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John F.

You are, of course, quite right about the magnitude of difficulty involved in orbital flight as compared to what Space Ship One accomplished. I do feel that you are unnecessarily pessimistic about the progression of private space flight. Neither Burt Rutan nor Paul Allen are noted for doing things for altruistic reasons. Usually, they make money at what they do. Is it possible that they have a business plan that goes in a direction that nobody else has surmised? Quite possibly! My perspective is that SS1 is more like the Wright Flyer than the SSL in it's place in history. No one expected that to amount to anything either, but 50 years later there were commercial jets in service.

As regards private vs government development, the primary differences are that private developers can choose to take more risks, both technical and business, than governments can, are more programmatically agile and in the long run are more efficient. Large bureaucracies, whether government or commercial, are pathologically risk-averse. It takes great bureaucratic soul searching just to commit to a program, a consensus of many different constituencies to continue to progress at each decision point, and a "cast of thousands" to perform and then second guess each step. High risk is not something that bureaucracies accept unless there is absolutely no choice. You will note that there are no big aerospace companies involved in the X-Prize competition.

Of course, willingness to take risk leads to inevitable failures. Small enterprises will either survive the problems, or not, but usually some do. Frequently, the frontrunners thrive for a while, but then many fall by the wayside, or are bought out. Curtiss-Wright, for example, no longer manufactures aircraft, but the company is named for the true pioneers in the field. The ones that do survive over the long haul have both technical and business vision. It's a Darwinian situation, and "the vision thing" may be the most important element.

I think this situation is a closer parallel to the early days of the Wright Flyer and the Curtiss June Bug. Granted, the current protagonists have the benefit of 40 years of government space development, and the technological knowledge that goes with it, but then the Wrights had Otto Lillienthall, too.

As to why this flight was significant....I guess I need to make a wholly unsupported assertion as to why I think it is important. I really feel that a robust, extensive and efficient space transportation infrastructure is necessary for the long term survival of humanity. We don't really know when the next dinosaur killer will come, or when some other equally drastic threat will surface. I think that only a competitive, capitalistic process will provide that infrastructure in any sort of timely way. How long has it been since the last man walked on the Moon? That's the kind of timliness that governments provide! I assert that focused greed, i.e. the profit motive, has a far better chance of being timely. The flight of SS1 is just the beginning of that process.

As to the problems of the starving millions, don't lose sleep over that. The problem is not the money that is spent (or not spent)on them. It is largely, perhaps exclusively, the result of national mores and cultural impediments that prevent the natural productiveness of private individuals from raising themselves out of poverty. Witness Zimbabwe, for example. Under a more free society, they used to produce more than enough to feed themselves. Under Mugabe, with his government siphoning off what little the new land users can produce, people are starving. The real problem is institutions, not money. Freedom and, yes, capitalism can raise most peoples out of serfdom. I assert that governments and freedom are frequently mutually exclusive. "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."

John F.

Guy Mac

When they (scaled) call the program 'Tier One', you can bet they have Tiers Two and Three already in mind. And Rutan has admitted as much, they they are looking beyond Earth orbit....

Del Miller

Comparing SpaceShipOne to the Wright Flyer and heralding it as a similar great leap toward commercialization is a pretty big assumption.

The rapid advancement of air travel was made possible by, more than anything else, the fact that the oil industry and the aircraft industry developed together. If the airplane had been developed at the time of da Vinci, it would be half a millennium before a cheap, high energy density fuel would be available to make the thing practical.

The amount of energy required to boost a practical mass into earth orbit is so enormous as to be a very high threshold to cross. There would have to be a parallel development in the economics of fuels to make Mach 25 flight anything other than a governmentally sponsored event.

But, barring some terrific new technology for making rocket fuel, we now live on the descending side of the cheap energy curve. The development of commercial space travel will have to proceed in opposition to the economics of energy as opposed to going along with it, as the aircraft industry did.

Perhaps we will someday have dedicated fusion plants churning out Hydrogen and LOX by the Saturn V load and can thus provide an inexpensive fuel for space travel, but that prospect is far enough in the future that it bears little import to the SpaceShipOne way of doing things.

And this is only one difference between the Wright Bothers legacy and the prospects for commercial space travel. There are forbidding materials problems, the issues of re-entry heating, radiation shielding and many others.

I don't want to be a pessimist, but I don't see SpaceShipOne in the direct lineage of tomorrows space industry.

Charles Schmidt

This leads one to ask why there is not more serious talk of a space elevator, which would seem a smart investment.

Bruce Moomaw

Well, in the first place, we are still absolutely nowhere near the structural technology necessary to buld a space elevator -- indeed the recent discoveries with "buckyballs" are the first hint that such a thing might even be physically possible. If we EVER see it, I don't think we'll see it for at least a century -- and we'll need cheap launches into LEO to build it in the first place.

In the second place, consider the terrorist possibilities in a quite small chemical bomb that severs a 37,000-km tall structure near its top so that the remainder of it falls back to Earth...


It's more than pure politics that keeps money in the space programme; it's what you'd do with all the rocket scientists. Retrain them as barefoot doctors? More likely is that we'd get 100,000 of Michael Douglas' character from "Falling Down", and a half-dozen latter-day Von Brauns, pursuing their interest while also working as grocery clerks.

--Okay, so there'd be other engineering projects they could work on. But I think the point is that a society kind of expresses what it can do by what the individuals in that society want to do. That is, there are a certain number of rocket scientist jobs partly because there are enough people interested in it to pursue it as a career. If there aren't enough teachers, for example, it's partly because there aren't enough people who want to teach. And that's for a bunch of reasons that no-one can cure just by Dear Leader fiat: "Let there be more teachers, barefoot doctors, etc, etc."

And if you could just fix things by moving money around, well, just look at that big pile in the Pentagon. It's much bigger than the space programme's. Surely they wouldn't miss a little bit, just to feed the starving in the Sudan....

John F.

I think you are just a bit too pessimistic. Years ago (about 1970) I had the dubious pleasure of doing the first range safety studies for the space shuttle when launched from the (then) Air Force Eastern Test Range. The configuration under consideration at the time was functionally similar to the SS1/White Knight...a manned flyback booster and a separate orbiter. That configuration was expected to be much more fuel-efficient, since most of the lift was aerodynamic until the vehicle made it out of the atmosphere, but it had more development risk. As I noted above, bureaucracies hate risk, and NASA ultimately chose to go with a configuration that was less fuel-efficient but was something they understood better.

While I grant you that the engineering problems are not small, I can see Rutan, et al, progressing to a hypersonic flyback booster and a true orbiter. I suspect that reentry heating will be the biggest bugabear, but not the only one. On the other hand, Burt is noted for unusual solutions to presumed difficult problems. I wouldn't count him out. Example: SS1 did not use either LOX or liquid hydrogen. I think the glass is half full, not half empty!

Del Miller

John F.

Well, I hope you're right, but it's tough fighting both the physics and the economics at the same time. The Apollo program grew in an environment of economic plenty and abundant cheap energy. We have neither now nor in the medium term future.

The future of commercial spaceflight will, I think, be less determined by Burt Rutan and his proven genius than it will by enlightened government policy in areas other than spaceflight.

We all now the old saw about pessimists and realists - I hope I'm the former.


Bruce Moomaw

Jeffrey Bell of the U. of Hawaii has just replied to your argument after I approvingly repeated it on some E-mails, and I think has just shown both of us up alarmingly well:

"We are already using the theoretically best practical chemical propellant, LH2/LO2. Every better fuel combination investigated has only
minor improvements in ISP but huge problems with corrosion, toxicity, etc. I highly recommend an amusing book called IGNITION! which is an
inside account of the search for better fuels. That line of improvement was played out by about 1965.

"The fuel cost is a trivial percentage of the total launch costs. The problem is that we build something as complicated and expensive as an airliner and throw it away after one mission. A cheap, reliable booster recovery system which doesn't weigh too much is the key ere."

Touche. (Well, that's what I get for not having a science degree.) The only defense I can make is that -- with fuel cost as with every other aspect of a space flight -- you want to make sure that the economic benefits from the flight exceed the cost, which is often not the case even if you're only talking about its fuel cost alone. Which, I think, is part of what Del was trying to get at: as energy gets scarcer for all human activities, its cost rises and human prosperity in general drops, there will be even less tolerance for relative luxuries like spaceflight (even with relatively low-cost reusable boosters), unless some aspect of space industrialization succeeds well enough conomically that spaceflight (especially manned spaceflight) ISN'T a luxury anymore.

Del Miller


Thank you. You clarified what I was trying to say much better than I did. (Well, that's what I get for not having a journalism degree :-)

I think it is important to note that our currencies are, these days, not based upon the gold standard but upon the oil standard. I don't mean to launch into a discussion of macroeconomics here, but the cost of EVERYTHING in our society is now determined by either the availability of low cost energy or by the willingness of foreign governments to buy our securities. This willingness is, in a circular fashion, dependent on their ability to get cheap energy in order to generate the industry necessary to make the money to buy our securities. Whew.

In other words, the commercialisation of space isn't as much a technical problem as it is a matter of affordability in an era that is redefining affordability down. If you want a commercial space industry then you'd better care about deficits, balance of trade, worldwide disparities of income, environmental sustainability and the geo-econo-political aspects of the energy market.

In "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" Douglas Adams made a joke about the earthlings being un-interested in local politics - where "local" means the this part of the Milky Way. Oddly enough, local politics here on earth will determine the future of space exploration.

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