By Sam Howe Verhovek:
For a traveler heading up the highway toward the Mojave Air and Space Port, in the desert 70 miles north of Los Angeles, the surroundings are ghostly. Silent 747s and DC-10 jumbo jets from defunct airlines, along with smaller 727s and DC-9s, some cut up or resting on pylons, are visible from miles away, looking frozen and forlorn. Parked along the road at the airport entrance is a 1962 Convair 990, which began its life as an American Airlines jet airliner. Now the wind whistles through its nacelles and birds nest in its wheel wells.
Mojave is a boneyard, a place where commercial airliners go to die. Yet on the day I visited last October, there was life in the wide blue sky overhead, and it was more striking than the sight of even the most modern airliner. I saw a kind of flying catamaran streaking from west to east. As it came into view, it looked like two business jets flying in formation and high-fiving each other. Closer, I saw twin fuselages joined by large, slightly tilted overhead wings, each with two quiet jet engines on the far side. I was watching the VMS Eve, the airborne launching pad for the smaller rocket ships that in the next few years, Virgin Galactic says, will begin taking paying passengers to space.
Soaring above the elderly airliners, their liveries fading away under the baking sun, Eve, named for Virgin founder Richard Branson’s mother, was the only obvious sign of a spaceport at the airfield. Passengers may one day fly out of Mojave and other spaceports, with sleek underground terminals and gleaming rocket ships taxiing for blastoff. But for the moment, to really see what the future has in store for this quiet patch of desert, you need to pass through a locked door in a chain-link fence and into a large hangar, where you’ll find the heart of Scaled Composites, the aerospace company behind Eve and the rest of Virgin Galactic’s futuristic spaceware. Technicians in smocks and white lab coats swarmed around a spacecraft like bees at a honeycomb. Working with riveters, glue guns, sanders and vacuum pumps, they were busy putting the outer layers on a prototype of SpaceShipTwo, the 60-foot-long, feather-winged vehicle Virgin was preparing to unveil in December. The craft is part of its grand plan to bring space travel, if not to the masses, then to a slightly broader swath of humanity than has ever been able to contemplate it before.
Jim Tighe, an aerodynamicist and chief project engineer of SpaceShipTwo, advised me to step carefully as he offered a tour of the ship’s six-person cabin. When the ship reaches space, Tighe explained, passengers will be able to float around and look out the windows at the curvature of the Earth. Scaled founder Burt Rutan made history in 2004 when pilot Brian Binnie flew his original prototype, SpaceShipOne, into suborbit to win the $10-million Ansari X Prize. The flight path of its successor, the three-times-as-large SpaceShipTwo, will be similar: Eve drops the craft at about 50,000 feet, and a nitrous oxidizer combines oxygen with solid rubber rocket fuel to fire a burn of about 90 seconds, enough to fling the ship to its silent apogee of about 380,000 feet, where passengers will be invited to do something that regular airlines warn you against: unbuckle your seatbelt.
All this, Virgin says, can be yours for a mere $200,000, perhaps as early as next year, although company president Will Whitehorn says you’ll have to take a number behind the 300 passengers that have already put down deposits to do it. For now, space tourists (a term the industry intensely dislikes, preferring to call them “spaceflight participants” or “space explorers”) are the cornerstone of Virgin’s business model, but with NASA struggling to fund its lofty dreams of missions to the moon and beyond, and with the shuttle headed for retirement, Virgin and dozens of other private space entrepreneurs see a golden opportunity to do something much more fundamental—and more profitable. Beyond carrying wealthy passengers into suborbital space, Whitehorn says, Virgin could also launch rockets and satellites, provide affordable transport for scientists who want to do microgravity experiments in space, and even establish a private astronaut-training program. Seen in that light, space tourists become much more than just the idle rich undertaking a mind-blowing experience for the thrill of it. Indeed, the space industry says that demand from tourists—and companies that need satellites—will provide the seed capital for what is, in effect, the privatization of space.
As I walked around the ship, I got to thinking: 100 years ago, after the critics were forced to accept that yes, man can fly, many dismissed flight as a diversion for the wealthy few. “The public has greatly over-estimated the possibilities of the aeroplane, imagining that in another generation they will be able to fly over to London in a day,” wrote a Harvard University astronomy professor, William Pickering, in 1908. “This is manifestly impossible.”
Houston, We Have a Solution
So much is uncertain for NASA. Will the president and Congress authorize it to proceed with plans to put astronauts back on the moon? Or to send them to Mars? Or to asteroids? Or none of the above? What is certain, however, is that the space shuttle is headed toward retirement. The U.S. shuttle program is scheduled to run its final mission this year, although most observers expect it to remain in service into 2011.
There are several fundamental tasks—potentially very profitable tasks—that the shuttle’s retirement will leave behind. For a private company willing and qualified to step into the gap, these include ferrying cargo and scientific experiments, hoisting and repairing satellites, and even tidying up a bit of the “space junk” now circling the Earth like ocean flotsam. The work isn’t as iconic as carrying people into space for a weightless adventure. For instance, one audacious broker says it will be able to arrange a trip to the far side of the moon and back for a mere $100 million or so a ticket. But the basic logistical tasks are also enormously important, and if private companies can prove themselves capable, those tasks could form the backbone of an entirely new industry.
Under its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, NASA has already awarded major contracts to two private U.S. companies, SpaceX, which is led by PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, and satellite manufacturer Orbital Sciences Corporation, for a total of at least 20 cargo resupply trips to the ISS over the next six years. These could be worth $3.5 billion if the companies follow through on performance benchmarks, including successful engine and thruster tests. And that has executives who signed on for adventure now warming to the idea of making deliveries. “Cargo doesn’t seem glamorous,” Orbital senior vice president Frank Culbertson explained in June to a special panel President Obama commissioned to look at NASA’s future. “But we need it to keep America flying in space.”
There is an additional spur that could accelerate the development of Space, Inc. As the White House and Congress sift through details of a new report from that panel, known as the Augustine Committee, a very cold medium-term reality is staring NASA in the face: The U.S. will soon have no way to get to the space station on its own. That gives a monopoly to Russia, which charges private space tourists $35 million per spot per trip and NASA $51 million per spot. Uncle Sam has already inked a $306-million deal for just four trips to the ISS aboard a Soyuz spacecraft, and the Russians have no real reason not to jack up the ticket price after the deal expires in 2013.
Those payments could turn into a political football, or something even more problematic if the U.S. and Russia have a major disagreement over a geopolitical hotspot such as Georgia or Iran. Some gap is inevitable in which Russia’s craft is the only game in town, and unless the U.S. takes the highly unlikely step of abandoning the billions of dollars’ worth of experiments and research docked at the station it will have little choice but to pay.
Once that uncomfortable fact glows brighter on the political radar, private firms such as SpaceX—which insist they have good-to-go plans that could put astronauts back on American vehicles more quickly and cheaply than anything NASA has in the works—could stand to reap the benefit. Musk says his SpaceX Dragon, a free-flying, reusable spacecraft designed for transporting both cargo and crew to orbit, could do ISS trips for $20 million per seat. “No later than three years from tomorrow is what I’m promising,” he said last November. That’s if he has a firm multiyear contract in place. Several other companies are aggressively bidding for pieces of the COTS pie. All told, those pieces could be worth billions of dollars if—and again, it’s a big if—private companies follow through on their vows that they can meet performance expectations.
By the measure of private investment, there is clearly more market optimism than ever before about private industry’s ability to do the job, for both passengers and payloads. Not everyone is a believer, of course. Even some of Congress’s most ardent free-market conservatives say they are skeptical about private ventures tackling federal projects in space. Orbital lost control of a Taurus rocket carrying a small NASA satellite; SpaceX’s Falcon 1 rocket blew three attempts before it managed to launch a dummy orbital payload; and, in the most tragic example, three Scaled Composites employees were killed in 2007 when a tank of rocket propellant exploded during tests at the facility. “Despite their best efforts, some truly private enterprises have not been able to deliver on plans of launching vehicles,” says Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, which has a big NASA payroll. “However grandiose the claims of proponents are, they cannot substitute for the painful truth of failed performance at present.”
Private industry will not take us to the moon, a point on which industry executives are nearly unanimous. What it can do is handle comparatively short-range tasks while NASA focuses on the farther reaches of space. “The rationale here is that NASA needs to do the hard stuff and leave the simpler stuff—granted, human spaceflight is not an easy thing, but it is something we’ve been doing for 50 years—if it wants to go beyond,” says Bretton Alexander, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a Washington, D.C.–based industry group. “NASA can actually focus on doing the cool stuff”—Mars, asteroids and elsewhere—“and over the long term, you have an industry that is not only focused on NASA. NASA becomes a user, not the sole provider.”
Thirteen former NASA astronauts, with 42 space missions among them ranging from Gemini and Apollo to the shuttle and the ISS, also endorsed this approach in an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal last October. “We believe that the commercial sector is fully capable of safely handling the critical task of low-Earth-orbit human transportation,” the astronauts wrote. The space agency, they said, “should put its unique resources into pushing back the final frontier and not in repaving the earth-to-orbit road it cleared a half century ago.”
The Augustine panel clearly outlined a path for the private ferrying of astronauts there as well. “NASA ought to be exploring outer space and doing new things,” said the panel’s chair, Norman Augustine, the former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin. That would leave low-Earth- orbit missions “a commercial endeavor, in our view.”
Humanity’s Plan B?
Get a space entrepreneur talking about the “why” of space travel, and some grand ambitions begin to surface. “Of course, there are many people who ask: Why spend anything at all, with all the problems we have on Earth?” Musk says. “But not only are there significant things we can learn about the universe and our place in it when we go to space, there are things we learn about the Earth.” He points to climate change, ozone depletion, pollution. “And if you really want to go big picture here,” adds Musk, who himself clearly loves to go big picture, “I think it is actually very important that we start making progress in extending life beyond earth and we start making our own existence a multi-planetary one.”
Not that Musk is pessimistic about life on Earth. “The odds are terrific that life will make it just fine through the coming centuries,” he says, but “there’s always a chance there’s a disaster around the corner, some horrible thing that happens—like a super volcano or a killer virus or a meteorite or something, or some invention of science creates a miniature black hole.” Multi-planetary existence, according to Musk, is like a giant insurance policy for the human race. “You don’t buy life insurance because you believe you are going to die tomorrow. But you buy it to prepare for it.”
All told, private companies have more than 40 orbital spaceflights, manned and unmanned, scheduled between now and 2014. California-based Masten Space Systems, which recently won $1 million in a NASA-backed competition to simulate a lunar landing, hopes to eventually perfect its unmanned vehicle for moon exploration. Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos has sent unmanned suborbital capsules into test flights over property he owns in West Texas, although he’s been quiet about long-range plans for a vertical-takeoff-and-landing private spacecraft. The Web site of his space company, Blue Origin, says it is working “patiently and step-by-step” to make spaceflight and solar-system exploration more affordable. Meanwhile, billionaire Robert Bigelow, the founder of Budget Suites of America, foresees a big demand for “space hotels” in the future and has already sent two prototype inflatable space habitats into space.
It’s true that no bride has yet reached orbit to wear Japanese designer Eri Matsui’s space wedding gown; no passengers have yet been able to honeymoon on the moon. Nonetheless, Virgin Galactic says it is right on target with plans for SpaceShipTwo, of which five more would be built if the prototype can navigate the federal regulations that govern commercial spaceflight. And just a few hangars down from SpaceShipTwo, XCOR Aerospace is working on its own suborbital rocket ship, the Lynx.
XCOR’s president, Jeff Greason, who also served on the Augustine Committee, is developing a variety of low-cost rocket engines that burn various types of fuel. Prospective private passengers, however, will be most interested in the Lynx, which seats just two people—pilot and customer. “Ours is a very different approach from Virgin Galactic’s,” the somewhat cherubic Greason explained to me late one afternoon as we sat in a fiberglass mock-up of the Lynx cockpit. “Ours will be more of a ‘Right Stuff’ experience. You’ll really feel more like an astronaut.”
But of all the entrepreneurs I spoke with, Musk was the most vocal evangelist. “Life cannot be just about solving problems,” he said. “I mean, if all we do in life is solve another bloody problem, that’s depressing. You need things that inspire people.”
Out of the Blue
Back at Scaled Composites, Tighe led me into the cockpit of SpaceShipTwo. It was a calm early morning over the Mojave, the sky above Southern California a faultless blue, as I felt the engines start up and listened to the pilots count down to liftoff. The sky began to turn cobalt, mauve, violet, indigo and then nearly black. Passing upward through 328,000 feet, I enjoyed a stunning view out the window. I could see both the peninsulas of Baja California and the San Francisco Bay area, the tip of Mount Whitney (the highest peak in the lower 48), the endless Pacific Ocean, the curvature of the Earth.
Actually, I am being inexact on a few of the details. Just like the old airliners out along the runway, SpaceShipTwo hadn’t budged an inch at the Mojave Air and Space Port. I was inside a simulator, just a few feet from the workers and rivet guns. Yet I was still captivated. Now the Earth was ringed with a faint blue halo, and it was strikingly quiet. Tighe pointed upward, and I found it hard not to share his grin. “Nice up here, yes?” he asked. I had to nod.