17 June 2004
Opinion - Tourism (Good)
The Historic Significance of SpaceShipOne's June 21 Space Flight
Space Future's View
by Patrick Collins
There is considerable controversy about the June 21st flight of SpaceShipOne, with some commentators saying that it is of little importance. So here is Space Future's view.

It is difficult to overstate SpaceShipOne's importance - for one main reason - the COSTS.
The whole project is said to have cost $20 - 30 million. That's what Nasa spends every day before lunch. Burt Rutan has been reported as saying that flights in a commercial version would cost about $20,000/passenger - this is 1/1,000 of what it cost Nasa to fly Alan Shepard, using an expendable rocket.

SpaceShipOne is also interesting in demonstrating the technical progress made over 50 years. It will have reached space in just 4 powered test flights: to Mach 1, Mach 1.5, 60 kilometres and then 100 kilometres - in just a few months in total. Readers will know that these records were first reached about 50 years ago, mostly in the USA and USSR, and mostly in secret due to the Cold War. At that time they took many different vehicles, many hundreds of flights over many years, and even several pilots' deaths to achieve.

These facts give a good clue as to the potential for cost reduction in space flight by using some of the technology developed since Gagarin's flight - because space agencies have never used it for that purpose. The R7 rocket, the first ever launch vehicle, which is the basis of the Soyuz, remains the cheapest way to get to space - nearly 50 years later. The implications of this astounding fact have never been given the attention they deserve.

The sad truth is that, for their own reasons, governments do not insist that their space agencies work to encourage space commercialisation - as they are legally required to do. If they did, sub-orbital space flights could have started in the early 1970s - even during the Apollo project. If that path had been taken, we would live in a very different - and more prosperous - world today.

How much publicity Monday's flight gets will depend on the pot luck of whether there is some other big news that day. It deserves front page headlines around the world. The more coverage it receives, the more progress the public will make in learning the bitter truth: that however much money they give to government space agencies - that's in addition to the $1 trillion they have used to date - they will never enable the public to travel to space for themselves - because their leaders don't want to, and they believe they have a right to spend taxpayers' money for their own purposes.

However, the public can get to travel to space - at far less cost than the cost of space agencies - simply by ensuring that investment is made to achieve that goal, which space agencies refuse to do. Adequate funding of a few more companies like Scaled Composites and other competitors for the Ansari X-Prize and future X-Prize Cups, and then a larger push for orbital passenger vehicles, and we could be there in not much more than a decade. It need not cost even as much as a single year of the $20 billion/year that space agencies cost taxpayers - and then we can save their budgets, since they will serve no further purpose. This is what their leaders know and are determined to delay for as long as possible.

This issue is discussed at greater length in an invited speech made to STAIF earlier this year and in papers to which it refers. That's here. In the first few paragraphs of the last section of the speech, the significance of SpaceShipOne's flight is compared to Copernicus' work, no less! The analogy is not unreasonable - please read it for yourself.

So fingers crossed for June 21.

(NB Even if the flight's delayed, by weather or for other reasons, a private sub-orbital flight to space is clearly very near, and when it happens it's going to change the world.)
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Patrick Collins 17 June 2004
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