New Column: Next Frontiers

Tobias Buckell considers the X-Prize and how it might ignite a new culture of space.

A New Culture of Space?

Last year was a big year for space enthusiasts when, against what many initially thought were high odds during the start, the X-Prize was won by SpaceShipOne, designed by Burt Rutan and developmentally backed by Microsoft’s Paul Allen. It was incredible watching the plucky little rocket plane kicking out into the legal definition of space and listening to the breathless reporters as everyone seemed to become a space enthusiast for a day. It seemed like a dream come true: a private company conquering space, even if we knew that wasn’t orbit and there was a lot of work yet, it was still exciting.

What I find most interesting about the X-Prize race was that even as late as December of 2003 no one knew if anyone was going to take the prize, or even really attempt it. Not until later and later as we saw more and more incredible test flights by the Scaled Composites team did the eventual win of SpaceShipOne become clearer and clearer. A great portion of the money for the X-Prize came from a Bermuda insurance company that put up the money against the X-Prize foundation, basically ‘betting’ that it wasn’t possible for a private non-governmental group to do what SpaceShipOne did in the time that it did. If they won they would taken the X-Prize foundation’s money. The Bermuda insurance company that fronted the money for the prize on the bet wouldn’t have had any reason to be worried for most of the ten year duration of the prize (1995-2005). In 1995 no one could have predicted the winner. It only seemed obvious to us that Burt Rutan would make it once he started demonstrating that he could. It opens up all sorts of possibilities.

And Burt Rutan’s win has had some incredible repercussions. Bigelow Aerospace announced a 50 million dollar prize for a private spacecraft that could reach two full orbits, carry five people, and dock with one of Bigelow’s inflatable space habitats. NASA has turned to offering prizes as well (though smaller in payout and for less impressive goals), and other industries have taken to offering X-Prizes for other scientific developments. What everyone learned was that if you pay for the result, and not try to pick who might win but who did win, it was a motivation for a varied number of methods to be attempted and you could leverage the effectiveness of your money.

Imagine had the X-Prize followed the methodology of NASA? It might have gone something like this: out of all the proposals offered up (there were some 24 teams listed on the X-Prize site) it would have picked one that looked most likely, and given it the money to co-develop the idea. Would they have picked Scaled Composites? That’s fairly close to what has happened in the past with NASA, and while NASA has always been the pinata of frustrated space enthusiasts, what the X-Prize has done has demonstrated how differently things can be done. It has also helped create and spur on the formation of a nascent industry of small competitors to the traditional big guys.

While struggling with red tape, Virgin Aerospace is the prime small aerospace contender, and as Samizdata suspects, seems to be well on their way towards a plan to get into orbit:

Step 1) Fund a suborbital test vehicle and get it partly paid for by winning the X-Prize. [DONE]
Step 2) Build a suborbital joy ride vehicle that mostly pays for itself going up and down. [IN PROGRESS]
Step 3) Fly the first intercontinental suborbital flight with that vehicle in a stripped down single pilot mode.
Step 4) Build a slightly larger vehicle that mostly pays for itself via trans-Pacific flights.
Step 5) Use that American built vehicle in a stripped down, single pilot mode to fly from an equatorial base into orbit. Perhaps it will be necessary to build a special vehicle to deal with higher re-entry heat loading, but there are now two revenue streams on line, not to mention Bob Bigelow’s $50M America’s Space Prize.

Meanwhile there are groups like T/Space being given money by NASA to develop cheaper methods of space access in a private manner concurrently to NASA’s new roadmap. It looks like the last couple years changed the way a lot of people thought about the possibility of private, small company run, space access. And that’s a good thing.

There are even signs that deep, deep within NASA we’re seeing a shake up. Most of the larger newspapers haven’t picked up on it, but NASA’s new chief seems to be a little bit bolder than his recent predecessors. He wants to see new space hardware flying by 2006 so there is no gap in their manned space ability, and he seems to understand the potential that the excitement of last year unearthed with this recent quote in regards to the process of getting commercialized vehicles for NASA:

I don’t want to pick winners, but I do want to be able to reward them.

Rand Simberg’s recent analysis of Mike Griffin at Tech Central Station also agrees that Mike seems eager to shake things up.

All of which means the next few years might be a bit more interesting than previously anticipated as both private and public space access enters into an interesting new period of time.