Ten Years Later, the Future Just Ain’t What It Used to Be

WhiteKnight with SpaceShipOne on the taxiway prior to the first commercial spaceflight. I'm on the right filming. To my left, Eric Dahlstrom and Emeline Paat-Dahlstrom. (Credit: John Criswick)
WhiteKnight with SpaceShipOne on the taxiway prior to the first commercial spaceflight. I’m on the right filming. To my left, Eric Dahlstrom and Emeline Paat-Dahlstrom. (Credit: John Criswick)

Ten years ago, I was right here in Mojave — not far from where I sit writing now — watching Mike Melvill make history. He flew Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne to just over 100 km, becoming the first private astronaut of the Space Age.

After gliding to a landing at the Mojave Air and Space Port, Melvill stood triumphantly atop SpaceShipOne before a cheering crowd holding a sign that one of the spectators had made that read: “SpaceShipOne Government Zero.”

The boast captured the spirit of the day. Rutan and his billionaire backer, Paul Allen, had accomplished a stupendous feat that promised to quickly open up space for the rest of humanity. They were soaring skyward while NASA remained grounded after the space shuttle Columbia tragedy.

It seemed that very soon, space would no longer be the purview of highly trained government employees or the super rich who could afford to spend $20 million for week long trips to the International Space Station. People with much smaller net worth would soon be able to climb aboard a Rutan vehicle and enjoy the view of Earth from space.

A decade later, that future remains just out of grasp. SpaceShipOne flew into space twice more in 2004 to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize. It was then shipped off to become a permanent exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

Rutan’s company, Scaled Composites, has spent a decade developing and testing the much larger SpaceShipTwo. for Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. The companies believe they finally has an engine capable of finally getting the ship into space this year. That remains to be seen.

It’s a good bet that nobody who was in Mojave 10 years ago would have imagined an anniversary like this one today. It’s just goes to prove what I am dubbing Messier’s First Law of Future Dynamics: The Future Just Ain’t What it Used to Be.