Many of my schoolboy days I spent in the thrall of NASA’s first heady leaps into space. Classes were interrupted so the whole school could watch the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo launches on TV. My classmates and I would cheer encouragement, repeating “go… go… go…” in half whispers as the rockets climbed. Every kid I knew wanted to be an astronaut.
In those days, money for space exploration was no object. The sainted JFK said we were going to the moon, and by God, we were. The space program was closely tied to national security, national prestige, and the military benefits of advanced missile and satellite technology. The often touted consumer spin-offs offered more public relations hype than realistic financial return. Selling oceans of Tang would still have come up short of the break even point on the Gemini Program.
The space explorers were all military officers. Civilians didn’t work their way into the system for many years. Massive public spending preempted civilian investment in space technology for decades.
Historically that isn’t surprising. Nations rather than private groups have usually financed the first exploration of new realms. Chris Columbus showed up in America on a government grant.
But the heavy lifting of discovery — the clearing, plowing, digging and building was done by private citizens taking their own risks. Individuals and families, entrepreneurs, dreamers and adventurers risked their lives and fortunes seeking prosperity and pursuing happiness. In doing so they built a nation that would inspire the world.
Similarly private business people, scientists and engineers are now starting the real work of space exploration. While NASA, shackled to a technology that originated in the days of the AMC Gremlin, frantically searches for a mission, private companies are honing the cutting edge of spaceflight technology.
On the day of the summer solstice the first private spacecraft, SpaceShipOne, left the earth’s atmosphere and returned safely. The winged craft was designed by famous aviation innovator Burt Rutan and financed with $20 million from Microsoft partner Paul Alan. Lifting the hearts of geezers everywhere 63-year old pilot, Mike Melville, brought the bird home on backup controls to finish a successful though not perfect flight. I can’t think of a better or more exciting use of a private fortune.
That they succeeded despite problems is testimony to the solid redundant fail safes built into Rutan’s design. SpaceShipOne shows the innovation that spending your own money inspires so well. For example, the craft uses a rocket fuel formula that doesn’t require super-cooling and a cabin design that allows the pilot to fly without a space suit.
As Star Trek aficionados know, private space companies now have 59 years left to beat the 2063 date of Zephram Cochran’s first successful warp drive flight. They’ve made a good start. Several milestones are now in place. The Guinness Book of World Records has recorded SpaceShipOne’s flight as the first private trip into space. The Federal Aviation Administration, suggesting they may want to regulate heaven as well as earth, has awarded the pilot, Mr. Melville, the first set of commercial astronaut wings. And tiny Mojave Airport is the first private spaceport on earth.
The next challenge for the team that put this flight together is a race like the one Charles Lindberg won by flying nonstop across the Atlantic in 1927.
The team will now try to win the $10 million ANSARI X prize. The winner will be the first private group to fly three people into suborbital space and bring them back safely. They must do this twice within a two-week period, using the same spacecraft for both flights. Although Rutan’s Scaled Composites appears to be in the lead, at least two dozen others are in the race.
Like the Orteig Prize that inspired Lindy’s flight the ANSARI X Prize is offered by a group of private businesses. The ANSARI group includes descendents of those who sponsored the 1927 contest.
In 1927 the prize was $25,000 for the first nonstop transatlantic flight. Lindberg won it. He took off from a muddy field in New York with four sandwiches, a canteen of water and 451 gallons of fuel. He also took off with the then wild notion that one man could fly nonstop in a single engine airplane all the way across the Atlantic. He landed 33 hours later in Paris, France.
There were few at the time who saw much practical value in Lindberg’s flight. The world admired Lucky Lindy’s feat for its own sake. People everywhere were thrilled by the pure joy of a bold adventurer doing something never done before.
Unexpectedly and suddenly Lindberg’s success shifted the world’s perception of flying. He single handedly jump-started the airline industry. Within 18 months of his flight the number of airline passengers leaped from under 6,000 to over 200,000 per year.
The sponsors of the X-prize have market research that shows there may be as many as 10,000 Americans who would pay up to $100,000 for a flight into space. Private spaceflight could be a $1 billion version of the barnstorming craze of the Roaring Twenty’s, when freelance pilots offered rides in their biplanes to anyone who could pay the fee.
The first flight of SpacShipOne and the formidable challenge of competing for the X-prize renewed for me the dream of spaceflight I knew as a boy. The venerable age of the first pilot encourages me to think I might still one day look back at the planet from outer space.
The achievements of bold American entrepreneurs, pioneers and dreamers are a source of pride and patriotism for us all. Their successes spark the world’s admiration like no fleet of bombers ever can. Peaceful, technological wonders like SpaceShipOne show the world what free men in free markets can accomplish.