X Prize plus four years

Saturday is, of course, the 51st anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, the canonical beginning of the Space Age. It’s also the fourth anniversary of the winning of the $10-million Ansari X Prize by Mojave Aerospace Ventures, the Paul Allen-funded effort by Scaled Composites that resulted in SpaceShipOne and White Knight. This has been a relatively low-key anniversary for both; for the former because last year was the milestone 50th anniversary, and for the latter… well, it’s tough to get excited by the fourth anniversary of most anything. Case in point: there’s no callout of the anniversary on the X Prize Foundation web site, and when I drilled down into the section on the Ansari X Prize to this video, I got the error message “We’re sorry, this video is no longer available.”

One reason this anniversary has slipped by is there there has been little activity in the suborbital spaceflight arena of the same high profile in the four years since SpaceShipOne’s prize-winning flight. In fact, there have been no FAA-licensed piloted suborbital spaceflights in the last four years; there have been a number of low-level test flights since then, but these have been remotely piloted and under experimental permits. That’s not to say that there hasn’t been progress, just not at the scale, or the rate, that we might have anticipated on that glorious morning four years ago.

As I noted in an article at the beginning of this week in The Space Review, Sunday night’s successful launch of the Falcon 1 might be the biggest milestone for the NewSpace industry, or at least the portion of it focused on space transportation, since SpaceShipOne’s final flight. Just as SpaceShipOne’s flights demonstrated that a private venture could develop a piloted vehicle capable of flying into space (albeit suborbitally) for a fraction of the cost of what a large aerospace company or government agency would have spent, the Falcon 1 launch demonstrated what entrepreneurial space companies can do in the realm of orbital space flight. As with SpaceShipOne, though, the issue will be how well both SpaceX and the rest of the industry can follow up on that initial success, so that future anniversaries have greater relevance.

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