Apollo, Ansari and the Hobbling Effects of Giant Leaps

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The author films as WhiteKnight taxis with SpaceShipOne on June 21, 2004. (Credit: John Criswick)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

On Oct. 4, the world marked the anniversaries of two very different space milestones. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik. And in 2004, SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X Prize by becoming the first privately-built vehicle to fly to space twice within two weeks.

While Sputnik quickly led to Sputnik 2 and 3, the Ansari X Prize has been followed by a decade of frustration. SpaceShipOne never flew again, nor has anyone replicated its accomplishments since. The dream of a vibrant new industry that would routinely fly thousands of tourists into space has remained just out of reach.

So, why did Sputnik quickly help spark a revolution that would transform life on Earth, while the Ansari X Prize led to 10 years of extravagant promises and desultory results? And what does this tell us about the role of prizes in moving technology forward?

The Apparatchik and the Hare

Sputnik 1 resulted from a sustained set of programs in which Soviet engineers developed a series of increasingly powerful boosters and spacecraft. By October 1957, they had produced a launch vehicle, the R-7, that was powerful enough to place a small satellite into orbit. The United States achieved a similar success four months later.

The space race between the two superpowers was intense, with each side seeking to outdo each other in a series of space firsts. Despite fierce competition, however, the development of larger rockets and ever more sophisticated spacecraft was the result of sustained, step-by-step processes supported by billions of dollars and rubles. New, sustainable industries resulted that produced satellites of immense practical value.

The major exception was the moon race. President John F. Kennedy challenged the Soviet Union to a race to put a man on the moon by the end of the 1960’s. Achieving that goal would require giant leaps in technology for both nations. The slow and steady development of human space capabilities was out.

Kennedy’s goal was to make the United States – then trailing behind the Soviets – the number one power in space. By doing so, he sought to demonstrate the superiority of the American system over its Cold War rival. What the long-range plan was beyond the moon landing was less clear.

Apollo Redux

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Peter Diamandis

In 1996, Peter Diamandis hoped to accomplish another big leap forward with the Ansari X Prize. Like the Apollo program, the prize involved an international race to send three people to a particular destination by a set deadline. Instead of the moon, they would make suborbital spaceflights on a privately-built vehicle. The winner would receive international acclaim and $10 million.

The underlying goal was to demonstrate that a private company could do what only governments had previously achieved with the suborbital X-15 flights in the 1960’s. The prize would change perceptions about what private sector space companies could do, and launch a new suborbital industry that would open up space to the masses.

When the Ansari X Prize was unveiled at an event in St. Louis, Scaled Composites Founder Burt Rutan publicly announced he would win the prize. He would do exactly in eight years – roughly the same amount of time it took NASA to land men on the moon. Both goals were achieved with only months to spare before their deadlines.

Unfortunately, the winners would see their achievements turn into Pyrrhic victories that would set back their space ambitions for years. The short-term nature of their ventures would prove to be liabilities in the long term.

A Small Step for Man, A Giant Cut for the Budget

Having proven American superiority over the Soviets, NASA was left with no place to go after Apollo. The public and its elected representatives saw little point in continuing a series of expensive and dangerous moon landings. Nor did they have any appetite for taking the next steps of developing a lunar base or sending astronauts on to Mars. Better to end the program before more astronauts got killed.

With public interest waning and the Vietnam War and social programs straining the federal government’s finances, NASA experienced a series of budget cuts that began even before the first moon landing in July 1969. The trend would accelerate as the Apollo program wound down.

The space agency did adapt the Apollo and Saturn technology for the Skylab space station and a docking mission with a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft. But, these were one-shot efforts. The technology was expensive and overbuilt for the Earth orbiting role NASA was assigned in the post-Apollo era. It wasn’t sustainable.

So, the Apollo program ended after only 15 manned flights, and NASA embarked upon another giant leap: the space shuttle. The goal was to develop a fully reusable vehicle that would drastically cut the cost of getting to orbit. A fleet of seven-passenger shuttles would fly up to 50 times per year, opening the cosmos to a broad range of uses and people.

NASA was confident at the start. It had just accomplished the impossible task of landing men on the moon. Certainly it could do this. Right?

The Path Not Taken

In the wake of his Ansari X Prize success, Rutan didn’t have NASA’s financial problems. However, he would end up following much the same path as NASA did in the post-Apollo era, with similar results.

Burt Rutan (Credit: Douglas Messier)
Burt Rutan (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Rutan’s original plan after winning the Ansari X Prize was to fly SpaceShipOne with two passengers aboard once per week for five months. The main goal was to allow 20 of his friends and 20 friends of Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen – who had funded SpaceShipOne to the tune of $25 million – to become astronauts.

The additional flights would allow Rutan to gain valuable data about how SpaceShipOne and its hybrid engine performed. From these data, he could better understand what it cost to operate the ship, and what would be involved in building a successor vehicle.

Rutan didn’t have much of a chance to gather that information during SpaceShipOne’s flight tests, which had been squeezed into a compressed time period in order to win the Ansari X Prize. The aggressive program had consisted of only 17 tests, including three captive carry, eight glide and six powered flights. That’s not very much in terms of flight testing.

There was a problem, however. Allen wasn’t interested in funding any additional flights. They hadn’t been part of the original funding with Rutan, and the Microsoft billionaire had several reasons to not want to continuing flying the spacecraft.

For one, the Smithsonian Institution had come calling. Allen got an offer to donate the vehicle to the National Air and Space Museum after SpaceShipOne had made its first historic flight into space in June 2004 but before the two Ansari X Prize flights.

The offer had a lot of appeal. There would be a tax break for the charitable donation to help offset the cost of the program. SpaceShipOne would be preserved for posterity. If the ship continued to fly, it might be lost in an accident. Someone could get hurt, maybe even killed. And Allen had been unnerved by several hairy moments during SpaceShipOne’s flight tests.

So, Allen decided to get out while he could; SpaceShipOne’s two Ansari X Prize flights would be its last. The vehicle was retired after only 14 manned flights – one fewer than in the Apollo program – and shipped off to the National Air and Space Museum, where today it hangs in the Milestones of Flight gallery where the Apollo 11 command module is displayed.

Rutan could have built another SpaceShipOne, but it is not in his nature to repeat himself. The ship’s tiny cabin – with two passenger seats directly behind the pilot – wasn’t ideal for space tourism. Rutan had something much grander in mind.

That something was SpaceShipTwo, the world’s first suborbital SUV. With room for two pilots up front and six passengers in the back, the vehicle would have ample space for tourists to unbuckle themselves and float around the cabin. They would have a real space experience.

Richard Branson speaks at Spaceport America in New Mexico. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
Richard Branson speaks at Spaceport America in New Mexico. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

To fund his dream, Rutan forged a partnership with British billionaire Richard Branson. Virgin Galactic would pay $108 million for five SpaceShipTwo vehicles, a pair of WhiteKnightTwo mother ships, and all the ground infrastructure. Branson predicted SpaceShipTwo would begin flying in 2007, and it would carry 5,000 passengers within the first five years.

As with NASA’s predictions about the space shuttle, all these estimates would prove to be wildly  optimistic.

The Big Leap

NASA’s effort to build a space shuttle capable of making space access routine and affordable was doomed from the start. Budget restrictions forced NASA to compromise on the design. Instead of a fully-reusable two-stage shuttle, the system was whittled down to an orbiter with an expendable external tank and two recoverable solid-rocket boosters.

The second handicap was NASA’s lack of experience in building reusable winged spacecraft. To win the moon race, the space agency relied upon a series of expendable boosters and ballistic capsules that splashed down in the ocean. Alternative proposals by the U.S. military to build orbital winged space vehicles, such as the X-15B and the X-20 Dyna-Soar shuttle, never got off the ground, in part due to competition from the moon program.

NASA could draw upon flight experience gained during the X-15 and lifting body research aircraft programs, but the space shuttle was a leap too far. The result was a technological marvel riddled with flaws that was extremely expensive to operate and maintain. The system ultimately failed to bring down the cost of access to space, much less make it safe and routine.

The Achille’s Heel

Going from SpaceShipOne to SpaceShipTwo was far less of a leap. They are both winged vehicles built from composites that share Rutan’s innovative feathering re-entry system. But, the comparisons largely stop there.

SpaceShipTwo has a significantly different design from its predecessor, and it requires a much larger carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo. It would take much longer to design and build these vehicles than anyone envisioned. Branson’s prediction of flying within three years was probably optimistic at the time he made it. So were his cost estimates.

WhiteKnightTwo takes off with SpaceShipTwo from the Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
WhiteKnightTwo takes off with SpaceShipTwo from the Mojave Air and Space Port. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

But, there was a deeper, more fundamental problem that Rutan wasn’t even aware of, one that has bedeviled the program to this day.

SpaceShipOne had reflected Rutan’s strengths in designing radical flying machines. The use of lightweight but strong carbon composites and the unique feathering system for re-entry were innovative. They represented major advances over the X-15 rocket plane that had flown suborbital missions 40 years earlier.

In terms of its propulsion system, SpaceShipOne was actually a step backward. The X-15 had used the XLR-99, a sophisticated bi-propellant liquid engine that could be throttled, restarted and used multiple times. It was complicated and prone to failure; one blew up on Scott Crossfield during a static test, destroying the vehicle but sparing the pilot’s life.

Rutan steered away from liquid engines; he viewed them as being overly complicated and possessing too many failure modes. Instead, he developed a novel hybrid motor that used nitrous oxide (laughing gas) to burn a large chunk of rubber fuel. SpaceShipOne was the first time a hybrid engine had been used in human spaceflight.

The hybrid worked well enough for SpaceShipOne. However, the motor ran rough, shaking the ship due to the uneven burning of the rubber. On one flight, the pilot heard a loud bang and feared the ship’s tail had been blown off. It turned out to be a chunk of rubber that had shot out the nozzle. The tail was still there.

The hybrid also was expensive because the rocket casing containing the rubber and the attached nozzle needed to be replaced after each flight. Like the space shuttle, the partially reusable nature of SpaceShipOne drove up operating costs and complexity. It was like driving a car from Mojave to Los Angeles and back, and then installing a new engine before making the trip again.

After the Ansari X Prize, some people tried to convince Rutan to replace the hybrid with a reusable liquid engine. He rejected the advice. Rutan came out of SpaceShipOne’s short flight test program believing the hybrid engine was simple and safe, and that it could be easily scaled up for the much larger SpaceShipTwo. He was wrong on both counts.

The first belief was shattered on a hot summer afternoon of July 26, 2007. Scaled engineers were conducting a cold flow of nitrous oxide that did not involve igniting any fuel. Three seconds into the 15-second test the nitrous tank burst, resulting in a massive explosion that destroyed the test stand and killed three engineers. Three others were injured.

Scaled Composites test stand after a nitrous oxide explosion.
Scaled Composites test stand after a nitrous oxide explosion.

Explosions are not unusual in engine development. However, it is rare that anyone dies in them. Safety procedures call for the evacuation of personnel to a safe area before any tests begin. That was not done in this case; the dead and injured were part of a group of 11 people standing near the test stand.

Following the accident, Rutan and Scaled Composites claimed ignorance. “The body of knowledge about nitrous oxide (N2O) used as a rocket motor oxidizer did not indicate to us even the possibility of such an event,” Scaled said in a press release. The media and Scaled supporters have largely parroted this explanation.

A team of experts experienced in working with nitrous oxide reviewed the accident and disputed the claim. “This would seem to indicate either a lack of due-diligence in researching the hazards surrounding N2O (negligence) or a wilful disregard of the truth,” they concluded.

Whatever Scaled’s culpability, there is no dispute the accident delayed the program significantly. Work on SpaceShipTwo was put on hold while engineers investigated the cause of the explosion. Hybrid engine tests would be delayed for nearly two years.

Once engine tests began again in April 2009, engineers would discover that Rutan’s other assumption was wrong. The hybrid engine just didn’t scale very well. The larger the engine became, the more vibrations and oscillations it produced. As engineers struggled to find a solution, Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic quietly began work on alternative motor designs.

The failure of the hybrid to scale led to another problem. SpaceShipTwo had already been designed and built. The dimensions of the ship, the size of the passenger and crew cabin, the center of gravity…all those were already set. So, engineers now had to fit an engine within those parameters that could still get the vehicle into space.

This is the reverse of how rocket planes are typically designed. Engineers figure out the engine first and then build the ship around what it can do. Rutan – a novice in rocket propulsion who had hit a home run with SpaceShipOne – got the process backward, resulting in years of delays. This failure would cause numerous headaches.

SpaceShipTwo fires its engine on third powered test flight.
SpaceShipTwo fires its engine on third powered test flight.

The rubber hybrid engine did get a workout in three flight tests, but the vibrations and oscillations it produced were so severe the motor couldn’t be fired for more than 20 seconds. The engine was sufficient to get SpaceShipTwo through the sound barrier, but it couldn’t get the vehicle anywhere near space.

It was not until May 2014 – after spending nearly a decade on the program, and a reported $150 million on engine development – Virgin Galactic announced it would be switching to a different type of hybrid engine, one powered by nitrous oxide and plastic. They are hoping for much better performance in flight.

By then, Rutan was gone, long since retired to a spread in Idaho. It was for others to make the new engine work and fix the mistake he had made.

Flight tests with the plastic engine are set to begin shortly. It remains unclear whether the new engine will get SpaceShipTwo above the Karman line at 100 km (62 miles), which is internationally recognized boundary of space. Ten years after SpaceShipOne, its successor might not be able to replicate what its predecessor achieved.

The Limits of Giant Leaps

The Apollo program has been followed by more than 40 years in which no humans have ventured beyond Earth orbit. A decade has passed since the winning of the Ansari X Prize without a single private suborbital space flight. Why has following up these two achievements proven to be so difficult?

It turns out that reaching a goal by a deadline isn’t enough; it matters how you get there. Fast and dirty doesn’t necessarily result in solid, sustainable programs. What works well in a sprint can be a liability in a marathon. And the conquest of space is humanity’s ultimate marathon.

The X Prize Foundation built rules into the competition designed to produce sustainability in that the spacecraft had to be reusable and fly twice within two weeks. Yet, there was no requirement for the winning design to have a fully reusable engine, which is the most important element if you want routine, affordable access to space.

The prize route also takes a lot of time. It took eight years for Rutan to win the Ansari X Prize; Scaled Composites has spent another decade trying to commercialize the technology. Eighteen years is an enormous amount of time. Would it have been better to devote all that time, energy and money to directly attacking the problems that make space travel so expensive?

Although the Ansari X Prize had 26 competitors, no other team came close to winning. Instead of the prize resulting in multiple suborbital tourism vehicles competing with each other, there was just one company that received much of the money that would be invested in the nascent industry. All without knowing whether the approach would be viable.

That wouldn’t have mattered as much if Scaled and Virgin Galactic had been able to quickly follow up on SpaceShipOne’s success with a safe, reliable vehicle of some type. They would have been able to prove the viability of the new industry. And a lot more money would have flowed into companies with other suborbital designs.

But, that was not to be. Flush with success and not knowing what he didn’t know, Rutan bet the future on a poor propulsion system that he never took the time to fully test, much less understand. His failure to grasp the nature of technology he selected cost three men their lives.

During the recent Ansari X Prize 10th anniversary celebrations, people downplayed the lack of commercial suborbital spaceflights over the past decade. Instead they focused on the prize’s success in changing people’s minds about what private space companies could do and inspiring entrepreneurs to pursue their dreams in space. They mentioned all the money that flowed into the industry, and the changes in government regulations that resulted that are more favorable to commercial space.

All of that is true. The Ansari X Prize certainly brought about positive changes. But, it also promised much more – a future of routine and more affordable access to space. Today, that future remains just out of reach.

After Mike Melvill became the first private astronaut in June 2004, he stood atop SpaceShipOne holding a sign made by a member of the crowd that read, “SpaceShipOne Government Zero.” Today, those numbers remain embarrassingly skewed in favor of government, while SpaceShipOne remains a momentary blip in the history of spaceflight.

Perhaps this will have changed by the time of Ansari X Prizes’s 11th anniversary. But, to those who would confidently predict that it will, the past 10 years are a sobering reminder of how such predictions can wilt in the hot Mojave sun.