our grasp.
What went wrong? It’s a question I’ve pondered as I’ve watched the setbacks and the tragedies unfold here in Mojave. The answer is complex, but in its simplest form it can be summed up as follows:
Although SpaceShipOne winning the Ansari X Prize was an enormously inspiring event, it produced immature and poorly understood technology and bred a dangerous overconfidence in its builders that contributed to two fatal accidents. Government oversight regulations ignored safety lessons learned in decades of human spaceflight.
There are no shortcuts in this business. And the moment you think you’ve got it all figured out is when you need to be most on guard. These are lessons we seem doomed to learn anew over and over again.
As I said, the truth is more complicated. Below are some stories I’ve written over the years exploring what went wrong.
- Peter Diamandis Launches Son of Ansari X Prize June 8, 2018
- Mojave Journal: The Ansari X Prize’s Awkward Family Reunion Oct. 5, 2015
- Ansari X Prize 10th Anniversary Webcast Oct. 4, 2014
- Apollo, Ansari and the Hobbling Effects of Giant Leaps Oct. 30, 2014
- Future Imperfect: The Ansari XPrize, SpaceShipOne & Private Spaceflight Oct. 4, 2016
- NTSB Findings, Probable Cause and Safety Recommendations July 28, 2015
- Experts: FAA Review Process for SpaceShipTwo Flawed, Subject to Political Pressure Aug. 1, 2015
- Peter Diamandis FAITH-based Confidence in Virgin Galactic Aimed at Preserving Legacy Nov. 5, 2014
Finding My Virginity Book Review (Jan. 8-10, 2018)
- Richard Branson’s Latest Memoir Gets Lost in Space (Part I)
- Branson’s Autobiography Part II: A Bad Day at Koehn Lake
- Branson’s Autobiography: After SpaceShipTwo’s Loss the Blame Game Began (Part III)
A Niche in Time Series (Sept. 25 – Oct. 3, 2017)
- Introduction: A Niche in Time: Human Flight Through the Ages
- Part 1: Behemoths of the Sky
- Part 2: “One of the worst catastrophes in the world”
- Part 3: “Lock the doors”
- Part 4: One Chute
- Part 5: First Flight