Space Ship One and Survival of the Species

Figure 1 Courtesy Scaled Composites LLC

by Michael McNamarra, Scientium Contributing Editor

Finally, commercial space flight has arrived.  It comes fifty years late, by the reckoning of our favorite science fiction pioneers, but at long last it has moved from the pages of pulp magazines to the front pages of newspapers all over the world.  For the very first time, virtually anyone will be able to purchase a ticket to travel beyond the Earth, to orbiting stations or even the Moon, and return – without the rigorous training of astronauts, the huge resources of governments, or the pocketbooks of millionaires.  Within a few short years, rather than decades, you could go up; I could go up.  Our children may view it as just another part of life, the way we look at intercontinental airline flights, digital television, CD technologies, and so forth.

For science fiction fans who grew up reading Asimov, Bradbury, Clark, and Heinlein, the nostalgia factor is enormous.  Although many sci-fi authors painted a future wherein private corporations, and even individuals, plied the stars without benefit of bloated government budgets, none did so more fervently than Robert Heinlein.  He believed that no government could carry us to the planets and stars more quickly than private enterprise could do it.  D. D. Harriman, the main character in The Man Who Sold the Moon, was a flamboyant tycoon, equal parts Bill Gates and P. T. Barnum, who risked everything to make commercial space flight possible.  Beneath his calculating businessman façade, Harriman was a singularly passionate explorer who yearned to walk upon the face of the Moon – and who would do almost anything to get there.

While certainly not as colorful as Harriman, Space Ship One’s designer Burt Rutan is every bit as passionate.  When he speaks of his dreams for the future of commercial space exploration, his voice breaks and tears fill his eyes.  Rutan is a true believer, and if his exuberance does not immediately infect you, lie down – you must be dead.

Even Rutan’s boundless passion could not have carried the project to fruition without the funding supplied by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who supplied more than $20 million – pocket change by NASA standards.  The success of the SS1 project proves that multi-billion dollar budgets are not required to put Man into space.  It proves that everything we were promised by the sci-fi authors of yesteryear – from space hotels to Luna City – will finally come true.  It’s about time.

All’s Fare in Love and Spaceflight

The $20 million cost of the entire project thus far – the design and construction of the craft, support systems, everything necessary to make the flight possible, built from the ground up – does not mean that every flight costs that much.  Indeed, that is precisely the point.  Once met, the start-up costs do not necessarily translate into fares for the average citizen.  Although Scaled Composites and Rutan are not saying how much each flight costs, if the entire project was completed for a fraction of what NASA spends on a single shuttle mission, no superlative can overstate the future of commercial space travel.

According to Scaled Composites’ website, “The price of a ride will have to take in[to] consideration the cost of certification and establishing an airliner-like operation. One goal of this research program is to see how low it might be without the burden of regulatory costs. At program completion we will have good data for operational costs and may publish them.

Splendid!  It seems that commercial space flight is a mere five to ten years away – instead of the twenty to fifty years, if ever, that we would have estimated as recently as 2002.  Naturally, hurdles remain, and not all of them are technological in nature.  Indeed, some of them are far more daunting legislative obstacles.  Uncle Sam stands divided over legislation to permit private commercial space flight, with one Senate faction quite reasonably content to accept that space travel is “inherently risky” while another seeks to hold the fledgling space industry to a rather pugnacious safety standard.  In true bureaucratic fashion, the latter group wants to hold the budding space flight industry to the same safety standards as commercial airlines – standards which the airlines themselves took decades to meet.  According to an MSNBC article, such hefty regulations will drive the cost of space flight up into the stratosphere, making the venture too expensive for anyone but billionaires – then we are right back where we started, with NASA-sized budgets required to get into space.  A spokesman for XCOR, one of several companies competing with Scaled Composites, said, “The only way we’re going to learn how to be safe is to get out there and fly.”  He added that, like the airlines, it will take “decades for the private spaceship industry, as well.”

"No one in their right mind would suggest that in the first 10 or 20 years we're going to reach levels of safety in the vehicle that are indistinguishable from the safety of being on the ground," the XCOR spokesman said.  Let us hope that the US Congress is, for once, in its right mind.

The Vacation of a Lifetime

Imagine boarding a plane – for the design of SS1 seems more plane than rocketship – destined not for New York or Dallas-Ft. Worth, but for a ring-shaped space station, where you and your spouse have booked a room for the weekend. The tickets were pricey – but like any big vacation, you saved and finagled the budget and made sacrifices until you could afford it. After all, it’s your second honeymoon, and you both wanted something big.

Figure 2 Courtesy Scaled Composite LLC

You step inboard, stow your carry-on bags overhead, take yours seats, and prepare for takeoff.  Even as the craft leaves the runway, the experience seems hardly distinguishable from an ordinary commercial airline flight.  At 50,000 feet, however, the differences manifest themselves.  A larger plane, dubbed the White Knight, has carried your craft aloft.  The two vehicles separate, and yours starts its rocket motors; you feel pressed into your seat quite firmly by the acceleration, your ears want to pop – it’s rather uncomfortable, actually, but you grit your teeth.  Your spouse holds your hand a bit more tightly than usual.  You struggle to turn your head for a view out the small round window – you catch a glimpse of the Earth’s surface looking a bit like a satellite photo, receding fast.  Within minutes, the rocket motors switch off – the craft has achieved orbit – and you suddenly feel weightless.  The sensation is more than a little disconcerting, for this is your first trip out of the atmosphere, and despite the pills you took before takeoff, your stomach threatens to protest the new environment.  Somewhere abaft and to your left, you hear the sound of someone whose Dramamine did not do the trick, quite.  That does not help your situation at all, but such concern is lost beneath an avalanche of wonder as you gaze out the window at your first real-life view of Earth from space.  You marvel at the unimaginably clear and bright starfield of the Milky Way – for you are on the Earth’s night-side, at the moment, and the stars are like nothing you’ve ever seen before.  You delight in spotting several constellations; you and your spouse add your voices to the excited chatter of the passengers.  No one minds the queasiness, or the uncomfortable squeezing in the ears.  Hell, some of them would not notice a severed leg, for a chance to orbit the Earth.

Survival of the Species

Figure 3 Courtesy Scaled Composites LLC

Why is SS1 so important?  Well, to get an indication, a Google search for “spaceshipone” returns over 770,000 hits.  Obviously, people are intrigued.  For some, thrills are the main attraction – high acceleration, weightlessness, breathtaking views – it’s the ultimate roller coaster.  For others, spaceflight is a lifelong dream, an intangible desire that cannot be expressed adequately.  It defies reason.  It is purely emotional.  If it has to be explained, you won’t understand. 

Few of us would forego such an opportunity.  Many of us would mortgage our homes for the chance to go up, if only once.  Some of us would do almost anything.  But beyond our individual dreams and desires, the advent of commercial space flight heralds a new chapter in the history of Man.  It makes colonization of space not only possible but practical, for only where people can turn out a profit will such ventures be undertaken on a large scale.  Why is that important?  It may be the only way to protect Homo Sapiens from eventual extinction.  Oh, I no longer believe we’ll blow ourselves to bits in a thermonuclear war – although that is still possible.  Even without the looming specter of nuclear winter, however, numerous threats carry the potential to wipe us out.  Recently, astronomers charted a meteor that passed breathlessly close to our planet – but they charted it after it had passed by.  We recklessly build biological weapons that, although lacking the ability today to inflict global catastrophe, will undoubtedly acquire it before long.  Our impact upon the very environment that sustains our species has reached truly alarming proportions, yet every year our planet boasts millions fewer acres of trees than it had before.  As it turns out, war may not be the most aggressive predator stalking us, after all.  Regardless which threat seems to you the most troubling, it is absolutely critical for humanity to reside in more than one place.  The species would then have a chance to carry on, in the event something happened to the Earth.

For Humanity, Space Ship One represents an escape clause in our contract with evolution.  It manifests survival of the species.  It makes us the first Terrestrial life form to take destiny into its own hands, to become the survivors of Darwin’s Game.  We win.  And the prize is…the stars.

Additional Sites of Interest:

$50 Million Orbital Challenge Announced

Paul Allen Homepage

XCOR Receives Launch License

On Space Travel SS1’s Road to Space

Space Ship One Wins X-Prize

Heinlein Prize Trust Congratulates Space Ship One!

Michael McNamara
October 9, 2004 (more essays here)