Ed Driscoll

The Hobbling Effects of Giant Leaps

“On Oct. 4, the world marked the anniversaries of two very different space milestones. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik. And in 2004, SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X Prize by becoming the first privately-built vehicle to fly to space twice within two weeks,” Douglas Messier writes at Parabolic Arc.com:

The Apollo program has been followed by more than 40 years in which no humans have ventured beyond Earth orbit. A decade has passed since the winning of the Ansari X Prize without a single private suborbital space flight. Why has following up these two achievements proven to be so difficult?

It turns out that reaching a goal by a deadline isn’t enough; it matters how you get there. Fast and dirty doesn’t necessarily result in solid, sustainable programs. What works well in a sprint can be a liability in a marathon. And the conquest of space is humanity’s ultimate marathon.

The X Prize Foundation built rules into the competition designed to produce sustainability in that the spacecraft had to be reusable and fly twice within two weeks. Yet, there was no requirement for the winning design to have a fully reusable engine, which is the most important element if you want routine, affordable access to space.

The prize route also takes a lot of time. It took eight years for Rutan to win the Ansari X Prize; Scaled Composites has spent another decade trying to commercialize the technology. Eighteen years is an enormous amount of time. Would it have been better to devote all that time, energy and money to directly attacking the problems that make space travel so expensive?

Although the Ansari X Prize had 26 competitors, no other team came close to winning. Instead of the prize resulting in multiple suborbital tourism vehicles competing with each other, there was just one company that received much of the money that would be invested in the nascent industry. All without knowing whether the approach would be viable.

That wouldn’t have mattered as much if Scaled and Virgin Galactic had been able to quickly follow up on SpaceShipOne’s success with a safe, reliable vehicle of some type. They would have been able to prove the viability of the new industry. And a lot more money would have flowed into companies with other suborbital designs.

But, that was not to be. Flush with success and not knowing what he didn’t know, Rutan bet the future on a poor propulsion system that he never took the time to fully test, much less understand. His failure to grasp the nature of technology he selected cost three men their lives.

Read the whole thing. And then note the date and time stamp on Messier’s article.

(H/T: IP)