Today is the second anniversary of the first flight into space by a piloted, privately-developed spacecraft: SpaceShipOne. That flight, as well as the two X Prize-winning flights that followed in September and October of 2004, were witnessed in person by thousands in Mojave and many more on television and online–many of whom were probably interested in flying in SpaceShipOne, or another suborbital vehicle like it, soon.
The good news is that, two years later, you can buy a ticket, or at least put down a deposit for one, through the likes of Virgin Galactic (for SpaceShipTwo), Incredible Adventures (for Rocketplane Kistler’s Rocketplane XP), and Space Adventures (for the Explorer vehicle being developed in Russia, although the company has been signing up suborbital customers for several years now.) Moreover, there are a number of other ventures out there developing suborbital vehicles, with varying degrees of funding and technical progress. Overall, awareness of, and interest in, suborbital commercial spaceflight grew considerably because of SpaceShipOne.
The bad news is that, two years later, you still can’t fly to space yet on a commercial suborbital vehicle. SpaceShipOne was retired after it won the X Prize, and has been hanging from the rafters inside the National Air and Space Museum for nearly nine months now. The end of the X Prize competition also took away an incentive for the other competing teams: one of the flaws of the competition, many of its supporters now acknowledge, is that there was no prize for second place. A couple years ago, the general belief was that whoever won the prize would put their vehicle into commercial service shortly thereafter, making some money and perhaps funding the development of a better next-generation vehicle. Instead, Burt Rutan and Scaled Composites decided to skip ahead directly to a larger vehicle, which won’t be ready for passenger flights for a couple of years, and no one else has stepped into the vacuum that has been created. If you had told most people who journeyed to Mojave two years ago that by 2006 you’d still have to wait perhaps two more years before taking a suborbital flight, you may well have been dismissed as a skeptic and naysayer because, goodness sakes, there’s a suborbital vehicle flying today!
There are, of course, good reasons why things have taken longer to develop than one might have anticipated two years ago: there’s a move to larger vehicles rather than the three-seaters required to win the X Prize, the not-uncommon technical difficulties associated with developing new vehicles, the challenges of financing, and the fact that, in retrospect, Scaled Composites was simply so far ahead of the rest of prize competitors (despite the effort by the X Prize in mid-2004 to drum up a “competition” between Scaled and the Da Vinci Project). Still, I’ve noticed a bit of nervousness among some advocates of commercial suborbital spaceflight because of this gap: it’s been two years and we still can’t fly? C’mon, hurry up!
In an article that I published literally hours before SpaceShipOne’s historic flight, I briefly examined the issue of how historic the flight would be: would it be on the same level as, to use an oft-used example, Lindbergh’s crossing of the Atlantic to win the Orteig prize, opening a new era in aviation; or would be like the human-powered Gossamer Albatross crossing the English Channel to win the Orteig Prize, a notable accomplishment but, in the long run, a stunt? “It will take years–maybe decades–before we truly know how significant Monday’s flight could be to the future of space development,” I wrote at the time, and that assessment still holds. There’s enough activity going on to lead one to believe that someone, at some point, is going to start flying suborbital passenger vehicles commercially, and hopefully make some good money doing so. If, three or five years from now, there’s no such service in operation (or, worse, one or more such ventures started but failed, either technically or financially), there might be legitimate cause for concern about the viability of this market. Until then, those anxious to fly will have to wait a little longer.