The flight into space of Mojave Aerospace Ventures' Scaled Composites-designed SpaceShipOne (SS1) on 21 June 2004 was a momentus event in the history of aviation, a new Wright brothers moment for a 21st century space age; but does it really pave the way for low cost space access?
SpaceShipOne is now hung in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum after winning the $10 million Ansari X-Prize on 4 October 2004, following two flights into space within two weeks. Its said to be the basis of SpaceShipTwo (SS2).
That vehicle will use the SS1 technology, licensed from Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen's Mojave Aerospace Ventures, and be designed by Mojave based research aircraft specialist Scaled Composites. Apparently the "breakthroughs" with SS1's rocket motor technology and its unique re-entry technique - folding its booms perpendicular to the fuselage - are key to creating a new type of rocketglider that will bring about mass space tourism. But are they?
Its becoming clear that SS1 had problems, most spectacularly represented by the spin it went into on its first X Prize flight. Its rocket engine also had issues as its solid rubber type fuel turned to a gas and its almost depleted supply of laughing gas oxidiser saw SS1 pilots Brian Binnie and Mike Melvill shaken back and forth. But these issues have not deterred UK born airline entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson.
SS2 is being designed for Branson's 'spaceline' Virgin Galactic and he has ordered five; the first of which is called VSS-Enterprise. Its a nine-seater vehicle that will be three times the size of SS1. Like SS1 it will have a carrier aircraft and that will be three times the size of SS1's White Knight and be called White Knight 2; although Branson also refers to it as "Eve". According to Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn it will have the wingspan of a Boeing 737 and use composite structure technology developed for the Virgin Atlantic Globalflyer. The company has ordered two for its five spacecraft fleet.
So confident are SS2s backers, Branson and Scaled Composite's Burt Rutan, that they can sell it to other potential space tourism companies they are forming The Spaceship Company. Its planned to become a 'spaceframe' manufacturer in the same sense that Boeing and Airbus are airframe makers. With Rutan's aerospace expertise and Branson's money there would seem to be no problem and only curved horizons ahead. But what if its not so simple?
What if SS1, with its Ansari X Prize tailored design, could not be the basis for a nine-seater sub-orbital rocketglider? At the British Interplanetary Society's space tourism symposium, held in London on 10 November, Virgin Galactic's vice president for operations Alex Tai said that the company was seeking a new solid motor design, adding wing spoilers and is working with NASA and UK technology company Qinetiq on solving its 5g re-entry dilemma. Unsurprisingly the company would like to lesson the g loading on its customers during the SS2's 273km (170 mile) downrange trip.
The question arises, how simple will it be to transfer the SS1 technology, developed for a prize, to a new commerical world of suborbital space tourism? With the talk of a new rocket motor, altered wings, changes, probably to its flight profile, to avoid uncomfortable g loading, some of the fundamentals of SS1 are having to be substantially re-thought. Developing SS1 cost Paul Allen $20 million. And Rutan wants to go much further in the safety and reliability of his new vehicle. He's stated publicly that he wants airline like government approved certification for space tourism spaceplanes.
Will SS2 cost the same as SS1? Studies suggest it could. At the BIS space tourism event a paper on manned spacecraft development economics was given by UK University of Bristol spaceplane specialist Mark Hempsell. Using NASA Johnson Space Center cost figures that paper showed that studies led researchers to conclude that "Mark 2" vehicles would cost as much as as the prorotypes they followed. Ever wondered why there was no Space Shuttle two?
Branson has fixed his initial suborbital flight price at $200,000. Excluding SS2 operational costs Virgin Galactic will need 100 paying passengers to recoup an SS1 like development outlay. But Tai says they already have $10 million in flight bookings, yet that's not quite revenue. Bookings can be cancelled. Even if SS2s development costs are less Branson's Virgin Group is the joint venture partner with Rutan on the company that will build the SS2s. The investment that has to be repaid is not just five SS2s and two White Knights. Its SS2 technology development, SS2 flight testing, Virgin Galactic launch site infrastructure, legal costs, The Spaceship Company's facility costs, further legal costs; creating a whole new industry from scratch is no easy thing. And I haven't even mentioned, setbacks.
Reaching space was a great achievement for SS1 and its strong evidence that an SS2 could reach 100km and beyond again but for how much? When Space Exploration Technologies Falcon 1 rocket developer and internet billionaire Elon Musk is asked why he got into the space business he answers, "to turn a large fortune into a small one." How deep are your pockets Mr Branson?