On Oct. 4, 2004, a group of revolutionaries in the Mojave Desert sent a little dart-shaped rocket called SpaceShipOne beyond the Earth's atmosphere.
Burt Rutan, the ship's designer, had gotten tired of waiting for NASA to change - to become more nimble and innovative - or else get out of the way. So he created the first purely privately funded manned space vehicle.
"Government space agencies want to commit us to their old-fashioned technologies," he says. "We already know how that stuff works. What we need is the freedom to try some new, smarter and less expensive ideas."
On the ground, watching the smoke trails through powerful binoculars, were two lifelong space fans from Britain: Richard Branson and his colleague, Will Whitehorn. Branson had just announced that his Virgin Group was ready to finance SpaceShipOne's larger successor. More than $100 million was allocated to set up a new company, led by Whitehorn and called Virgin Galactic, to develop a suborbital space liner accommodating six passengers.
This was the opening salvo from a clan of wealthy Internet pioneers and business entrepreneurs who grew up in the Apollo era and imagined that by the time they came of age, the experience of spaceflight would be available to thousands. But to date, barely 500 of the world's 6 billion people have left the Earth's bounds.
Forty years after NASA's Apollo 11 triumph, these men concluded, it is the space agency itself that has kept us grounded. NASA has suffered tragedies with Challenger and Columbia while falling victim to managerial decay. But the biggest problem with the agency today is a lack of that most American of motivators: competition.
After President John F. Kennedy's 1961 speech urging America toward the moon, the agency could call on a dozen eager aerospace companies to submit proposals for the Apollo spacecraft and choose the best from a strong field.
Four decades later, a succession of corporate buyouts and takeovers has left just two contenders, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, that have the heft and experience required for building the big, beefy spacecraft NASA will need for any future moonshots. NASA cannot innovate radical new rocket technologies while it is so dependent on a couple of huge corporations with an interest in protecting their investments and infrastructure dedicated to the old shuttles.
But beyond that creaking federal-industrial universe, change is afoot. Rutan, Branson and other private pioneers in the "NewSpace" business are starting to unveil cheaper, faster and sexier ships. Last July, Branson proudly introduced his new craft, which he called "one of the most beautiful and extraordinary aviation vehicles ever developed."
The Virgin mothership (VMS), named Eve in honor of Branson's mother, is a twin-fuselage aircraft capable of lifting a passenger-carrying rocket plane, SpaceShipTwo, to the uppermost levels of the Earth's atmosphere and releasing it for the final blast into space. Eve is conducting test flights now, and SpaceShipTwo will be unveiled in December.
The VMS is pushed along by jet engines, but most of the work of lifting this huge carrier into the sky is done by its enormous 140-foot wing. The delicate appearance of the craft is deceptive: Its carbon-composite structures render it incredibly strong, yet lightweight and fuel efficient.
Whitehorn says personal spaceflight is just one of several markets that Eve will service. SpaceShipTwo, he says, "takes people up and brings them all down again to a safe landing. ... So what would happen if we didn't have the people, and we didn't need to bring any of the spacecraft down to Earth again?"
That might seem an odd scenario for a space tourism company, but Virgin Galactic's business plan assumes that payloads of metal and silicone will be just as profitable as those of flesh and blood. With slender disposable rockets carried under Eve's huge wing, the system will be capable of launching small scientific and commercial satellites into orbital space, at a fraction of NASA's costs for similar missions using ground-launched rockets.
Two other private companies are making similarly giant strides in the space market. They are poised to deliver launch services to NASA between 2010, when the shuttle makes its last flight, and 2015, when the agency's new Orion crew capsule is supposed to enter service. In the interim, NASA will have no obvious means of sending astronauts to the international space station unless they hitch a ride aboard Russian Soyuz capsules.
Orbital Sciences of Dulles, Va., has broken ground on a launch facility for its $1.9 billion contract to resupply the space station with its Taurus II cargo rocket. Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif., is preparing a similarly well-funded booster designed for people as well as stuff.
Future funding of these vehicles from NASA will be based on launch services, not hardware. This distinction is crucial. It means the space agency will buy access to space, but not the spaceships. This puts pressure on SpaceX and Orbital Sciences to deliver reliable launch vehicles, or they won't get paid.
The bonus is that the launch systems remain in private hands, and the companies are free to solve their design and manufacturing problems - and to sell additional launch capacity to other buyers - without interference from NASA.
All of which points a way forward for America's federal space effort. If NASA can kick its habit of designing and building rocket hardware in partnership with its cozy cabal of giant corporate allies, it might yet be capable of spurring new technologies instead of merely standing guard over old ones.
The trick is to buy the ride, not the horse. If Lockheed and Boeing want to get NASA back into space on their fat, wheezing old cart horses, then let them. No doubt they are more than capable of delivering, but NASA should pay them when the ride is ready, and not before.
We celebrate Apollo 11 this month because it served, as Kennedy predicted, "to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills." But that was in the 1960s, when NASA flaunted the most incredible wonders that the world had ever known. Today, in advanced middle age, the agency is no longer the proud vanguard of new technologies. It may instead be the faltering custodian of museum relics.
Now we wait to see what happens next, and we wonder whose vehicles might launch the space adventure anew. I'll be placing a bet on some of the recently evolved little NewSpace mammals darting around the ankles of NASA's stumbling dinosaur.
Piers Bizony is the author of "How to Build Your Own Spaceship: The Science of Personal Space Travel" and other books on space history and science.
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