The Tipping Point In Commercial Spaceflight: 20 Years Ago Today

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Twenty years ago Friday, an unlikely group of aircraft designers and renegade commercial rocket engineers launched a civilian astronaut into space from an obscure desert airfield in Mojave, California. This event upended a staid global space industry, and as I detail in my new book, Red Moon Rising: How America Will Beat China on the Final Frontier, it unlocked America’s secret space weapon, entrepreneurship. It changed my life as well and I’m pleased to share my memories and photos here.

It was June 21, 2004; a peculiar airplane was rolled out of a hanger at dawn. A large crowd of excited onlookers had already gathered along the flight line at the Mojave Airport. My press credential had secured a front row seat, giving me a great view of the elegant jet. White Knight had two widely separated fuselages, with half of its large wingspan between the two. Centered above that central wing was a sci-fi looking cockpit pod. Suspended below was a smaller vehicle with a similar but stubbier profile, SpaceShipOne.

Carrying its smaller companion, White Knight turned at the end of the runway and accelerated into the wind. The connected craft lifted gracefully off the runway, banked and rose into the blue. SpaceShipOne was lofted to about 45,000 by White Knight. Here, above the thickest part of the atmosphere, the spaceplane was released from under its host, which then veered away. SpaceShipOne dropped quickly. Seconds later its hybrid rocket motor – burning hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene (rubber) with nitrous oxide (laughing gas) – was lit. We heard nothing on the ground but could see everything in the clear desert sky.

The little spaceplane quickly pitched up and rocketed toward the black with incredible acceleration. It swiftly passed through the sound barrier, leaving a very visible white trail across the empty sky. Minutes later, Mike Melvill became the first commercial astronaut to fly a privately funded vehicle to space. Melvill blasted past the 50-mile official U.S. boundary to space and then eked across the 100 kilometer internationally preferred Kármán line. He reached a final altitude of 100.124 km and a speed of Mach 2.9! That data was verified by radar at nearby Edwards Air Force Base.

The location of this historic event was most appropriate as Edwards was the crucible of America’s human spaceflight endeavor. Rocket powered planes were breaking speed and altitude records there, long before the big rockets carried astronauts to space from Florida. Many American astronauts got their start flying rocket planes in California’s high desert, a story featured in epic films like The Right Stuff and First Man. The rustic scenery and the “cowboy space” ethic of that period persist at Mojave. All of SpaceShipOne team wore blue jeans, many with the requisite boots and big belt buckles. I found the airfield’s general manager, Stuart O. Witt, was similarly attired. Stu turned out to be a remarkable character and an inspirational leader. He was a TOPGUN naval aviator, test pilot and visionary who saw America’s future in the stars and knew it must be led by disruptive entrepreneurs. Stu would eventually chair the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. He and I would work together on space policy issues and occasionally published together.

Everything about the SpaceShipOne project was 180% different from the traditional NASA approach. The system, officially named “Tier One,” was designed and constructed by Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites, a firm that was most famous for selling innovative homebuilt airplane plans. Hundreds of Rutan’s VariEze and Long-EZ planes were assembled in garages and flown by aviation hobbyists. Melvill was a test pilot for these products and often on the phone providing tech support for Scaled’s customers. Scaled had kindly offered me access to the team and program. I called up saying I was an adjunct professor of business and noted that I was (to my knowledge) the only management scholar studying entrepreneurship in the commercial space industry. It was a novel research context that my academic collogues were very skeptical of.

After SpaceShipOne had rocketed out of sight, we all stared at Rutan and the program’s funder, Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen. The pair stood awkwardly out on the edge of the runway, peering nervously into the blue. They looked increasingly nervous as the minutes stretched quietly on. Suddenly, Rutan’s handheld radio crackled. He said something to Allen, then turned toward us with a huge smile and gave a big thumbs up. The spaceplane had successfully used its innovative “shuttlecock” tail to reorient itself for reentry and was gliding back to the spaceport. We would soon find out that there had been some challenges with control during the flight. Melvill learned a lot that would inform future flights and follow on vehicles.

Why Rutan and his team pulled this crazy stunt was just as important as how they did it. Allen had invested over $20million in an attempt to win a $10million prize. The Ansari X-Prize had established by space visionary, Peter Diamandis and funded by future commercial astronaut Anousheh Ansari. The X prize had driven more than a dozen teams – a couple of them serious – to develop rockets capable of lofting three human beings on a suborbital flight. I will explore the X-Prize flights, which I also attended, when the anniversary of that prize award approaches, this fall.

Diamandis’ strategy was a success! SpaceShipOne led to SpaceShipTwo, Richard Branson’s spaceplane, which has carried a small cadre of lucky individuals to space in recent years. Virgin Galactic’s ability to presell tickets demonstrated the market potential for other suborbital systems, including Jeff Bezos’ New Shepard. By the end of the year, President Bush had signed new legislation into law, providing for the permitting and licensing of human spaceflight. The Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004, wisely directed the FAA to let the new industry find its way before being subjected to onerous safety regulation. That “learning period” has been repeatedly extended and now covers human spaceflights conducted by several companies.

More importantly, the success of SpaceShipOne lent credibility to “crazy” new startups like SpaceX, who were claiming that they could build rockets cheaper and better than industry stalwarts like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. NASA’s Space Shuttle was not flying that year. Investigations into the loss of the Columbia the previous year would keep that complex system grounded for three years. Mike Melvill held up a sign provided by one of the flightline observers. It read “SpaceShipOne – Government Zero.” Suddenly, it was impossible to deny that commercial space was capable and it was clearly needed. Much of the technical excitement, big investment, and the vibrant economy we see in space today, depends on that historic event, 20 years ago.

On that historic day, I naively assumed that affordable human spaceflight would be readily available soon and that I would fulfill my life’s goal of seeing the Earth from space! Of course, it turns out that space is very hard, and all these programs have taken way longer than anticipated. Twenty years on, the industry is nowhere near filling the backlogged demand for private spaceflight. The waiting lists are very long and the flights are very few, so don’t be holding your breath with me. Commercial spaceflight opportunities are only available to those with huge amounts of cash or unique backgrounds that intrigue the operators and appeal to the media. While I have come to accept that I will never join them, I am extremely grateful for SpaceShipOne. My own career in space was really launched on that day as well and it has been almost as good as playing in zero G.

I published my first editorial advocating for commercial space in the Baltimore Sun that week. My thoughts on the nascent industry began to appear in the space and mainstream media. Mojave was the genesis of my personal space network, which now includes many industry leaders. It also fed the research that would culminate in my publishing the first (to my knowledge) management Ph.D. dissertation set in the context of New Space.

Eventually, this led to the opportunity to serve on the 2016 NASA Agency Review Team and help establish our ambitious national space agenda. This included the decision to return to the Moon under Artemis and the reestablishment of the National Space Council. An appointment as NASA’s White House Liaison and a presidential nomination to serve as the agency’s CFO followed. I also had the honor to chair the Safety Working Group on the FAA’s Commercial Spaceflight Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), which addressed the potential regulatory challenges initiated by SpaceShipOne. Along the way I’ve seen amazing things. The next twenty years will be even greater. Someday you or you kids will fly in space because of that amazing day in Mojave! If you’d like to learn more about this remarkable history of commercial space, checkout Red Moon Rising.

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