I woke up early (for me) Wednesday, turned on the TV and saw SpaceShipOne fly to space and back. Very impressive. It looks likely this entry from Burt Rutan will claim the $10,000,000 Ansari X Prize. That’s something I first predicted back in May – though it didn’t take a genius to come to that conclusion.
OK – it cost more than $10,000,000 to develop the ship, but that’s not the point. This venture has commercial potential beyond the X Prize itself.
I watched on CNN because I think Miles O’Brien is not only knowledgeable but he’s connected and often has information others do not. I thought sitting him with Burt’s brother Dick, an aerospace legend in his own right who piloted the first non-stop round the world unrefueled flight, was a bad idea. Either Dick’s mind was somewhere else (excusable under the circumstances) or he just doesn’t have the right makeup for TV.
The plane took off, tucked under another Burt Rutan flying contraption. In this regard it was similar to the early X-15 rocket plane, launched from beneath the wing of a B-52. At about 50,000 feet SpaceShipOne was released and within seconds its rubber burning engine was pushing it toward the heavens¹.
A minute or so later SpaceShipOne, moving vertically, began to roll. I’ve seen a number of different figures but it was at least 16 revolutions, maybe more.
Watching the roll, I assumed I was watching a disaster in the making. I knew there was no reason for the ship to corkscrew itself into space. Any second I expected to see a wing break off or parts begin to disintegrate.
Obviously none of that happened. On the ground, pilot Mike Melville said it was probably something he had done. I don’t believe that for one second.
With the backing of Richard Branson, SpaceShipOne is the prototype for space tourism. It’s not good for business to say your rocket ship is unstable or difficult to control – but it surely is.
Rutan will figure a way to get around this problem for one more flight, win the prize, and modify this design into a more stable model for commercial work. SpaceShipOne will go to the Smithsonian before it can hurt anyone.
This is a great program. The government’s space program is so top heavy, so money laden, that it has discouraged anyone else to get into the business. Rutan and people like him will change that paradigm.
Under different circumstances I would be very upset about the post-flight claims concerning the spinning. Today, I’ll let it pass.
¹ – I have read and like to say it’s a tire burning engine. Dave Brody, former Executive Producer of Inside Space (a show I hosted under his tutelage) on the SciFi Channel and now in a similar position at Space.com, says it actually burns condoms – a much more romantic thought.