Two Anniversaries and Our (Private Sector) Future in Space

Fifty-second and fifth. Those were the respective anniversaries yesterday of Sputnik and the winning of the X-Prize. Both events shook up the world of space policy and technology, each in their own way.

The first kicked off an expensive space race in an existential war between freedom and totalitarianism that, almost a dozen years later, culminated in American astronauts walking on the moon in the summer of 1969. We live with its legacy today, with a bloated and expensive human spaceflight jobs program in an age of ballooning deficits, while on the verge of technical and budgetary collapse.

The second kicked off another race, but one that holds much more promise for making our nation into a truly space-faring one.

Five years ago when SpaceShipOne left the atmosphere and reached a hundred kilometers altitude for the second time within two weeks, it changed the mindset of many people in the worlds of policy and investment. Almost overnight, private space travel shifted from a topic that elicited giggles or eye rolling from many industry professionals to one in which we could start to reasonably think about individual people going into space with their own money and for their own purposes. It laid the groundwork for the growing Washington consensus (albeit with continuing rear-guard and ultimately doomed battles from some of the authorizers in Congress) that NASA needs to get out of the earth-orbit space transportation business for personnel and at long last become a good customer for the private sector.

It also kicked off a new appreciation from the investment community for new markets for space, and the potential for new players to change the game. This means that investment will start to flow into not just the Virgin Galactic company that it directly spawned, but also into XCOR, Armadillo Aerospace, Masten Space Systems, and other players in the new suborbital game.

Beyond that, it led to a new-found appreciation for the value of prizes at NASA, though the potential has been held back by a penurious Congress. Had the X-Prize not been successful, it’s unlikely that the Centennial Challenges program, established a year previously (on the hundredth anniversary of the Wright brothers' first flight) would have moved forward in the way it has. There are attractive purses for a variety of useful aviation and space technology demonstrations.

For those whose suborbital concepts focus on vertical takeoffs and landings, the Lunar Landing Challenge (LLC) has proven a spur to both team enthusiasm and investment. There will be several companies competing this month for first- and second-place prizes, including the aforementioned Armadillo and Masten and newcomers Unreasonable Rocket and BonNova.

The original X-Prize only had one serious competitor, but the variety of approaches being displayed in the LLC will provide a robust suite of technologies for affordable transportation not only for earth to orbit, but for access to other planetary surfaces as well. And it can be accomplished for a tiny fraction of the cost overrun on a typical NASA project.

Beyond that, it will provide a self-sustaining business base for some if not all of these new ventures that will allow them to provide affordable transport to both government and private customers. Their very existence has created a revolutionary new market for affordable space science that may provide the synergy with the providers necessary to profitably grow the industry. It will also demonstrate its value to the taxpayer by providing more science for the tax dollar. And as experience is gained in the suborbital world, the performance envelopes will be gradually expanded, flying higher and faster, applying lessons to newer generations of vehicles, until suborbital finally becomes orbital and space access finally becomes affordable, with all that implies for our future off planet.

It is a path from which we were diverted in the panic of Sputnik, over half a century ago, but are now firmly back on track as a result of that other anniversary half a decade ago. And with the continued disarray in the business-as-usual and unaffordable federal space policy, and as the establishment awaits a decision from the Obama administration in the wake of the Augustine report coming out this month, on this dual anniversary it’s looking increasingly like a new approach that will be unstoppable.