Mojave Journal: The Ansari X Prize’s Awkward Family Reunion

Ansari X Prize 10th anniversary panel discussion on Oct. 4, 2014.
Ansari X Prize 10th anniversary panel discussion on Oct. 4, 2014.

One Year Ago, the Ansari X Prize Turned 10
It Was an Uncomfortable Birthday

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The planes kept coming and coming. One after another, they swooped out of a blue desert sky and touched down on the runway at the Mojave Air and Space Port. By mid-morning there were at least a dozen private jets stretched along the flight line running east from the Voyager restaurant toward the control tower. And even more were on their way.

And to what did Mojave owe this ostentatious display of wealth by the 1 percenters? They had come to the sun-splashed spaceport last Oct. 4 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Ansari X Prize. A decade earlier, Burt Rutan and his Paul Allen-funded team had won $10 million for sending the first privately-built manned vehicle into space twice within a two-week period.

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)

It was a tremendous achievement — one that was to herald a new era led by Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic that would open up space to the masses. Or at least that part of humanity that could shell out 200 grand to float around for five minutes. And it was all only three years away. Regular, routine and safe travel to space would begin in 2007.

But, something funny happened on the way to the future: nothing. Well, not exactly nothing. Things had happened. Engines were tested, SpaceShipTwo was built and flown, deposits taken, promises made and broken, schedules set and revised. Three Scaled Composites engineers had died tragically. And there had been hype. Lots and lots of hype.

The one thing that hadn’t happened was spaceflight. America’s First Inland Spaceport — as Mojave proudly billed itself in big black letters on its control tower — had not seen a single private spaceflight in 10 years. It hadn’t happened here. Or anywhere. A decade after SpaceShipOne, the future wasn’t what it used to be. And it still wasn’t clear when it would arrive.

So, the question I had that morning as I sipped my coffee at the Voyager and watched the jets fill the ramp, was: What exactly were these people coming here to celebrate? And how would they deal with a decade filled with more hype than accomplishments?

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Peter Diamandis and Burt Rutan on stage after SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X Prize on Oct. 4, 2004.
Peter Diamandis and Burt Rutan on stage after SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X Prize on Oct. 4, 2004.

The main event was a luncheon at noon followed by a panel discussion of the principals involved in the prize. Before that, several separate activities were going on at the airport.

X Prize Founder Peter Diamandis was leading a tour of the spaceport for about 30 well-heeled guest who had paid $40,000 apiece for a four-day jaunt around Southern California’s space sector. The fact that Diamandis personally led the tour was advertised as making it “one of the most extraordinary trips of your life!” For ten grand per day, I would certainly hope so.

Richard Branson was the only person in the space industry who could out-hype Diamandis. Branson had flown into Mojave on Friday night, parking his private jet in front of the Virgin Galactic FAITH hangar and then headed off to a party at the Mariah Country Inn.

On Saturday morning, Branson and Virgin Galactic staff attended to their own guests. A group of SpaceShipTwo ticket holders who had trekked out to Mojave for the celebration received a tour of the FAITH hangar where WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo were housed.

A group of friendly media types also received a tour by Branson and staff. Virgin Galactic’s official media partner, NBC/Universal, sent NBC News science writer Alan Boyle and a photographer along. I was not invited, but that was just fine by me. I had already seen WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo many times both on the ground and in flight. The tour generated no news of note.

Meanwhile, Scaled Composites — which built the Ansari Prize winning SpaceShipOne and was building SpaceShipTwo for Virgin — had a celebration of its own. As with all things Scaled, details were sparse. If Virgin Galactic was a hype factory, the company that Burt Rutan built was a black box – operating in nearly complete secrecy and never talking about what they were working on until it was absolutely necessary.

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These three diverse groups came together at noon for an anniversary luncheon at the Stuart O. Witt Event Center, with the building’s namesake – the CEO and general manager of the spaceport – among the attendees. I hadn’t received an invitation to the luncheon, so I watched the webcast from an office on the airport.

The main event began with a slick video that described the Ansari X Prize as an audacious challenge that would change our lives and our relationship with the cosmos forever – eventually. Diamandis then took the stage to thank everyone for coming and to acknowledge all the VIPs who had trekked out Mojave to help celebrate this momentous occasion.

Whatever the disappointments were on the space tourism side, the Ansari X Prize had been very good for Peter Diamandis and the X Prize Foundation. The organization had struggled through its entire existence, and it had been on the edge of failure several times. The $10 million prize had been covered by an insurance that bet no one would win it before the deadline expired.

Once Rutan won it with only months to spare, everything changed. Diamandis recounted how Google had changed the doodle on its search page to a drawing of SpaceShipOne. He was then invited up to Google headquarters to give a keynote address. Google co-founder Larry Page joined the X Prize Foundation’s board, which opened a lot of doors and wallets. Today, the foundation runs multiple prizes and has tens of millions of dollars in the bank.

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Every year during the Oscars and Emmy telecasts, there are video reels of all the great stars Hollywood has lost over the previous year. These are quite touching, allowing us to honor unique talents who have entertained us over the years, and occasionally surprising (really? He’s dead? When did that happen?).

The Ansari X Prize had put together a tribute for all its supporters who passed on while waiting for the future to arrive. Diamandis delegated this task to his no. 2, Founding Executive Director Gregg Maryniak ( my brother Gregg,” as he called him). Maryniak held a very special place in the history of the prize; he had given Diamandis a book about Charles Lindbergh that had inspired the latter to create the X Prize.

Gregg Maryniak leads a memorial tribute.
Gregg Maryniak leads a memorial tribute.

Maryniak had a long list of the dead to present in PowerPoint form. X-15 pilots Scott Crossfield and Bill Dana, moon walker Neil Armstrong, Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter, adventurer Steve Fossett, author Tom Clancy, comedian Robin Williams, and a host of others famous and otherwise. At the end, there were 5 seconds of silence for the dearly departed.

It inevitably happens each year that some folks are left off the Emmy and Oscar memorial tributes. The same thing happened here. There were three names that should have been added to the memorial list: Eric Blackwell, Todd Ivens and Glenn May.

Memorial plaque in Mojave's Legacy Park. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
Memorial plaque in Mojave’s Legacy Park. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

The three Scaled Composites engineers died in a horrific explosion while testing a system for the SpaceShipTwo engine in July 2007. They had been standing nearby during a cold flow involving nitrous oxide when the test rig exploded. Eric, Todd and Glenn died from flying shrapnel; three other engineers ended up hospitalized.

“One of the things that we have as a key mantra about the X Prize is that the work begins when the prize is won,” Diamandis would tell Branson later during the panel discussion. “Because having a historic moment is insufficient, it’s actually building an industry…You allowed this to go from a historic moment to an industry. And for that, we are forever thankful.”

Eternal thanks were clearly reserved for wealthy benefactors like Branson, and Paul Allen who funded the technology. And for those X Prize supporters, famous and otherwise, who had passed on while waiting for the future to arrive. But, not a word for three engineers who had died trying to make that dream come true.

There were numerous Virgin Galactic ticket holders in the audience. Why remind them of how dangerous this whole venture was? They might start questioning the extravagant safety claims Virgin Galactic was making on its website. Or cancel their reservations. There was just no percentage in honoring the dead if in doing so you caused the living to doubt the role they would play in this drama.

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The accident was the darkest day in Scaled’s entire history. The company had never lost anyone in its decades of existence. Sadly, the response to the tragedy left much to be desired on all fronts.

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

Rutan was in Palm Springs when the accident occurred. He rushed back to Mojave to declare his complete shock that nitrous oxide flowing under pressure could suddenly explode like that all by itself. However, nitrous oxide is a mono-propellant, which means that it can go off without the presence of fuel. And there had been previous incidents where exactly that happened.

There’s little reason to doubt that Rutan really believed the event was not foreseeable. Scaled wouldn’t have let 11 people stand around the test stand during the cold flow otherwise. But, there is every reason to doubt the competence of Rutan and his team. They had come out of the SpaceShipOne program with the mistaken belief that nitrous oxide was benign and safe. Three men had paid for that mistake with their lives.

Rutan’s claim that the tragedy was unforeseeable remained the official position throughout the subsequent investigation by Cal-OSHA. The federal agency fined Scaled Composites $25,870 for alleged safety violations. The company appealed, getting two counts dismissed and finally paying $18,560 for the remaining violations. Meanwhile, the families of the victims received settlements with non-disclosure agreements.

Virgin Galactic’s response to the accident was a textbook example of covering one’s ass. It issued a brief press release acknowledging an “industrial accident” at Scaled and expressing regrets and condolences to all involved – whoever they were. The statement did not mention even the names of the dead and hospitalized. Branson wasn’t quoted. He didn’t jump on a private jet to Mojave to take charge of the situation and emote for the television cameras.

The whole tone of the response was ice cold. This was someone else’s problem – namely Scaled – and Virgin was determined to let them take the heat while keeping as low of a profile as possible. That would prove impossible the next time tragedy hit the program, but all that lay far in the future.

Diamandis’ comments on the test stand accident were even worse. He declared that this was an industrial accident much like any other that can happen on a work site. He then claimed it had nothing to do with the safety of the spaceflights that lay in the future. All this he knew for a fact even though the investigations into the explosion were barely underway.

The first claim was true. Cal-OSHA had categorized the explosion as an industrial accident. The rest of Diamandis’ statement was nonsense.

When you’re doing a test involving part of a rocket propulsion system; and it explodes on the stand unexpectedly; and you had no idea nitrous oxide could do that; and the incident brings into question all your safety assumptions about the benign nature of your oxidizer; and you don’t know why it exploded; and you have to stop work on SpaceShipTwo for about a year while you figure it out; and you’re still going to put a giant tank of that oxidizer right behind SpaceShipTwo’s main cabin where six millionaires will be seated; and use that dangerous gas to light a giant rubber fire at the rear of the space plane; and you want to make absolutely sure that something similar doesn’t ever happen at altitude; then yes, the accident had EVERYTHING to do with safety.

Diamandis is a very smart guy who has been promoting space for decades. But, statements like that raised questions about how much he actually understands about the technologies involved. Did he actually believe what he was saying? Or was protecting Scaled, Virgin and the legacy of the Ansari X Prize simply more important?

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After the five seconds of silence, Diamandis took the stage and invited the principals who had been involved in the Ansari X Prize to join him. He started with the guy with the most money, Branson, who also had the least to do with the Ansari X Prize but more money than anyone else who would be on stage. Sir Richard took the seat right next to Diamandis.

Peter Diamandis, Richard Brnason and Anousheh Ansari.
Peter Diamandis, Richard Brnason and Anousheh Ansari.

The next person up was Anousheh Ansari, whose family had helped to fund the X prize. Rutan took the middle seat, putting him right in the center of everything. To his left Chuck Beames, who was representing Paul Allen, who had funded SpaceShipOne. And on the far end were Mike Melvill and Brian Binnie, who had risked the most – their lives – piloting the two SpaceShipOne flights that won the $10 million prize.

The pecking order was clear in the seating arrangement: X Prize creator, billionaire, millionaire, SpaceShipTwo creator, billionaire’s rep , pilot guy and other pilot guy now working for the competition. Always good to one’s priority’s straight.

Diamandis began the discussion with Branson, recounting how the British billionaire had turned him down twice when he asked for money to support the prize.

“I have to say I’m so thankful that you didn’t say yes because instead of spending the $10 million dollars to make it the Virgin X Prize you committed a quarter of a billion to commercialize it,” Diamandis gushed. “You’ve always wanted to go space, unlike many others you put your personal wealth and brand behind it.”

The truth is a bit more complicated. Branson had put indeed put his wealth and brand into Virgin Galactic, but most of the money came from Aabar Investments, which is a sovereign wealth fund owned by the government of Abu Dhabi. They had invested $390 million into the company. This went unmentioned.

Sir Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic pilots, staffers and investors. To his right is Mohamed Badawy Al-Husseiny, CEO of Aabar, which made a $280 million in Virgin Galactic.
Sir Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic pilots, staffers and investors. To his right is Mohamed Badawy Al-Husseiny, CEO of Aabar Investments. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

Diamandis’ vision for the Ansari X Prize had been a lot broader than one billionaire coming in to commercialize a single set of technologies that emerged from the competition. He had hoped for multiple teams to develop technologies that would mature into a competitive industry after the prize was awarded.

To that end, the foundation held X Prize Cups in New Mexico modeled upon the old 20th century air races and aviation competitions. The idea was for this growing industry of small entrepreneurial rocket companies to show off their technologies and compete with each other in races.

There were a couple of problems with this idea. First, there wasn’t much of an industry yet. SpaceShipOne was the only serious entry in the competition; nobody else even came close to producing anything that could have won. The aviation analogy didn’t really work very well. The Diamandis-backed Rocket Racing League – air races using rocket planes – never developed into anything.

X Prize Cups were held with New Mexico providing sponsorship funds in 2006 and 2007. The event then faded into history. In 2007, Diamandis announced his next great space venture, the Google Lunar X Prize. By that time, New Mexico was focused on developing Spaceport America for Virgin Galactic.

In other words, Branson held the key to determining whether the Ansari X Prize and SpaceShipOne would be a one-hit wonder that future generations would look back on in puzzlement, or the start of a new era of commercial spaceflight. As Branson and Diamandis sat on stage in Mojave on that sunny October day ten years later, everything still hung in the balance.

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“Somebody said, when did you realize that Virgin Galactic was going to be a business opportunity,” Branson said. “And I just never thought of Virgin Galactic was going to be a business opportunity. I’ve never thought of any of the business I’ve ever started as being one day a business opportunity. If I have that urge to create, then screw it, let’s do it. Let’s just give it a go.”

Branson was right about Virgin Galactic not really being a business; thus far, it had chewed up hundreds of millions of dollars without a single flight anywhere near space.And it would chew up a lot more before it would begin to bring in any revenue.

Richard Branson, GREY GOOSE creator and Maître de Chai François Thibault, and George Whitesides toast to a new partnership. (Credit: Grey Goose)
Richard Branson, GREY GOOSE creator and Maître de Chai François Thibault, and George Whitesides toast to a new partnership. (Credit: Grey Goose)

As a marketing and branding tool, however, it was brilliant. Every time SpaceShipTwo flew, every time Branson even mentioned it, the resulting publicity was worth a fortune for the Virgin brand. Spaceflight was cool. The program provided Virgin and its aging founder with an image of innovators developing disruptive, game-changing technology that would transform our lives and our relationship to the cosmos forever. Or something.

Of course, a spaceship that doesn’t fly to space isn’t going to be useful forever. The SpaceShipTwo program had now gone almost as long as it took NASA to complete the Apollo moon program. The private sector was supposed to do things better, faster and cheaper than government. And yet 10 years had passed, and they were still trying replicate what SpaceShipOne had accomplished, which itself was largely a repeat of the suborbital flights of the X-15 rocket plane first flown in 1962 when John F. Kennedy was president.

Neil Armstrong with the X-15 on the dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.
Neil Armstrong with the X-15 on the dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

Meanwhile, Branson’s always optimistic and unfailingly erroneous predictions about the start of commercial service had become a running joke. Service was supposed to begin in 2007; the only significant event that year was a tragic one, the explosion on the test stand. Flights were always 18 months away – in perpetuity. One skeptic said that if anyone could get people to space on hype alone, it would be Sir Richard. Another publication had stuck him with the awful nickname, Beardie Lightyear.

You wanted to feel sorry for the guy. A lot of the problems lay not with Virgin Galactic but with the developer, Scaled Composites. But, when faced with setbacks and clear signs that things weren’t going well, Branson would merely double down on all his predictions and promises. Whether they had anything to do with what was happening in Mojave (and they usually didn’t) never seemed to be a consideration. It was all about image and marketing.

“It has taken longer than we thought,” Branson admitted, mentioning the elephant in the room for the first time. “But, we’re–”

“Having said that, I have to say I completely respect this has been…the eyes of the world are on you,” Diamandis interjected helpfully. “And flying when the vehicle is ready is so critically important, and not being pressured. And I’m sure the pressure’s been huge. But flying when the vehicle is ready is most critical.”

“Obviously, it’s a big difference between being a commercial spaceship company and putting up professional astronauts,” Branson replied. “People are putting their lives in our hands. Return tickets are very important, there’s quite a few people in this room who would like to come back.”

And here was a conundrum. Branson promised safe trips. Diamandis, who held a ticket, echoed those claims publicly. The Virgin Galactic web site intimated that Rutan’s technology might produce a spacecraft thousands of times safer than anything that had ever flown.

However, Branson’s company would protected by law if anything went wrong. Tourists would fly on an informed consent regime that required Virgin Galactic to be found grossly negligent or have done something to intentionally harm a ticket holder. To do that, an injured party would face Virgin’s army of high-priced attorneys. If Branson really believed in the safety of his vehicle, why was it that almost all the risks were being transferred to the passengers?

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Beyond that, the claim that safety was the reason it was taking so long was largely wrong. Rutan’s approach had been flawed from the start. Years ago, I had a discussion about the delays with an engineer who was working in Mojave at the time. He gave the most succinct explanation of the problem I’ve ever heard.

“Burt Rutan is an idiot,” he said. “Well, he’s a genius. But, he’s also an idiot.”

What my friend meant was that while Rutan was brilliant at designing flying vehicles, he was a relative novice at rocket engines. Instead of developing the engine first and building the ship around what it could do, he had designed the ship first and assumed the hybrid engine used on SpaceShipOne could be easily scaled up to power its successor. The fact is, they hadn’t flown to space yet because they couldn’t.

Nitrous nylon engine test on Jan. 16, 2014. (Credit: Ken Brown)
Nitrous nylon engine test on Jan. 16, 2014. (Credit: Ken Brown)

Ten years on, they were still trying to find an engine that could get SpaceShipTwo up to 100 km with a full load of six passengers. In May, Virgin Galactic had switched from a rubber hybrid engine to one that burned nylon. But, it still wasn’t clear that engine – which would be tested in flight for the first time soon – could really do the job. Now I was hearing they might get to 80 km with four passengers.

None of this was an acceptable topic of discussion, so nothing was said. Diamandis soon changed the topic to something lighter.

“I’ve heard that George has promised you a Christmas present,” he said, referring to Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides.

“I always love Christmas presents, especially if they’re early, George,” Branson said, laughing. He and Diamandis just cackled at that. Yeah, no pressure there, George.

Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides speaks with current and prospective employees during Virgin Galactic’s recent career fair at Mojave Air and Spaceport in California. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides speaks with current and prospective employees during Virgin Galactic’s recent career fair at Mojave Air and Spaceport in California. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Virgin had begun 2014 with the intent of flying a handful of powered flights culminating before the year with the first commercial mission in New Mexico, on which Branson and his son, Sam, would be passengers. The company would then begin flying the first of its 700 plus ticket holders.

The schedule constituted a significant reduction in the number of planned powered flight tests, raising questions about whether the ship would be properly wrung out before putting the boss and his only son on board. Some people were deeply worried about the pace. But, sources said there was a real need to demonstrate progress by the end of the year to please the investors in Abu Dhabi.

By early October, it had become clear that flying the Branson & Son by the end of the year was impossible. Virgin officials were now talking by the end of the first quarter of 2015 for the first commercial flight. The Christmas present Sir Richard joked about was a flight test of SpaceShipTwo to its maximum altitude, whatever that might be with the new engine.

This was probably a feasible goal, providing the next powered flight test went well. Virgin had been pushing Scaled to move forward with that as soon as possible. Yet, without an increase in the number of flight tests before commercial service began, safety concerns would remain.

In the weeks that followed the Ansari X Prize anniversary event, my own anxiety would rise. There were clear signs that the next powered flight was in the wings. I didn’t know when, but I knew it was coming soon. I had terrible visions of a bad day.

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After Branson finished explaining why the future wasn’t what it used to be, Diamandis moved down the line to Ansari, Rutan and Beames. Rutan admitted that he didn’t take Diamandis seriously at first; he thought Peter was a blowhard who had established a prize without having the money to fund it.

Blowhard was a bit harsh, but the rest of it was true. The X Prize didn’t have the money for many years until Diamandis convinced Ansari to pay the premium on an insurance policy that would only pay off if someone won the prize by the Dec. 31, 2004 deadline. Rutan did with less than three months to spare.

Richard Branson and Burt Rutan watch from the ground. (Credit: Bill Deaver)
Richard Branson and Burt Rutan watch from the ground. (Credit: Bill Deaver)

Rutan credited their success in winning the Ansari X Prize for helping to raise the staff of Scaled Composites from 150 to 600 employees. They had accomplished what a lot of folks had thought was impossible, which made people stand up and take notice of the little aerospace company situated in a small desert spaceport on the edge of nowhere.

One company that took notice was Northrop Grumman, which bought out Scaled in 2007 after previously holding a 40 percent share. The following year, the new owners – reportedly tired of Rutan’s loose cannon style of saying anything without regard for who might be offended – kicked the Scaled founder upstairs and installed Doug Shane as president. The success of SpaceShipOne had also led to the first step out the door to Rutan’s retirement in Idaho.

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By now, the panel had gone on for about 20 minutes without much discussion of the two Ansari X Prize winning flights. Diamandis started to introduce the pilots but then realized he had neglected to acknowledge another VIP and friend of the X Prize in the audience: Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart. Another minute passed while he corrected that oversight and Rusty took a bow. And then Mike Melvill had his turn.

White Knight taxis with SpaceShipOne on June 21, 2004.
White Knight taxis with SpaceShipOne on June 21, 2004. (Credit: John Criswick)

Melvill didn’t disappoint. He flew two of SpaceShipTwo’s three flights to space, and the first of the X Prize flights. They proved to be the most dramatic of the entire flight test program. On the first, he lost all panel readings on his instrument panel. The FAA actually mandated that if they lost the display, the pilot had to shut down the engine and abort the flight. Melvill didn’t, saying that neither he nor Rutan had thought it a good idea to shut down the engine prematurely under any circumstances. The refusal also pretty much summed up Scaled’s general attitude toward the FAA.

That flight took place in June 2004. The next one was set for Sept. 29 and would be the first of two Ansari X Prize flights to space that had to be completed in two weeks. One this one, Melvill encountered an even scarier situation: going straight up at 170,000 feet, the ship began the first of 29 vertical rolls. Melvill kept the engine running just the same until he stopped the roll at 330,000.

All this scary cowboy Right Stuff talk was too much for Branson. “We’ve got some of our astronauts in this room waiting to fly with us,” he said, laughing nervously.

Melvill was not dissuaded. Pilots love telling stories like these. Audiences lap it up. It’s danger, daring, seat of your pants, on the edge stuff that keeps people spell bound. It’s why human space launches are so exciting. Why else had The Right Stuff become a nationwide best seller?

“It was an awful feeling,” Melvill continued. “I have to tell you, I was scared to death. If you look at the video, you’ll see my hand going to the switches to shut off the motors, and my hand wasn’t very steady. It was shaking like this because I was frightened.”

“So what was going through your mind that caused you not to shut it off?” Diamandis asked.

“I was a shareholder in Scaled,” he replied, setting off raucous laughter around the room.

It was true. With only three months left to win the prize, an abort now could cause Scaled to lose $10 million. So, Melvill pushed the outside of the envelope and lived to fly another day.

brian_binnie
Brian Binnie

Now it was over to Brian Binnie, who flew the second and final Ansari X Prize flight on Oct. 4. Binnie plugged a book about SpaceShipOne he’s written for whom he was trying to find a publisher. This was rather awkward.

Fortunately, the moment passed and he moved on to more exciting things. In December 2013, he flew SpaceShipOne on its first powered flight. It was a risky task; fortunately, the engine performed fine.  Unfortunately, Binnie landed the ship hard, causing one of the landing gears to collapse. The tiny space plane skidding off the runway.

The accident looked worse than it was. Binnie was fine, and the damaged to the ship was easily repaired. Subsequently investigation showed that it really wasn’t his fault. There had been a change in the ship that affected how it performed during landing. It was an example off the old axiom: this is why we test.

Yet it was clear as he told the story that the landing still bothered him all these years later. He attributed the landing to experience as a U.S. Navy pilot, who were known for hard landings on carrier decks. The worse part is he thought he would never fly SpaceShipTwo again. He would never fly it to space, never become an astronaut. But, he worked like a dog in the simulator for the next 10 months to get himself back in flight rotation. And after Melvill’s flight on Sept. 29, Shane gave him the nod.

The rolls that occurred on Melvill’s flight forced Binne back into the simulator in the days that followed to work out method of avoiding them. That effort would pay off handsomely, to which Binnie’s flawless flight would subsequently attest.

Before that could happen, there was one final obstacle to overcome the night before the flight. Binnie’s in-laws were in town and spent the night at his house. Binnie slept on the couch with the family’s golden retriever. He fell asleep around 11 pm and got up at 2:15 am for the most important flight of his life.

“Can I just say to all of you ticket holders, he won’t be flying with us anymore,” Branson interjected with a laugh.

That was true. Binnie had left Scaled Composites and the SpaceShipTwo program and was now working for rival XCOR, which was building a space plane of its own. Although Branson joked about it, his departure was really Scaled’s loss and XCOR’s gain.

“Your pilots under George Whitesides and the amazing team over at Virgin Galactic,” Diamandis volunteers in an effort to calm any nerves. “I would entrust my life without question. It’s going to be extraordinary…I’ve got my seat as well.”

Entrust his life to them he surely would. And yet under the informed consent regime that Diamandis had championed, he and his heirs would have little legal resources if he were injured or killed. Companies needed the space to experiment with new vehicles, the argument went. Better that people die than for the companies responsible to be killed by lawsuits.

There was something strange about making blanket assurances about the safety of a system and then forcing ticket holders to assume virtually all the risk. Why do that if you really believe in the safety of the systems they will be flying? Unless, of course, you suspect  that it might not be true.

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Peter Diamandis and Richard Branson.
Peter Diamandis and Richard Branson.

After 25 minutes of the pilots talking, Diamandis asked Branson what his plans are for the future. The billionaire stumbled through the same speech he’s been given for 10 years about space tourism, satellite launches, point to point hypersonic passenger service, and human voyages to other worlds. He punctuated this expansive vision of the future with a lot of uh’s and ah’s as if he was unready for the question or wasn’t totally confident they were going to be able to do all these things. It wasn’t very reassuring.

It was left to Beames to put the Ansari X Prize into some sort of perspective. Although progress had been slow since SpaceShipOne, he still thought the first private spaceflights would be seen as a pivotal moment in history because they had inspired a lot of other people to pursue their dreams in space. The world was now full of many companies pursuing commercial space ventures, a situation that didn’t exist in 2004.

It struck me that this was essentially right. It was an inspiration venture. But, there was another side to this that Beames had not mentioned. These entrepreneurs who were inspired by the prize could pursue their projects in much more organic ways, unconstrained by having to meet a defined set of criteria to win a pot of money by some arbitrary deadline.

In order to win the Ansari X Prize, Rutan made decisions he might not have made if he was thinking more long term. When SpaceShipOne proved successful, he found himself locked into those same decisions for the successor vehicle. That included a hybrid engine that worked well enough for a small experimental spacecraft but was difficult to scale.

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Branson had the first word among the panelists – and the last. As the session wound down, he insisted that everyone on the panel give Rutan a big group hug even though he knew the recipient wouldn’t want one. They gave him one anyone – and it looked extremely awkward.

And so the anniversary celebration ended. No doubt most people went home confident that Virgin would soon be sending people into space. But, it was not to be.

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SpaceShipTwo breaks up after the premature deployment of its feather system. (Credit: MARS Scientific/NTSB)
SpaceShipTwo breaks up after the premature deployment of its feather system. (Credit: MARS Scientific/NTSB)

Branson ended up back in Mojave much sooner than he imagined. On Halloween, SpaceShipTwo broke up during a flight test near Koehn Lake, killing co-pilot Mike Alsbury and leaving pilot Pete Siebold in the hospital.

This was a tragedy that couldn’t be dealt with a brief press release. Branson jumped in his private jet and high-tailed it to Mojave. The following morning, he stood outside the Witt Center — four weeks to the day after the Ansari celebration — and addressed the television cameras for a painful eight minutes.

Branson claimed that Virgin Galactic had placed safety as its highest priority, a claim belied by its own flight test schedule. He said the flight test program was the most extensive in the history of aviation, which was clearly not true because SpaceShipTwo was not undergoing any certification. Branson also claimed to have never met Mike Alsbury, the co-pilot of the SpaceShipTwo’s first powered flight that the British billionaire had come to Mojave to witness the year before.

Richard Branson speaks to the press at the Mojave Air and Space Port about the crash off SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
Richard Branson speaks to the press at the Mojave Air and Space Port about the crash off SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

The whole thing was…bizarre. To come to Mojave and deny knowing the pilot who just lost his life testing your spaceship and deny knowing him…There were just no words.

Rutan stayed largely out of sight in Idaho, where he was isolated from the events in Mojave. He had the bitter irony that the feather system – the safety system he invented – had contributed to a fatal accident. A decade earlier on the tarmac at Mojave following Binnie’s prize-winning flight, Rutan had pledged to develop a spacecraft at 100 times safer than anything that ever flown before. The SpaceShipTwo program had now claimed four lives without flying anywhere near space.

Diamandis, who knew that his legacy and that of the Ansari X Prize hinged on Virgin Galactic recovering from the accident, pulled out all the stops.

This was jaw-dropping, insulting, insensitive. And inaccurate. It was far too early to be making such pronouncements. Of all the things said after SpaceShipTwo crashed, this one stood out the most. It was even worse than what Diamandis had said after the test stand accident. But, he didn’t stop there.

It was vintage Peter, a promoter to the end. In the face of tragedy, don’t think things through. Double down. No need for the NTSB to finish its investigation. Or to see what changes were needed in the ship. Or to wait for the results of the second SpaceShipTwo’s flight test program. Or to evaluate how Virgin improved its safety processes after the crash.

Just step right up and buy a ticket for the greatest experience of your life. It’ll be safe. I guarantee it. Oh, that waiver…don’t worry about it. Just a formality.

 

  • Hemingway

    This is a well-written article on a questionable 10th anniversary celebration of the Ansari X Prize. Thanks

  • ThomasLMatula

    I wonder if there will be any party on the 15th anniversary. Or if we will still be waiting for VG to make its first flight into space 🙂

  • Smokey_the_Bear

    It’s almost like they are celebrating nothing…oh wait, that’s exactly what it is.

  • Douglas Messier

    May 2016 will be the 20th anniversary of the announcement of the prize. Eight years plus for someone to win the prize, another 11 years and counting for the same company to commercialize the technology despite hundreds of millions of dollars to spend. There’s something very fundamentally wrong there. There’s gotta be better ways to develop technology.

    It’s like the orphans of Apollo have decided to advance technology with giant leaps via prizes. Moon shot thinking. And they ended up with something in this case that doesn’t really address the most important underlying problem: rugged, reliable, reusable engine technology and aircraft type operations. The one-shot hybrid won’t bring down space access costs.

    On the plus side, I’m hearing that the engine development is going fairly well (it’s not just hype) and that they’re looking to go back to the rubber engine. What sort of performance they will get out of it (altitude) and how many passengers they can isn’t real clear.

    But, still there’s this massive tank of nitrous oxide in the ship. That sends chills up and down my spine. Many people I know who have worked with it don’t like it much at all. Some stopped working with it.

    There are dangers with everything you use in a rocket. But, nitrous is really tricky to work with.

  • Douglas Messier

    Thank you very much. Happy you enjoyed it.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Doug,

    There are many better ways. That is what I have been publishing about for the last twenty years, and teaching to my business students.

    But the answers come from basic economic theory and history, and I find when you start discussing both with space advocates their eyes tend to glaze over. That is because there are no magic short cuts, but does require the creation of the necessary institution environment for innovation to happen and markets to emerge. Space is no different in this aspect and the failure to do so is why so little progress has been made in New Space, and so many spaceports fail.

    I expect Mojave will fail if it doesn’t move beyond its existing image as simply a rocket plane test site. It has a lot of potential,but is stuck as seeing itself as simply an airport with flights occasional flights to space.

  • Douglas Messier

    The key to the spaceport’prosperity has been the wind industry. It’s a staging ground for all the wind turbine elements. They come in by rail, get unloaded at the spaceport, and are then trucked to the construction sites. That’s what has kept the airport in the black (it has $7 million in reserves now) and able to support general aviation and the rocket work.

    The wind farms are still expanding. And some of the older turbines have worn out and need maintenance and/or replacing. If that were to dry up, the airport would have a more difficult time of it.

    Next year could see a lot of flight tests here. I say that every year, but if Virgin gets back on track and XCOR starts flying. If if if….

  • ThomasLMatula

    Doesn’t surprise me. I noted to the folks working on the spaceport in New Mexico a decade ago how well suited the site was for both wind power and solar power, especially as a major transmission line already runs near the site, but they indicated that preservationists would argue it would spoil the “natural” setting of the site and so showed no more interest in it…

    But for Mojave I was referring to creating an environment for other space related activities like telebotics and vertical farming technology, both well suited to the facility and its location. It would also be suited to simulated space habitats aimed at supporting STEM education for 9-12 grade students.