The Future Ain’t What It Used to Be: SpaceShipOne & the Triumph of Hype

Mike Melvill stands atop SpaceShipOne after a suborbital flight on Sept. 29, 2004. (Credit: RenegadeAven)
Mike Melvill stands atop SpaceShipOne after a suborbital flight on Sept. 29, 2004. (Credit: RenegadeAven)

Eleven years ago today, Brian Binnie flew SpaceShipOne to  an altitude  of 112.014 km (69.6 miles),  breaking a record of 107.8 km (67 miles) set by Joe Walker in the X-15 rocket plane 41 years earlier. As Binnie landed the small, experimental space plane at the Mojave Air and Space Port before a cheering crowd, he clinched the $10 million Ansari X Prize for Burt Rutan and his financial backer, Paul Allen.

The air during the post flight events was full of promises, boasts and hopes that today appear positively cringe worthy.

X Prize Founder Peter Diamandis declared a new era of spaceflight had begun, with the start of a new industry that would open up space to the masses. Sir Richard Branson promised to commercialize the SpaceShipOne technology and begin flying passengers in three years. In the first year alone, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo would fly 500 people into space — more than the number of individuals who ever flown there.

Of everyone who spoke on that triumphant sunny  day, it was Burt Rutan who was the most boastful and dismissive of NASA, then grounded by the Columbia accident, and the rest of the space industry.

“I was thinking a little bit about that other space agency, the big guys, I think they’re looking at each other now and saying, ‘We’re screwed.’,” he told a cheering crowd on the tarmac at Mojave. “Because I’ll tell ya something….I have a helluva lot bigger goal, and you know what that goal is? I absolutely have to develop a manned space tourism system that’s at least a hundred times safer than anything that’s ever flown man to space and probably a lot more. I have to do that.”

So, how’d that work out for you, Burt?

Not real well. By 2007, the year commercial service was supposed to have begun, Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites were still three years away from SpaceShipTwo’s first flight. The only significant event to that point was a tragedy — the loss of three Scaled engineers in a test stand explosion in July of that year.

Seven years later, SpaceShipTwo was destroyed on only its fourth powered flight test when the ship’s feather device — which Rutan had billed as the vehicle’s best safety featured — deployed prematurely during powered ascent due to pilot error. The resulting federal investigation found the feather should have been designed to prevent such an occurrence.

Co-pilot Mike Alsbury — who unlocked the feather too early — died in the crash while Pete Siebold miraculously survived. Alsbury was the fourth casualty in a program that has cost more than $600 million and failed to get anyone anywhere near space. That’s way under 100 times safer than previous space vehicles.

Today, Virgin Galactic is trying to pick up the pieces from that accident. Rutan is long since retired to Idaho. Far from being screwed, NASA flew out the remaining space shuttle flights without incident and is now funding the development of three crew vehicles. Operations of the International Space Station have continued continuously for 11 years. Boeing, Lockheed Martin and most of the other big space companies continue to thrive. And Elon Musk’s SpaceX has become a major force in the launch industry.

If any of these guys had been shaking in their boots 11 years ago, they’re not now. Instead, they probably look at SpaceShipTwo and the space tourism industry that Diamandis said would grow up around it with a mixture of sadness, disappointment and puzzlement. How could something so promising have gone so tragically wrong so fast? And what were these hypsters thinking back in 2004?

Probably the best thing to come out of SpaceShipOne and the Ansari X Prize is how it inspired people to pursue their dreams in space. A broader commercial space industry has developed. But, there is an interesting aspect that I don’t think very many people appreciate.

Rutan and his team had to produce a spacecraft to meet a set of criteria by a certain date in order to win the $10 million prize. That process involved a lot of decisions that they might have made differently if they had not been under pressure to meet those requirements. SpaceShipTwo subsequently became boxed in by some of those choices, including a hybrid engine that has proven difficult to scale up.

The folks who were inspired by the Ansari X Prize and SpaceShipOne were not under those same constraints. They could develop their systems, technology paths, and business plans in a more structured manner without having to meet someone else’s criteria and timelines.

And that’s the other lesson of the Ansari X Prize. The development of technology capable of making space routine, safe and affordable can’t always be done on an an arbitrary deadline set by a prize. The process is much more organic and unpredictable than that.

  • Richard

    Hi Doug, I think you can scrap the “less than 100 times safer”. Two fatal accidents, 4 dead and 70,000feet maximum, doesn’t that actually get much closer to “the most deadly” when compared to any other manned program in the last say 40 years?

  • Douglas Messier

    I was trying to be kind and understate things. But, I think you’re largely right.

    Since nobody has gotten anywhere near space so far, it’s really not even a space program yet. More like a manned high altitude test program so far. Like the early days of the rocket plane programs in the 40s and 50s. Those were dangerous programs.

    By the time the X-15 started flying, they had gotten a lot smarter about safety. much safer. 1 fatal accident and vehicle lost in 199 flights. The worst ground accident they had with that program was when an engine exploded. Scott Crossfield survived, and there were no other serious injuries.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Actually the X-15 had another accident that probably should be listed as fatal. On November 9,1962 there was a rollover during an emergency landing that severely damaged the X-15-2 and injured the pilot, John McKay. Although he survived the landing and went on to fly the X-15 again, even the X-15-2, he was eventually forced to retire from the effects of the accident which led to his early death in 1975 from trauma to the brain from the accident.

    Michelle Evans describes it and its aftermath in detail in her book on the X-15 program.

    “The X-15 Rocket Plane: Flying the First Wings into Space” by Michelle Evans, p-163

    A key reason John McKay survived the accident was that a C-130 with a crash truck and ambulance was pre-positioned and landed shortly after the accident with the necessary equipment to get him out of the aircraft. He was pinned and could not open his helmet due to weight of the airframe resting on his helmet. A rescue helicopter that was also pre-positioned for rescue work arrived first and dropped off rescue workers and then using its downdraft to blow fumes from the fuel away from the cockpit area. Then the crash equipment from the C-130 was used to get him out and provide medical assistance. They did indeed learn from the past and prepared well for accidents, lessons VG should learn from.

    BTW the book also discusses how the decision to have the cockpit closed and pressurized during the ground test probably saved Scott Crossfield’s life. Otherwise the fireball would have likely killed him. The rest of the ground crew of course was in a bunker during the test which protected them from injury. Anyone interest in rocket planes, and applying the lesson learned in the X-15 program to today’s rocket planes, should read it.


    Shame they didn’t keep flying faster and higher till they got into orbit.
    Shame Kennedy had to go and do the whole moon show thing.
    Guessing we would be much farther along today.

  • Nernst

    Dont forget the one where the pilot very nearly died. Was that the maiden flight? Pulled out of “death spiral” by shear luck.

  • TimR

    Yes, a heavy heart for those lost; lives lost not the hardware.
    But hey! Think of all the toys that have gotten joy rides on helium filled balloons in the mean time!

  • patb2009

    you have to wonder why VG didn’t buy a few engines from SpaceX.

  • Aerospike

    Since when does SpaceX sell engines?

    And Falcon 1 had its first successful flight to orbit 4 years after the end of the X-Prize. VG assumed they would by flying for about a year by then.

  • Bulldog

    I’m still bullish on the basic design. The shuttlecock approach is innovative and represents the best of “out of the box” thinking that Burt Rutan is known for.

    The failing of the program, as I see it, is on the propulsion side. It was an error to assume that the hybrid engine would easily or cost effectively scale to the larger airframe of SS2. I wish the team at VG all the best and hope they are able to solve the engine issues they face.

    As for the loss of life, not much to be said about the test stand incident, there’s a reason that block houses have been a traditional design element of many test facilities.

    The inflight breakup is different, it is a case of “failure of imagination” and no organization is immune from that. I don’t mean to diminish the tragic nature of the incident but the history of flight test is replete with accidents whose root cause was due to entire organizations failing to see a potential problem. While we all wish that designs and procedures will be fully matured on the ground, it is the dynamic environment of flight test where some of the most valuable and, unfortunately, costly lessons are learned.

    I’ll close with best wishes to all those pursuing the dream of private spaceflight. The work you’re doing represents the best of what we as a country are about – pursuing nearly-unachievable dreams and doing the hard work to make those dreams reality.

  • Aerospike

    I’ll close with best wishes to all those pursuing the dream of private
    spaceflight. The work you’re doing represents the best of what we as a country humanity are about – pursuing nearly-unachievable dreams and doing the hard work to make those dreams reality.

    Fixed that for you 😉

    Otherwise I agree: The problem lies largely on the propulsion side of the project. I too think that the shuttlecock design is innovative and in principle a good design. It is just the nature of every system that needs to be turned on and off, that there are situations where it can fail (or used under the wrong circumstances). You need to do everything you can to minimize that risk, but it will never disappear altogether.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Don’t underestimate the role of hype in our/all society. Politics is almost nothing but hype, if anyone tries to bring reason and analysis into politics they are countered by hype. Hype drives elections, war, and court cases. Commerce is moved by hype, advertising is nothing but hype. As I write this I have some rather hypeful images begging me to click them. I have an elderly woman to tug at my hart strings, a teenage Kim Kardashian to appeal to my lust, a snake bulged with some meal bigger than it to appeal to my shock, an ad from the motly fool to appeal to my ‘activist’ side, and some dude in a soviet gas mask for what must be some anti-gas food supplement. All of it hype, and all of it for Doug to get paid for what he does. It’s all hype. The space shuttle was hype, the moon landings were hype (and politicians made damn sure it was nothing beyond that.). What’s not hype? The point is to have it mean something after things start working and the hype cycle has lapsed.

  • Douglas Messier

    Sure. Can’t disagree with that.

    Elon Musk is great at hype. The point is that he eventually delivers. It might be three years later than planned, but he’s shown the ability to deliver in rocketry, automobiles and solar energy.

    For a deeper reflection of hype vs. reality, see the post about the Ansari X Prize reunion that I just published.

  • Douglas Messier

    I agree with most of this. So, what follows isn’t a criticism.

    This is just a comment that although the hybrid part of the engine has received the most attention, they’ve had issues with the entire propulsion system. They had a helluva time manufacturing the nitrous oxide tank. It was a very tricky thing to build. Turned out to be one of the pacing items. (In a similar vein, XCOR has had delays in getting the Lynx’s wings built. Very tricky part of the vehicle.)

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Yes, the number of con-men in pioneering efforts is really disturbing. The ones like Elon deliver, most don’t. Ever look at the old crazy guides to colonizing North America West of the 90th meridian? It was the worst kind of reasoning, hype, outright lies, and fiction you’d think could move masses of people into the maw of extreme danger, economic ruin, and physical harm. But it worked. I can only sit back in defeat, and stunned amazement at how humanity really works, and think about how to move on.

    History will show that the personality cult of Elon delivered, after putting in his own money, and then getting others to put their money in after showing some success. Meanwhile another personality cult in the form of Branson got a large number of people to put their own money down and then held them off from delivering for over a decade. At least he’s only going after rich people who can afford to lose their investment into their dreams. And who knows Branson might deliver yet. I hope he pulls something out.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, the X-20 would have been a great next step. I keep hoping the USAF is quietly developing the X-37C as a follow up to the X-37B. It would be a nice capability to have.

  • ThomasLMatula

    That would be flight X1 on September 29, 2004, with Mike Melville. Yes, like most of the powered flights they were lucky to recover when things went bad.

  • Douglas Messier

    They tried. I only know some of the details of that story. A bit fragmentary.

  • Douglas Messier

    Melvill (no “e”) also lost his instrument display on another flight. He was supposed to cut the engine and abort the flight under the agreement they had with the FAA. He didn’t do that (both he and Rutan thought it a bad idea to shut off the engine under any circumstances). It might also have demonstrated what Scaled thought of FAA requirements.

  • TimR

    the toys?


    No, I was talking about the Air force flying faster and higher, but your flying space toys look great 🙂

  • TimR

    I think Congress should ban the lofting of any more toys above the Armstrong Limit that are manufactured in China until an American-made rocket lifts the first paying passenger above the Karman line.

  • windbourne

    WOW. That is interesting. I am surprised that SpaceX did not sell to them. VG does NOT compete against SpaceX. In fact, VG would be a feeder for them. Once somebody has gone up on VG and has the money, they would naturally, want to do SpaceX/Bigelow.

    About the only reason that I can see SpaceX being concerned is that they keep secret the real insides of their engines, and their manufacturing process. Musk has dealt with China and knows that they will steal from him.

  • Douglas Messier

    This was more recent. They were talking to a lot of people.

  • Aerospike

    Thank you for that information.