One of the great stories overshadowed by the spirit-crushing presidential race just got better.
SpaceShipOne, the first privately launched vehicle to carry human beings into space, has inspired plans for a new, larger spaceship that, within five years, could begin lofting customers into sub-orbital flights, according to an announcement by Richard Branson, chairman of Virgin Atlantic Airways.
The notion has space enthusiasts buzzing with an excitement NASA hasn't matched in years.
No wonder, literally.
During three decades NASA managed to strip the wonder from space travel. Endless flights to test the effects of weightlessness on fruit flies left us cold and indifferent with few exceptions. Flights to repair the Hubble Space Telescope opened soul-stirring vistas that still have us wide-eyed at the wonders of deep space, but mostly NASA let us down with a thud.
Where are the lunar colonies and voyages to Mars promised in our youth? Where the ships that would open the heavens to armchair astronauts? Where are the payoff for space troopers who sat up nights watching astronauts gambol and bounce across the hills and plains of the moon in the late sixties and early seventies?
To cite budget cuts doesn't answer the questions. Over 35 years NASA's spent more than 10 times what it cost to explore the moon a quarter-million miles away on shuttle flights that seldom go higher than 500 miles.
Meanwhile, at a tiny fraction of NASA's budget, Burt Rutan has been loudly reinventing space travel. You might remember Rutan as the designer of the plane called the Voyager that circled the earth without stopping to refuel in December, 1986. That success, which many regarded as a stunt, gave Rutan the motivation, clout and financial backing--largely from billionaire Paul Allen--to accomplish the following:
On June 21, Mike Melvill piloted SpaceShipOne, an egg-shaped cockpit decked out with fins, nosecone and a rocket, more than 60 miles high. He was carried aloft inside the craft attached to the underbelly of a larger plane named the White Knight. Once safely airborne (above the blanked of air at ground-level) the White Knight released SpaceShipOne. Melvill fired its rocket and went vertical fast.
This space system is ingenious and elegant in a way NASA's space shuttle is not. Built to fly into space like a rocket-plane, SpaceShipOne changes orientation to re-enter the earth's atmosphere, using aerial drag like a badminton shuttlecock to slow down, before re-extending its wings to land. With Melvill at the controls, SpaceShipOne became the first privately funded manned spacecraft to leave the atmosphere, putting it's 62 year old pilot in the record books.
On a subsequent flight, Sept. 30, Melville climbed to 337,500 feet, nearly two miles higher than required to meet the first objective of the $10 million X Prize—a carrot dangled by a St. Louis based organization to promote space travel. If you've seen video-footage of that flight, you realize what a harrowing ride Melvill had, spinning and bucking his way to an uncertain but eventually successful conclusion.
On Oct. 4, pilot Brian Binnie finished the job of winning the X Prize by soaring about 70 miles high, the second such flight within two weeks—an X Prize requirement.
Recently I saw Rutan on TV explaining that, as one of those kids dazzled by space travel in the 1960s, he'd always assumed he'd one day fly in space. A few years back he realized he'd never get the chance if he left it up to the government. That's when he decided to build his own spaceship.
Now Virgin Atlantic has bought rights to the technology represented by SpaceShipOne. He intends to build a larger, user-friendly craft named the VSS Enterprise--VSS for Virgin Space Ship, and Enterprise for the Star Trek cruiser. While the VSS Enterprise won't soar to the stars as Captain Kirk and Spock's spaceship did, it will fly more than 70 miles high.
That's high enough to see the curvature of the earth and the un-blinkered glow of star-shine for long enough to experience a few minutes of weightlessness. Based on accounts from previous astronauts, these are transformative experiences that will impact humankind in ways we can and cannot predict.
To all prophets and space cadets: Stay tuned.