Going into space privately

On June 21st, 2004, SpaceShipOne, a launch system designed and built by private sector engineers and entrepreneurs became the first non-government manned vehicle to reach space. Later that year it won the Ansari X-Prize by reaching space twice within a 2-week period, carrying the equivalent weight of two passengers.

It clocked up several records during its development, including one for the first privately built craft to achieve supersonic flight, which it did on December 17th, 2003, exactly 100 years since the Wright brothers’ first flight. Unlike many of its rivals for the prize, it never had to pause during development to attract more funding. This is because the entire costs, estimated at $25 million were met by Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft.

Burt Rutan, head of Scaled Composites, was the designing genius behind it. Carried aloft to be released from its mother ship, White Knight, SpaceShipOne was a rocket powered aircraft that could make a sub-orbital flight into space, reaching over 100km, the internationally accepted Karman Line regarded as its boundary. Instead of a conventional heat shield, the back half of the plane lifted up to provide a “feathering” motion that provided enough drag to lower the speed to a safe landing level.

Virgin Atlantic’s Richard Branson was not involved at all in the project. After the prize-winning flights he formed a joint venture with Burt Rutan to develop a system for commercial spaceflights. The company, Virgin Galactic, plans to use second generation craft, SpaceShipTwo and White Knight Two, to carry paying passengers on suborbital flights.

These will not be the only private spaceflights. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has already flown its Dragon capsule to resupply the International Space Station, and a manned version is expected to carry first astronauts and later private passengers. Jeff Bezos’ company, Blue Origin, has its New Shepard system designed to take a passenger-carrying capsule for space tourism, while Boeing’s Starliner capsule could, like the Dragon, carry astronauts initially, and then private customers. In addition, Sierra Nevada is developing its lifting body, Dream Chaser, as a mini successor to the Space Shuttle.

All this private activity, some of it NASA-funded, indicates that space is no longer the sole prerogative of nation states. The private sector is developing many different and novel approaches simultaneously, testing which ones are viable, both scientifically and financially. This is what the private sector does well, and what governments tend to do badly. A strong part of that is motivated by profit. The unabashed desire to make money helps to motivate private entrepreneurs to experiment with previously untried ideas, and to test novel and less costly ways of achieving success. This has meant that the costs per kilogram of space launches have been driven down, and competition will doubtless drive them down further.

That said, profit is only part of it. Many of these space entrepreneurs are driven, as other businessmen and women are, by a desire to succeed, to overcome the difficult and to solve problems, and to achieve something they think worthwhile. Long may people continue to do so. Burt Rutan started something 15 years ago, something that will continue until space becomes commonplace.