27 September 2004
Announcements - Vehicles (Good)
From SpaceShipOne...
...to Virgin Galatic
by G B Leatherwood
by G.B. Leatherwood

After the test flight of SpaceShipOne on June 21, 2004, Scaled Composites are finally reaching for the Ansari X-Prize on September 29, 2004.

But even if Burt Rutan and Scaled Composites are successful in their efforts to claim the $10 million Ansari X-Prize, SpaceShipOne still only carries two passengers, plus one pilot. Given the importance of the flight, it does not seem likely that the ship itself would ever become a regular tourist-carrying vehicle. (More than likely it will be retired, possibly to the Smithsonian Institution Aerospace Museum, or into private status as one of the most unique and influential spacecraft ever built.)

But even if SpaceShipOne claims the prize, what will happen to the other Ansari X-Prize entrants? Over twenty companies and individuals have invested their time, their money, and their willpower, only to see only designs come to fruition first. There is still a chance that SpaceShipOne will not meet all the requirements, especially the one that requires a second safe flight with the same vehicle within two weeks. The whole thing is still highly experimental, and despite the most careful preparations, any one of a number of things could go wrong. Not major disaster, just enough to delay the second flight.

Will the other teams just give up? This, too, seems unlikely, given that some of the contestants have poured their own millions into design, construction, and testing of their dreams.

One need only to look at the early days of aviation and the myriad of experimental vehicles. We have all seen the humorous movies of some of them as they stuttered, fluttered, collapsed, and otherwise destroyed themselves. But some of them succeeded. The fabled “Red Baron” and his Fokker Triplane. The Ford Trimotor. The Sopwith “Camel.” The evolution of the metal skin, inline vs. radial motors, wicker seats that became padded luxury thrones, even the decision that flight attendants, then called “stewardesses,” need not be Registered Nurses.

So it seems likely that no matter what the outcome of the Ansari X-Prize competition, some of the innovative ideas will continue to be developed, expanded, modified, and tried again.

Bristol Spaceplanes has been working on two vehicles from the perspective of taking off and landing from a conventional runway system. Even SpaceShipOne has to be carried aloft before leaving for the edge of space. What better advertisement for tourist travel than taking off and landing just the same as any other familiar aircraft?

There will be those who have entered the competition just for the prize. $10 million is a lot of money, no matter how one looks at it. It has been suggested that when the Ansari X-Prize is won, as it looks like it will be, these companies will simply disappear, possibly joining forces with more promising ventures.

But there is even more hope on the horizon—or at the edge of the atmosphere: It’s called “Virgin Galactic,” according to an Associated Press article. The Virgin companies (transport, entertainment, and communications), owned by British entrepreneur Richard Branson, announced an agreement to license technology from billionaire Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s company, Mojave Aerospace Ventures, to build an aircraft based on Rutan’s SpaceShipOne.

According to the article, “Virgin has been in talks with Paul Allen and Bert (sic) throughout this year and in the early hours of Saturday signed a historical document to license SpaceShipOne’s technology to build the world’s first private spaceship to go into commercial operating service.”

“The new service will be called Virgin Galactic,” the AP article continues, “and expects to fly 3,000 new astronauts within five years. Fares will start at $208,000 for a suborbital flight, including three days of training.”

“Virgin Galactic intends from the beginning to operate as a business, with the sole purpose of making space travel more and more affordable,” Branson said.

So what's next for space travel and tourism? While we may have wondered about life after the Ansari X-Prize, there remains no doubt that space tourism, not for just trained astronauts, scientists, and multimillionaires, is no fly-by-night idea.
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G B Leatherwood 27 September 2004
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