A Trip Down Memory Lane in Mojave

Eric Dahlstrom, Emeline Paat-Dahlstrom and I watch as WhiteKnight and SpaceShipOne taxi down the runway on May 21, 2004. (Credit: J.R. Criswick)

Nine years.

On June 21, 2004, I stood on the flight line here in Mojave with thousands of spectators and watched history being made.

Two radical looking vehicles rolled down the runway on that bright morning and soared off into the clear blue sky. An hour later, SpaceShipOne dropped for its mothership, and Mike Melvill ignited the tiny spacecraft’s hybrid engine and rocketed to an altitude of 328,491 feet – just above the Karmen line that marks the boundary of space. Melvill had become the world’s first private astronaut.

That was nine years ago. 3,287 days.

It seems like much longer.

So much has happened since then. Commercial space has grown by leaps and bounds. There are new vehicles, projects and investors. Vehicles have flown, engines have been tested (and destroyed), engineers have died. The giggle factor around space tourism is gone. And celebrities nobody even heard of back in 2004 now have tickets to space.

And yet, so little has happened. Instead of hundreds of spaceflights carrying thousands of passengers, the industry has yet to fly a single paying customer. Today, we finally have the flying cars we were promised so long ago, and yet commercial spaceflights remain at least a year away. Nobody in Mojave nine years ago would have predicted that.

The future just ain’t what it used to be. It seldom is.

Few things ever go according to plan. Everything take longer than you think. Unexpected problems crop up. Budgets are unrealistic. Schedules go out the window. Mistakes are made. And sometimes people die.

“This is a tough business we’re in,” one prominent figure remarked recently after a particularly bad day.

Indeed it is. What these companies are attempting to do is quite monumental. To build reusable rocket ships that can fly thousands of time. And to do so safely and at a price many thousands of people can afford.

It’s ambitious. It’s complicated. It’s expensive. And it’s never been done before.

But, that is what they have promised over and over again. And those promises have inspired nearly 1,000 people to put down their hard earned money down to reserve trips to space.

Nine years ago, Mike Melvill took a wild ride into the unknown in a small experimental vehicle powered by a rough and ready engine. Those on the ground that day witnessed the industry’s true Kitty Hawk moment – an instant when the future changed and many things seemed possible.

Nearly a decade later, the commercial suborbital industry is still trying to deliver on that promise. Much work lies ahead. There will be triumphs and setbacks. And success is hardly guaranteed.

Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be an exciting and bumpy ride.