On June 21, 2004 I was privileged to be a “VIP” when SpaceShipOne first flew into space. Space, according to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale begins at an altitude of 62 miles. Why 62 miles? Theodore von Kármán calculated that it was at that altitude that a vehicle would have to travel faster than orbital velocity in order to derive sufficient aerodynamic lift from the atmosphere to support itself.
So, SpaceShipOne was designed to win the Ansari X-Prize of ten million dollars being offered for the first commercial spacecraft capable of carrying three people above that Kármán line two times within a one week period. And with that flight on June 21, SpaceShipOne demonstrated that it was ready to make an attempt to win that prize.
The reason I got to witness that first space flight by SpaceShipOne was because I knew someone whose parents just happened to be friends with Burt Rutan, the designer and builder of SpaceShipOne.
Following that first launch, I learned that the X-Prize Foundation was looking for volunteers for the next flights—when SpaceShipOne would be attempting to win the Ansari X-Prize. So I applied and the X-Prize Foundation accepted me as a volunteer. This allowed me to participate—in a very small way—in the events surrounding the successful flights of SpaceShipOne on September 29, 2004 and then October 4, 2004 when the Ansari X-Prize was won.
At the time of these events—now ten years ago—it seemed as if we stood on the verge of commercial spaceflight. Richard Branson, owner of Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Records (and so on) was one of the sponsors of SpaceShipOne and after the winning flight he announced the founding of Virgin Galactic, which would build and fly larger versions of SpaceShipOne—to be called SpaceShipTwo—for paying passengers. The cost of a ticket to fly into space was pegged at 250 thousand dollars: certainly well-above what I’d ever be able to afford, but I was certain that the price would eventually drop, for the same reasons that large, flat screen televisions that initially sold only to the very wealthy for twenty-thousand dollars, are now available at Wal-Mart for less than five hundred. Branson was predicting commercial flights of SpaceShipTwo by 2007—only three years later. At the time, anything seemed possible.
Ten years have now passed. Commercial flights for paying passengers on SpaceShipTwo have yet to happen, though hundreds have already paid for tickets. The road to commercial space was much rockier than what everyone had anticipated.
Virgin Galactic, and Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites (the builder of SpaceShipOne) have made tremendous progress. They are currently testing the first of at least five SpaceShipTwos. The V.S.S. Enterprise has performed a series of glide tests and over the last few months has done a series of powered flights—all far short of the Kármán line. The maximum altitude achieved thus far by the six passenger SpaceShipTwo is only 13.4 miles.
Branson is now predicting that the first commercial flights of SpaceShipTwo will occur by the end of this year—but that is dependent upon the upcoming tests all going well. Rocket science is still hard, and any number of setbacks could occur. For instance, just this past week Virgin Galactic announced that they were going to change the fuel composition for SpaceShipTwo’s rocket engine. There’s no telling whether that will lead to further delays.
There have been many positive developments. The second SpaceShipTwo, V.S.S Voyager, has been completed (though it has yet to undergo flight tests). The FAA has granted permission for Virgin Galactic to begin flying their SpaceShipTwo spacecraft in New Mexico—matching the agreement that Virgin Galactic already has with the FAA for flying in southern California.
The approval for flying in New Mexico is important. Although SpaceShipTwo is built and tested at the Mojave Air and Space Port in southern California’s High Desert, southern California will not be the location of Virgin Galactic’s commercial operations. That will be in New Mexico, where Spaceport America has been built from scratch.. It is located in the Jornada del Muerto desert basin in New Mexico just west of the White Sands Missile Range, about 8, 45 miles north of Las Cruces, and 20 miles southeast of Truth or Consequences. Spaceport America was officially declared open on October 18, 2011.Spaceport America includes a ten thousand foot long runway for take offs and landings, and a 110,000 square foot hanger and terminal building. It is now ready for Virgin Galactic to begin using it as their main base of operation.
However, Virgin Galactic is not the only user of the spaceport in New Mexico. Several other companies have already launched over twenty suborbital missions. In May 2013, SpaceX signed a three-year lease for land and facilities there to support high-altitude, high-velocity flight testing of the Grasshopper v1.1 reusable launch vehicle, the second-generation of the SpaceX experimental vertical takeoff, vertical landing suborbital technology-demonstrator. SpaceX is using Grasshopper as one-element of a multi-element program to develop Falcon 9’s reusable boosters and second stages.
So, while commercial tourist space travel didn’t begin as quickly as we had hoped during those heady days of 2004, it remains on track to actually happen.