Eight years later, is the suborbital industry finally ready for liftoff?

SpaceShipOne after 2004 June 21 flight

Mike Melville raises his arms after exiting SpaceShipOne following his suborbital flight on June 21, 2004. To the left, in the yellow shirt, is Burt Rutan; in the blue shirt and cap is Paul Allen. (credit: J. Foust)

On June 21, 2004, Scaled Composites made history in the skies above the just-renamed Mojave Air and Space Port in the high desert of Southern California. Scaled’s White Knight carrier aircraft took off from the airport, with the SpaceShipOne suborbital spaceplane attached underneath. After climbing to an altitude of 14,300 meters (47,000 feet) at 7:50 am PDT, the White Knight crew released SpaceShipOne, which fired its hybrid rocket motor several seconds later. With Mike Melvill at the controls, SpaceShipOne ascended towards space, achieving a peak altitude of 100.124 kilometers (328,491 feet) before gliding back to a runway landing at Mojave. That flight was the first time a commercially-developed crewed spacecraft flew into space—if only briefly crossing the 100-kilometer Kármán Line that is a commonly-used demarcation of space.

That flight, and the two that followed in late September and early October of 2004 that claimed the $10-million Ansari X PRIZE, were supposed to be the beginning of a new era of commercial spaceflight. The strong public interest in the flight, the two dozen other teams competing for the prize, and the entrance of Sir Richard Branson, whose Virgin Galactic locked up a deal with Scaled and its funder, Paul Allen, shortly before the X PRIZE-winning flights, all foretold the beginning of an era when suborbital spaceflights, for tourism or other applications, would be relatively common, at least when compared to the small number of orbital launches that take place worldwide each year.

That future, though, has been on hold for a while. The final SpaceShipOne flight, on October 4, 2004, remains to this day the last commercial suborbital human spaceflight. Rather than putting SpaceShipOne into service, as many imagined would happen to the prize-winning vehicle since the $10-million prize purse was only a fraction of its development cost, Scaled and Allen instead put the vehicle into the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, where it hangs today next to another prize-winning vehicle, Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis. (Allen later revealed that the tax writeoff from the donation, coupled with the prize money and technology licensing fees from Virgin, allowed him to get a “net positive return” on his investment in the project.) Development of its successor, SpaceShipTwo (SS2), has gone on slowly, and other ventures working on suborbital vehicles have also seen little progress.

This lack of progress also has its own form of Boyle’s Law, in this case named after MSNBC science reporter Alan Boyle. “When it comes to private spaceflight, the future always seems to be two years away,” he quipped in May 2007, summarizing the state of the industry. At that time, for example, Virgin was planning to put SpaceShipTwo into commercial service by late 2009, a date it missed. Rocketplane Global also planned to start test flights of its suborbital vehicle by 2009, which it also missed because of Rocketplane’s financial issues that eventually forced the company into bankruptcy.

Now, though, the future may be a little closer than two years off. Virgin and others are making progress—slower than they might have liked, but progress nonetheless. Customers may not be flying into space commercially this year, but their future flights may now be more like a year off.

Virgin Galactic remains the most visible of the commercial suborbital companies, thanks in large part to the Virgin marketing machine. Technically, though, the company is making progress in recent weeks. SpaceShipTwo took to the air on a “captive carry” flight on June 8, the first time the vehicle was airborne since a trip to Spaceport America in New Mexico last October. The test log indicates that this flight was a “rehearsal for glide flight”, suggesting that SS2 will fly free again some time in the near future for the first time since last September. Those flights are a prelude to powered test flights by SS2, which have been waiting on the development of its rocket motor, called Rocket Motor Two (RM2). Just yesterday they performed a static test of RM2, the first such test at Scaled’s facility in Mojave (previous tests had been conducted by Sierra Nevada Corporation elsewhere in Southern California). “These tests provide an end to end test of all the vehicle’s rocket motor systems and additional confidence before committing the vehicle to powered flight test,” the test log states.

Late last month, Virgin also announced that it had secured an experimental permit for flight tests from the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST). The permit is needed for Virgin and Scaled to perform those powered SS2 flight tests. “Scaled expects to begin rocket powered, supersonic flights under the just-issued experimental permit toward the end of the year,” Virgin stated in its announcement. First will be glide tests to study SS2’s aerodynamic performance with the additional weight of the rocket motor; those flights will start this summer and continue into autumn.

It’s possible, though, that Virgin could be beaten in commercial service by another Mojave-based company, XCOR Aerospace. XCOR is making steady progress on its Lynx suborbital vehicle with tests to begin later this year and the first “air under the wings”—in the form of a brief powered hop off the runway at Mojave—possible by the end of this year. A press release from XCOR yesterday about an agreement to provide flight training services to Excalibur Almaz indicated that its first Lynx flight is planned for “later this year or in early 2013″ with several Lynx suborbital flights per day by 2015.

There are other ventures as well. Armadillo Aerospace and Masten Space Systems are working on suborbital vehicles that take off vertically and land either by parachute (Armadillo) or under engine power vertically (Masten). These vehicles will be initially uncrewed, although Armadillo does have plans for a crewed vehicle and an agreement with Space Adventures to market those flights. Both companies have test flights planned for later this year. Blue Origin, whose public focus (or, at least, as public as the secretive company gets) has been on orbital spacecraft as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program, still has plans for suborbital vehicles.

Eight years after SpaceShipOne first flew in space, the lack of progress can seem disappointing compared to the hopes and expectations of the crowd that gathered that sunny morning in the desert north of Los Angeles. But, perhaps, the future that we were promised that historic day is finally arriving.

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