23 April 2003
Other - Other (None)
Rutan's SpaceShipOne
What it is, what it isn't
by Alan Breakstone
by Alan Breakstone

Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne and its White Knight mothership represent a serious bid to open space to commercial passenger travel. But whether this historic Burt Rutan creation wins the X-Prize or becomes an operational space tourism vehicle remains to be seen.

Rutan was inspired by the X-Prize competition to begin work on a private, suborbital passenger spaceship in the late 1990s. He was also clearly frustrated by expensive US government space programs and repeated cancelations of promising NASA and Pentagon RLV and reusable spacecraft projects, in which Rutan's Scaled Composites was a subcontractor. Rutan's answer to the stalled state of US spaceship development is SpaceShipOne.

What It Is

According to Scaled's website , Spaceflight Now , and Aviation Week , Rutan calls SpaceShipOne an "experimental research and development glider," built to test the ability of a private firm to develop and economically fly a reusable passenger-carrying spacecraft. And since SpaceShipOne comes with two passenger seats behind the pilot, it appears to be designed to X-Prize competition specifications. But Rutan cautions, "The big message is not to reach the X-Prize, but to show that space tourism is affordable."

What It Isn't

While Rutan intends to send SpaceShipOne above the atmosphere, he does not intend to carry paying passengers with it. According to Aviation Week, Rutan, never a big fan of US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, believes that certifying SpaceShipOne for passenger flights would cost US$100-300 million. But he would supply SpaceShipOne technology to anyone who would pay the certification cost for themselves. According to Spaceflight Now, Rutan believes that a ten-seat spacecraft, rather than the two-seat X-Prize specification, would be better suited for the space tourism market.

A New Era

Test flights of SpaceShipOne are to begin sometime this year. Rutan wants to reach space by December 17, 2003, the centennial of the Wright Brothers' historic flight. If he can accomplish this -- and many aerospace observers believe he can -- Rutan will have begun a new era in commercial human travel. But it may be up to other wealthy entrepreneurs and government regulators to make passenger space travel an economic reality in the United States.
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Alan Breakstone 23 April 2003
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