Props to Burt Rutan and his team; SpaceShipOne flew to more or less the height expected on the day they said, and it was apparently a height that qualifies it for its name (just). I don't know much about aircraft/spacecraft design, but SpaceShipOne seemed to me to demonstrate that you can now implement something that does much of what the X-15 programme did -- and some things it didn't do -- using new technologies in a very elegant way. It is an inspiring sight, and a great achievement.
The flight also illustrated something which I often need reminding of; the hold that spaceflight novelties have on the media and on the public imagination. According to Brad Stone of Newsweek, there were nearly 600 journalists at the event, and more than ten thousand enthusiast spectators. Google News was listing over a 1000 stories on it. The last bit of successful human spaceflight that got that sort of attention, I suspect, was the first Hubble servicing mission; I don't think there was ever quite this much fuss about any ISS mission, but I may just not have noticed.
While acknowledging the excitement of the achievement, this fuss seems a trifle overblown. This was a small sub-orbital hop, and I really don't see how it scales up to being the herald of a world-changing paradigm shift, or the beginning of a new era. As Jeff Foust asks, is it not possible that SpaceShipOne is more like Paul MacCready's Gossamer Albatross than the Spirit of St Louis? (That said, while acknowledging that the SoSL was more significant than the Albatross, I'm always a bit puzzled as to why people make such a fuss about the solo flight when Alcock and Brown's earlier transatlantic flight was so much more thrilling -- wing walking in the snow, for God's sake -- as well as looking much more like a precursor of routine transatlantic flight to come, reliant as it is on crews and big planes. Yes, Lindbergh helped with the design as well as doing the flying, but his design innovations -- no view out front, for example -- were pretty precisely tailored to pulling off a stunt, rather than fecund foundations for future progress. Obviously national pride plays a role here, but shouldn't the odious fascist my-friend-Goering-has-the-right-idea stuff rather undercut that?)
Anyway, back to the fuss surrounding SpaceShipOne. The problem is that reaching space in a way that lets you stay there is a lot harder that paying a flying visit. Orbit is a matter of velocity, not altitude; to stay in orbit you need to have reached a speed of Mach 25. That means more fuel and more powerful rockets and a much smaller payload fraction. And the amount of energy a spacecraft needs to get rid of when coming back to the earth is proportional to the square of its velocity in space. The amount of energy per unit mass you have to shed coming back from orbit will be 70 times that needed to come to a stop after flying at Mach three. SpaceShipOne's "re-entry" was pretty impressive in terms of aerodynamic control. However it didn't require anything like the sort of thermal protection that coming back from orbit does.
This is why sceptical voices doubt that SpaceShipOne and its X-prize ilk can really do much to further access to orbit -- the problems are of a different magnitude. There are undoubted advantages to the nimble development programmes aimed at sub-orbital flight for paying customers, as Rutan has shown. They allow new concepts to be tried. They allow test-a-little, redesign-a-little, test-a-little approaches that can be very fruitful. (That's why it's no bad news that things went wrong on SpaceShipOne - the whole idea of testing is to find things to fix.) Developing sub-orbital skills lets you evolve appropriate operational know-how, can provide continuous reassurance that things are working and progress is being made, and makes it easier for a sensible regulatory framework to evolve. It even allows you to generate income (though how well that will work after the first crash remains to be seen). But even so, it's hard to see how all that good stuff lets you bridge the gap between suborbital and orbital.
A while back Clark Lindsey asked various notables about these issues, and compiled their answers into a really excellent discussion (part one here, part two here) on Jeff Foust's Space Review. (There’s a lot of good stuff on the Space Review site, and a very good signal-to-noise ratio.) The key question, I think, was raised by Henry Spencer. Once you've developed a workable aircraft that lets paying customers do more or less what Mike Melvill did in SpaceShipOne on Monday -- thrill of acceleration, amazing view, weightlessness, achievement of space travel in arbitrary altitude terms -- will further improvements in performance pay their way in terms of increasing the revenue you can generate? The costs will probably climb quite steeply as you push that envelope out towards orbital capability. But how much more will people be willing to pay for a system that doubles their time in free fall, or that brings them back down on the far side of an ocean, or lets them launch a slightly larger LEO satellite at apogee?
I find it hard to believe that the revenues from ever more capable vehicles will grow as quickly as their development costs do. I may be wrong. Burt Rutan is not stupid, and does not seem given to idle boasts. Jeff Foust reports him saying that they'll be getting orbital quicker than most of us expect. Maybe he has technological tricks no one else has, or a business plan that generates billions from suborbital applications. Maybe Paul Allen has a skyhook in his skunkworks. But for the time being I remain sceptical.
For many people, though, the question of what SpaceShipOne might lead to is almost overshadowed by the way it was developed: using private, rather than government, money. It seems self-evident to them that something done with private capital is somehow better than something done by a government. Now I have no doubt that there are things that private enterprise does much better than government; the evidence for this is clear. But it seems to me something of a leap to say that private enterprise is intrinsically superior for all purposes, or even, as some seem to hint, morally so.
The idea that something achieved by people working for a billionaire is somehow more human, and easier to identify with, than something achieved by people working for a representative government is not one I find very easy to understand. And it can lead you to silliness, as when Michael Potter and Rick Tumlinson sneer that governments keep space travel the preserve of "a few very well paid government and very well trained employees". I don't know what an astronaut earns, but I don't think many people dependent on government salaries are likely to be paying customers on SpaceShipOne's commercial offspring any time soon.
And there's another thing. I like space exploration, especially when it provides scientific knowledge and cultural perspective, which much of it does. I think it's something people should do. But I don't think it's the most important thing people should do, and I'm aware that the $15 billion a year spent on NASA could save millions of lives if spent on strengthening and widening access to existing programmes on tuberculosis, malaria, maternal health, vaccination and childhood disease in the developing world. And that would be a very good thing; a better thing, in fact, than stimulating my intellect.
When the allocation of resources is a matter for governments, I can take refuge in the knowledge that transferring that money from one set of accounts to another just isn't politically possible. That sort of saves me from having to face the implicit choice between the two, and allows me to enjoy the intellectual stimulation of space travel without too much guilt over the opportunity costs involved. (I wrote a bit on this here when John Brockman asked for science advice to President Bush a few years ago.)
In private philanthropy, the choice is starker. Even if he wanted to, it would be really hard for George Bush to have NASA's budget spent on health issues in developing countries. However it would be quite easy for Paul Allen to spend his wealth that way. Indeed the experience of Allen's former partner, Bill Gates, suggests that it would be possible to do so effectively and on the grandest of scales. Paul Allen is free to do as he likes with his money, and what he is doing is exciting and fun; he also gives a lot more to his own charitable foundations than he has spent on SpaceShipOne. I know in my own life I don't spend as much of my time or my money on development issues and well focused philanthropy as I should; Paul Allen is not only vastly more generous than I in absolute terms but quite possibly in relative terms, too. But when we all get caught up dreaming about what large amounts of private money could be doing for a space-faring few in the future, it's worth keeping in mind what that money could be doing for millions who are suffering in the present.