Apollo, Ansari and the Hobbling Effects of Giant Leaps

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

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.

  • Charles Lurio

    Well written, a substantial thesis on the effects of program types and personalities – plus the random twists of fate.

    I note that my perception at the time of Apollo was that it and any successor human exploration was killed far more by an unrelenting chorus of “Don’t spend money in space while we have needs on Earth,” than by any concerns over astronaut safety.

  • Douglas Messier

    Thanks, Charles.

    I guess I would agree with that. It’s more that the political rationale for Apollo (hey, we’re No. 1!) wasn’t enough to sustain a program of lunar exploration and settlement. Social program were part of it, but not the whole story.

  • James Hutton

    Fantastic article. I know my opinion doesn’t carry as much weight as Lurio’s, but I really enjoyed it. Learned a few new things and it nicely summarised why there hasn’t been another proper flight for over a decade. You also called out their crazy 10th anniversary event without overdoing it, which, given the sheer outlandishness of the praise they gave themselves, was well done.

  • Aerospike

    Very well written article. It is really important to realize that it does matter HOW you reach a goal if you have any kind of plans beyond that goal.

  • therealdmt

    Great article. That was a very interesting, well thought out comparison of the private suborbital race and what has happened (and not happened) since to Apollo and its aftermath.

  • Michael J. Listner

    Nice article Doug.

  • GrumpyOldProgrammer

    Well said. And so my money’s on XCOR and SpaceX.

    Each seemed to ignore the flashy prizes for something more sustainable. I just hope however succeeds has thought things out at least as well as Rockwell International did.


  • patb2009

    It would be worthwhile to include the “Orteig” prize winning Spirit of St Louis in the discussion. The SSL was an amazing feat but an architectural dead end for trans-oceanic flight. Lindbergh’s flight was not followed by a larger 5 passenger single engine periscope piloted aircraft but rather larger twin engine pressurized aircraft…

    The trick in any of these things is knowing where the limits of a technology scale. That is usually indicated in a careful trade study performed by veteran engineers and with adequate margins.

  • Hug Doug

    Based on that chart, we’re still stuck somewhere between 1993 and 1998

    Someone needs to print out that chart and send a copy to every member of the Congressional Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, and perhaps to NASA’s upper management as well.

  • Greg Allan

    I’m curious at the rationale behind the initial budget cuts during Apollo. Funding for social programs was an issue at the beginning of the moon program as well, but it was largely overlooked due to nationalism and the perceived importance of beating the USSR. I know cuts occurred before Apollo 11, but were they motivated by a decrease in political support for a landing, or by confidence that Apollo could succeed without the additional funding?

  • Jeff Smith

    Good job and thanks for your efforts.

  • Hug Doug

    Peak spending for Apollo was in 1966, when the NASA budget was 4.41% of the Federal budget. this year was when the majority of the hardware for the lunar missions was being built and tested.


    oh, everyone wanted NASA to land on the Moon, but nobody wanted to pay for it, or for more missions after that feat was accomplished. the decisions to cut NASA’s budget was indeed largely political, as we were beating the Soviets in the space race at that time (we surpassed their achievements during the Gemini missions, for example, total man-hours in space was surpassed during Gemini 7), and few people could justify spending billions of dollars on what was, to put it bluntly, an international dick-wagging contest.

  • Larry Jacks

    Back then, it was common to talk about federal spending as “guns or butter”, meaning favoring programs like national defense or favoring social spending. LBJ wanted guns AND butter AND space. He massively ramped up US involvement in Viet Nam while starting his “War on Poverty” programs and at the same time spending (at its peak) over 4% of the national budget on NASA. Something had to give and different political factions started calling for cuts. After the Apollo One fire, the whole program came close to being killed. When Nixon took office in 1969, NASA spending was already trending down but most of the hardware for the moon missions had already been built or was under construction. NASA spending at the time went in large measure to states that didn’t vote for Nixon (Alabama and Texas being two of them), and the program itself was too closely identified with the Democrats Kennedy and Johnson. It isn’t too surprising that the moon mission were cancelled after Apollo 17 despite the fact that two more Saturn Vs were already built and ready to go. Even NASA was getting afraid of losing a crew and perhaps killing the entire agency (from Gene Kranz’ book).

  • ThomasLMatula


    Great Article! It was well written and researched!

    What folks forget about the various aviation prizes is that none of them were giant leaps. The Orteig Prize is the classic example. It was only announced AFTER the first successful crossing of the Atlantic by an airplane, the U.S. Navy’s NC-4. And Charles Lindbergh’s “Spirit of St. Louis” was not a leap forward in technology, but merely a Ryan M2 mail plane redesigned into a flying fuel tank.

    That was why the various aviation prizes were so successful, they provided the incentive for incremental improvements instead of requiring giant leaps.

    This is one of the failings of the Google Lunar X-Prize, the leap required, especially
    in terms of the $50 million plus needed for a launch vehicle is just too big a jump for private firms. If Google really wanted to do it right they would have a contest on Earth for the different rovers and then fund the winning rover for a flight to the Moon instead of requiring the teams to rise the money for a launch.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    IMO the only one who could have won the original Google Lunar X-prize was SpaceX if they were so inclined. They got a ride capable of cis-lunar operations. To drop a X-prize rover on the moon is about the same cost as a single SpaceX Dragon resupply mission to the ISS, about $130m. If you just developed the rover and buy a launch with SpaceX (they are the cheapest ride).

  • Vladislaw

    Great article Doug, we have talked before about early decision made by Rutan on engines. This article really puts that timeline into perspective.

    There is one other thing that really seperates a lot of action that has taken place with transportation systems and how to spur them into daily use.

    From railroad, ships, automobiles, airplanes, the governmental regulatory regimes are, as a rule pretty much in place when those big innovations take place.

    With the Ortig airplane prize for crossing the alantic is often used people forget the laws were already in place, where you could land, take off, who could fly, how to get a license, build yourself or buy one et cetera et cetera.

    For the Ansari X prize nothing was in place. It was purely experimental and anyone riding it would have had to do it under the experimnental regime. FAA and DOT didn’t have anything on the books yet for human commercial spaceflight. There really couldn’t be incremental yet.

    If another Xprize was offered would the results only be one company even close to a launch or would there now be a REAL field of contenders. That 10 mllion generated how much in capital in man hours/$ spent on suborbital .. how much actual hardware worked on, how much total investment occured because of the 10 million prize .. AND more importantly how many new laws and regulations have been adopted and matured since 2004.

    The next time around … will move the needle even more.

  • Greg Allan

    I wish it weren’t so, but this criticism is looking extremely prescient right now.

  • Nathan Brooks

    I think the big takeaway from the last 10 years is that reusable suborbital spaceflight is hard. You’ve focused on Scaled, but none of the other companies have made progress. And there were/are several: Armadillo, Blue Origin, TGV, Rocketplane. SS2 wasn’t a big leap forward, it’s the opposite, it’s the smallest possible incremental upgrade from SS1 that made commercial sense.

  • Tom Billings

    The change from SS1 to SpaceShip2 is *not* the great leap that has led to later failures. The great leap that led to later failures was the demand for 100 kilometers in the first place! I would say that an incremental strategy that was “small enough increments” would be that of XCOR, or even more incremental than them. They started, not at a 100 kilometer vehicle, but with EasyRocket, which I don’t think ever went high enough for the pilot to require Oxygen.

    Then, their first Lynx was announced as going only to 60 kilometers. Only after they get ecperience with that will they build a 100 kilometer vehicle. I note that the time gap between EasyRocket and Lynx is such that it indicates to me that they should have had an intermediate step between them, that would go to15-20 kilometers. However, the success of SpaceShip 1 probably made it difficult to raise capital for anything less than a 100 kilometer project.

    Had I my ‘druthers, I would have seen them redo EasyRocket as a 4 kilometer vehicle, then build a better 16 kilometer vehicle, then a better yet 64 kilometer vehicle, and only then assault the Von Karman limit, and go all the way to 250+ kilometers. That was driven from investor’s minds, however, by SpaceShip 1.

  • KeithM

    I considered the prizes discussed to be equivalent to trying to set the land speed record. You get great technology going into the prize but the practical applications are a bit limited.

    A useful prize would have winning conditions like “Over a three year period deliver X tonnes of cargo to altitude Y with a failure rate of less than Z%”. A lot less sexy but the results are actually practical.

  • ThomasLMatula


    “From railroad, ships, automobiles, airplanes, the governmental
    regulatory regimes are, as a rule pretty much in place when those big
    innovations take place.”

    Sorry, but that is flat out wrong. The first railroad in the U.S. was built in 1830, the ICC that regulated railroads was not created until 1887, The first steamship to cross the Atlantic in 1819 were not really regulated until the Titanic in 1912. The Wright Brothers flew in 1903, aviation regulation didn’t emerge until the creation of the “Aeronautics Branch” in 1926.

  • philw1776

    Tragically, the bill for the flawed rubber rocket engine decision came due today

  • The_Truth_Seeker(TM)

    I always thought this was a stupid idea (because it wasn’t really meant to go into space – much less orbit). If they wanted to go this way, they should have designed a real space-plane, that later could be upgraded to get into orbit. Elon Musk has now been proven to have had the right approach to getting into space (including taking passengers later). He got the technology right the first time and didn’t worry about taking people up, right away. These guys were in a hurry to make lots of money, Elon Musk never is.

  • gunsandrockets

    No progress? What about XCOR?

  • jerel whittingham

    An excellent balanced and informed review article – thanks . (For those interested in the post Apollo retreat that’s referred to, a recent book, No Requiem for the Space Age by Matthew D. Tribbe, is likely to be of of interest.)

  • Guest

    The first thing this chart shows is the lack of understanding of socioeconomical foundations of the space advancement and usage. Everything there is founded on the assumption that big, propaganda, poster projects will be pushed wih huge public budgets and focuses on them. In result, this graph omits the most important uses of space that is:
    * military and espionage
    * public services
    * commercial usage (telecom sats anyone?)
    and the advancements there. Not flash enough, probably.

    Everything crumbled and became obsolete when Polish government fell in from of Solidarity movement and promptly whole Eastern Bloc fell apart. With propaganda reasons voided and the increasing military spending of US govt (the world’s policeman in Iraq and other places) combined with decreasing taxation of the rich (Republican govts) it meant that NASA funding would be slashed.

  • Aegis Maelstrom

    The first thing this chart shows is the lack of understanding of socioeconomical foundations of the space advancement and usage. Everything there is founded on the assumption that big, propaganda, poster projects will be strongly pushed wih huge public budgets and focuses on them. In result, this graph omits the most important uses of space that is:
    * military and espionage
    * public services
    * commercial usage (telecom sats anyone?)
    and the advancements there. Not flash enough, probably.

    Everything crumbled and became obsolete when Polish Solidarity movement finally brought down the Communist government and promptly whole Eastern Bloc fell apart. With propaganda reasons voided and the increasing military spending of US govt (the world’s policeman in Iraq and other places) combined with decreasing taxation of the rich (Republican govts) it meant that NASA funding would be slashed.

  • Aegis Maelstrom

    4.4% of your fed budget on a propaganda toy (other uses of the space were IMHO comparatively negligible) was not sustainable at all.

    To be honest, even today the whole “science is space” is an afterthought after military/espionage uses and spendings and a matter of “national pride”. If someone loves science, putting a billion dollars into e.g. cancer research would bring far more important scientific results for the mankind than a yet another spying satellite or a space probe.

  • Robert Burke

    Man makes a conjecture. Then he allows the universe to respond, yea or nay. It is the heart of Western Enlightenment, and the soul of man. RIP all who die in reaching for the stars they would give us, for as Robert Brown wrote, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp. Or what’s a heaven for?”

  • Tom of the Missouri

    The war on cancer is 43 years old today. Nixon declared it in 1971. Compare the the results of going to the moon to that. Cancer is still mostly unsolved. Gary Taubes, a science base nutritional writer with a degree in physics from Harvard asks a simple question. If Japanese women don’t get breast cancer until they move to the US, doesn’t the most obvious hypothesis be that the cause is something in the environment and that the cure is to simply locate the cause or move back to Japan?. Aside from studying various medieval type poisons (i.e., chemotherapy) solutions which try to kill the cancer by partly killing the the patient, , the science establishment is busy studying molecular pathways and other complicated molecular biology solutions trying to find a magic drug cure (can you say giant pharmaceutical company influence?). When you answer why they have spent 4 decades trying to prove the wrong hypothesis on cancer and ignoring the obvious hypothesis, you will have your answer why the space program and cancer research have failed. I suggest you follow the money and big government/big institution/big business cronyism. All these institutions are getting rich off the system that isn’t working and keep getting their government funds (can you say NIH) anyway, so what incentive do they have to change.

  • Tom of the Missouri
  • Tom Billings

    I hope XCOR people involved will not be insulted by my forgetting the program that did the first step of what I proposed above, in developing a follow-on to the EasyRocket. That was the X-Racer. As the XCOR website notes, its performance could just about meet that 4 kilometer altitude goal:

    “The X-Racer holds claim to several other records, including most
    flights in one day on a manned rocket powered aircraft, and fastest
    turnaround time for a manned rocket powered vehicle. Flight #40, the
    last flight, was an up-and-away flight to 12,800 feet lasting over 20
    minutes, setting an XCOR company record. It is also the only known
    rocket powered airplane to have performed several “touch-and go”
    maneuvers, including with and without a person in the right seat. “

  • Grant Chadwick

    This isn’t the first time I’ve heard criticism of Scaled Composites’ insufficient and unsafe development protocols. I really hate to see any setbacks in private spaceflight and even more so, accidents resulting in injury or loss of life. While these aspects must be an accepted reality in the field of space exploration, I think there are a lot of people who were not surprised by the Spaceship 2 tragedy.

    This article does an excellent job of touching on one of the primary problems of developing a successful space exploration program. All too often, there is an expectation of rapid gratification. Like in the story of the Tortoise and the Hare, slow and steady wins the race.

  • Hug Doug

    of course it wasn’t sustainable. developing a sustainable space flight program was not the point of Apollo.

  • Hug Doug

    this chart was made in 1989, before the fall of the Soviet bloc.

    what it’s predicated on is the International Space Station project acting as a springboard for the rapid development of the technology needed for a lunar outpost, and that’s not how the ISS has been used. it also assumes that a successful ISS leads to a proliferation of manned space stations by many other individual nations.

    it does mention commercial communication platforms, but assumes they are also manned.

    military use of space is clearly outside its scope.

    the value of this document is its vision, not that it reflects what actually happened.

  • Robert Thompson

    Very interesting. I was taken aback to see a stark criticism of the X Prize, and by extension the GLPX. It is my sense that the objective person *can disentangle, and decouple, and decompose, the ill-advised decisions by a visionary cult of personality… From… the general aim and general advantage of a consortium of well-advised innovators pursuing a deadline under a warm heat of competition. Nothing about the X Prize, itself, forced the use of unscalable hybrids.

  • Chandrashekar Tamirisa

    The National Aerospace Plane X-30 must be revisited again.

  • Aegis Maelstrom

    True. I just understood Charles and Larry as “we could and should have continued this level of spending but the bad politicians reduced the funding to fund something else”. As you have mentioned it was rather unavoidable – that year or later these spendings needed to be reduced.

    I think we (and the article) agree that the space race craze was a very rare blip; going back to normality, space needed to find better ways to fund itself and it was espionage/military, more modest science, orthomaps, telecom (with the first two being big but politically prone spenders). And I do agree with the article that more modest targets focusing on making the spaceflight cheap and reliable would be much better. With the better basic tech, the demand (be it more science probes, lunar/Mars or space tourism) will develop itself.

    Re: the war on cancer – interesting read – I need to research on it further.

    Best Regards.

  • Aegis Maelstrom

    Here I would argue that the vision is important while you are creating the future; when you want to predict it and depict it, you are not paying for the fantasy but for accuracy.

    This analysis failed to predict the most important strategic factor: the fail of Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union, which would make it obsolete within months. Honestly, I would consider it as a mistake in Sci-Fi, not to mention an industry analysis.
    I know the technology people are not to blame here but this is the same thing that we discussed above: reasons of space development and their sustainability. When you are on a market with few strategic buyers, you need to watch them very carefully

  • Hug Doug

    the chart wasn’t an industry analysis.

    it was just an idyllic vision of the future.

  • James Pura

    “SpaceShipOne remains a momentary blip in the history of spaceflight” and “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”

    While this is a well thought-out and researched article, please try and stay positive and respectful, Doug. People are human, and mistakes sometimes get made. But as they say, hindsight is 20/20. Please let’s respect the fact that technology advancements have been made and tested at Scaled over the last 10+ years, even though it may not be the way you would like to see them done. And let’s also try and not jump to conclusions before the NTSB report comes out…Sir Richard has already asked us to do so, let’s respect his wishes.

  • Hug Doug

    This article was published before the SS2 failure incident.

  • It would have been much less hard if they had used liquids from the beginning.

    Bob Clark

  • elmoutakaf Elmoutaf
  • elmoutakaf Elmoutaf
  • 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.