Prizes, Technology and Safety

Charles A. Lindbergh (Credit: Library of Congress)
Charles A. Lindbergh (Credit: Library of Congress)

Part 3 of 6

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

At 10:22 p.m. on May 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh brought the Spirit of St. Louis to a safe landing at Le Bourget Aerodrome in Paris. He had just completed the first non-stop New York to Paris airplane flight, a 33.5-hour journey during which he had covered 3,600 statute miles (5,800 km). As soon as the plane stopped, Lindbergh was surrounded by thousands of people who had gathered to welcome him. The exhausted pilot had been awake for 55 hours.

This historic flight catapulted the obscure 25-year old former air mail pilot to international super stardom. Accomplishing a feat that had  killed six competitors, Lindbergh claimed the $25,000 Orteig Prize put up eight years earlier by New York hotelier Raymond Orteig to promote aviation.

Promote aviation it certainly did. Following the flight, people who had shied away from airplanes took to the air in unprecedented numbers as the industry grew rapidly.

Americans gained a new confidence in air travel. Suddenly, everybody wanted to fly. In 1929 more than 170,000 paying passengers boarded United States airliners—nearly three times the 60,000 that had flown the previous year. Almost 3 million more—most of them business people—traveled in private planes in 1929. Even Mickey Mouse took to the air, mimicking Lindbergh’s flight in the 1928 Walt Disney cartoon Plane Crazy.

Because of Lindbergh’s flight, aviation stocks soared. For a short time, even the stock of a small eastern company called Seaboard Airline saw activity—until it was discovered that the corporation was actually a railroad. As financial investors came forward, more and more fledgling airlines began to emerge. By the end of the 1920s, there were forty-four scheduled United States airlines, and many nonscheduled ones.

The impact of Lindbergh’s historic flight was limited in other ways, however. The Spirit of St. Louis was a beefed up, single-seat air mail plane that was barely sufficient to get Lindbergh across the Atlantic. The aircraft was unlike the passenger planes of the day, and it would contribute little to the advancement of aviation technology.

Lindbergh’s historic flight also did nothing to address commercial aviation’s most serious problem: safety. While the U.S. government-owned Air Mail Service had strict safety standards, unregulated commercial air carriers during this era were much more accident prone.

The first air mail flight between Washington, D.C. and New York City on May 18, 1918.
The first air mail flight between Washington, D.C. and New York City on May 18, 1918.

“The fatality rate for the Air Mail Service was one per 789,000 miles flown between 1922-1925, while the comparable figure for itinerant commercial fliers (for 1924 only) was one per 13,500,” according to an FAA report.

Impressed by the safety of the Air Mail Service, the commercial aviation industry had actually sought government oversight in the early 1920’s. However, the government did not see the industry as important enough to regulation.

It was not until 1925, when the government decided to turn over air mail delivery to private pilots, that lawmakers decided that regulation of the industry was necessary. The following year, Congress passed the Air Commerce Act (ACA) that established the Aeronautics Branch to oversee aviation safety.

 Air Crash West of Visalia, Calif., 1920s (Credit: Tulare County Library)
Air Crash West of Visalia, Calif., 1920s (Credit: Tulare County Library)

So, just as the government had begun regulating the accident-prone industry, Lindbergh’s flight ignited a boom in commercial aviation. The result were backlogs in licensing and inspections made worse by the penny pinching Coolidge Administration.

The combination had deadly consequences. As more people took to the skies, the number of aviation deaths in the United States and worldwide soared. The years 1928 and 1929 were the deadliest in history for U.S. air carriers.

U.S. Air Carrier Safety Indices, 1920-1975
U.S. Air Carrier Safety Indices, 1920-1975

Efforts by the U.S. government and private industry to improve safety paid off by the late 1930’s, although there were fluctuation in accident rates.

Between March 26, 1939, the date of a fatal Braniff crash, and August 31, 1940, when 25 died in a Pennsylvania-Central crash, U.S. domestic airlines flew 1.4 billion passenger miles without a fatal accident. The fatality rate per passenger mile for 1939 as a whole was just a quarter of that in 1938, which, in turn, was about half that in 1936-37.  Then, in the eight months after the reorganization, there were five fatal airline crashes, and the 1940 fatality nearly tripled that for 1939.

It’s interesting to speculate what might have happened if no one had won the Orteig Prize. Commercial aviation would have undoubtedly grown at a much slower pace. Airlines would have gained increased passenger bookings in response to improvements in safety and capabilities, not due to the excitement over a lucky pilot’s stunt flight across the ocean.

A New Prize for Space

Nearly 70 years after Lindbergh’s flight, Peter Diamandis took the Orteig Prize as the inspiration for the X Prize (later the Ansari X Prize), a $10 million competition launched in May 1996 for the first privately-built crewed vehicle to fly to space twice within two weeks.

Although the Ansari X Prize attracted far more teams (25, to be precise) than the Orteig Prize, only one was a serious contender. Burt Rutan and his Scaled Composites team, backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, claimed the prize with SpaceShipOne on Oct. 4, 2004. The first flight had been made five days earlier.

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)

By winning the Ansari X Prize, Rutan proved that a commercial company could fly someone to space with a small team and a small budget. The prize brought legitimacy to space tourism, inspired others to follow their own space dreams, and bring investment into the field.

On hand for the final prize-winning flight was British billionaire Richard Branson, who pledged to spend more than $100 million for Rutan to develop a larger follow-on vehicle called SpaceShipTwo. The confident billionaire predicted commercial flights would begin in three years, with more than 500 passengers flying during the first 12 months of operation.

The Long Pause

SpaceShipTwo's right boom. (Credit: NTSB)
SpaceShipTwo’s right boom. (Credit: NTSB)

Nearly 12 years have passed since that promise without SpaceShipTwo flying anywhere near space. A decade of development and testing culminated on Oct. 31, 2014, with the breakup of the ship in flight and the death of Scaled Composites co-pilot Mike Alsbury. The program has been grounded ever since as Virgin Galactic builds a second spacecraft.

The lack of progress reflects the differences between commercial aviation and spaceflight at the time the Orteig and Ansari X prize were won. It is also the result of specific decisions Rutan and Scaled made to win the prize and develop the two spacecraft.

The Orteig Prize gave a spark to an existing industry that was struggling to compete with other established forms of transportation to serve worldwide markets for the point-to-point transportation of people and cargo. Aviation was able to take market share from competitors and expand the overall pie because of its unique capabilities.

Nothing comparable existed for commercial space when Rutan won the Ansari X Prize. There was no suborbital industry, no existing capabilities, no lucrative point to point markets to serve, no mass of people ready to switch from other forms of transportation. Everything had to be built from the ground up.

The Ansari X Prize did not produce multiple viable space companies. None of the other 24 teams in the competition came close to winning it. Only one – ARCA – is still in business today. It has not come anywhere close to building a vehicle capable of flying people to space.

Prizes & Technological Advancement

SpaceShipOne lands after its historic spaceflight on June 21, 2004. (Credit: Ian Kluft)
SpaceShipOne lands after its historic spaceflight on June 21, 2004. (Credit: Ian Kluft)

While the Spirit of St. Louis contributed little to aviation from a technical standpoint, SpaceShipOne tested out new technologies and concepts for its successor. SpaceShipOne was the first crewed vehicle to be powered by a hybrid engine. The carbon composites spaceship also featured a unique feather system that reconfigured the vehicle for re-entry.

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

Under a normal flight test program, Scaled would have flown SpaceShipOne scores of times to test out the new systems, find flaws and weaknesses, and develop a full understanding of how it performed over time. The vehicle would have carried passengers in the two seats behind the pilot instead of the ballast that was flown in their place during the two prize winning flights.

Instead, SpaceShipOne’s flight test program was remarkably short. It flew only 13 times, with seven glide and six powered flights. Only three of the powered flights reached space. On two of the three space flights, the pilot ran into serious problems.

The short flight test schedule was driven by the Ansari X Prize; it was due to expire on Dec. 31, 2004. SpaceShipOne won the prize with less than three months to spare.

Rutan wanted to continue flying SpaceShipOne with passengers as a way to popularize space tourism. However, his financial backer, Paul Allen, had been unnerved by the problems experienced during the flight test program. If flights had continued, an accident might have killed people and destroyed the ship.

Allen had a financial incentive to stop the flights; the Smithsonian Institution had approached him about donating the vehicle for public display. The Microsoft billionaire could make back part of his $28 million investment by claiming a tax credit for the donation.

SpaceShipOne on display at the National Air & Space Museum. (Credit: NASM)
SpaceShipOne on display at the National Air & Space Museum. (Credit: NASM)

So, after achieving the singular goal for which it was built, SpaceShipOne was shipped off to the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C. An opportunity to fully flight test the systems and technologies to be incorporated into SpaceShipTwo was lost.

SpaceShipTwo Emerges

Rutan and Branson then focused on developing SpaceShipTwo for the space tourism market. What emerged was a vehicle significantly different from its predecessor in size and design.

While SpaceShipOne was about the size of the X-1 rocket plane with seating for three people in a small cockpit, its successor was the size of a business jet with space for two pilots and six passengers in a roomy cabin where they could float around weightless.

The changes meant that Scaled Composites would be essentially developing a new prototype that would have to be fully tested. It also would need to build a much larger mother ship called WhiteKnightTwo to air launch SpaceShipTwo.

Sporting some shiny new tail booms, SpaceShipTwo touches down at the Mojave Air and Space Port after a glide flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
Sporting some shiny new tail booms, SpaceShipTwo touches down at the Mojave Air and Space Port after a glide flight. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

In other words, SpaceShipTwo would require a full-scaled development program that would take longer than the three years Branson predicted. Sources say this reality caused tension between Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic.

Branson and Virgin Galactic appeared to view SpaceShipTwo as a high-flying airplane that could be quickly built and tested. Rutan knew it was a complex first-generation spaceship that used raw and immature technologies subject to failures.

As a result, two different claims about the safety of SpaceShipTwo emerged. Rutan said the risks would be similar to early commercial airliners of the 1920’s, which were quite accident prone. Eager to sell tickets, Virgin Galactic claimed the vehicle would be thousands of times safer than previous crewed spacecraft.

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

Some experts felt Rutan should switch to a liquid fuel engine for SpaceShipTwo. While liquid motors were the standard in the industry going back 60 years, hybrids were a relatively new technology that few companies had used. There wasn’t a whole lot of experience with them; the six powered flights with SpaceShipOne were not much of a baseline for further development.

A reusable liquid engine that could be used on many flights would be far less expensive in the long run. By contrast, the hybrid motor could only be used once before being replaced. This was a bit akin to having to replace your car engine after a round trip between Washington, D.C. and New York City.

Rutan decided to stick with what he knew. The decision would have severe consequences for the program.

A Bitter Feud

Jim Benson (Credit: SpaceDev)
Jim Benson (Credit: SpaceDev)

A company called SpaceDev developed the nitrous oxide-rubber hybrid motor used in SpaceShipOne in partnership with Scaled Composites. The collaboration started off well enough; however, Rutan and SpaceDev’s founder, Jim Benson, were soon at loggerheads. The two men came to hate each other, argued over which company deserved the most credit for the engine, and reportedly once got into a fist fight during a space conference.

By the time of the Ansari X Prize winning flights, Rutan was downplaying SpaceDev’s contribution, claiming that Scaled Composites had done most of the work, and that its partner was primarily a components supplier. This claim enraged officials at SpaceDev.

During the broadcast of the final Ansari X Prize flight, Benson and his team were banned from appearing on camera. However, they could be seen in the background holding up signs saying SpaceDev built the rocket engine.

When it came to developing SpaceShipTwo, Rutan broke off relations with Benson and SpaceDev and decided to go it alone.

The Perils of Bringing Development In House

Bringing technology in-house that has been developed elsewhere is a tricky proposition. In 2014, SpaceX dumped the helium bottle supplier for its Falcon 9 booster and began producing the component itself. Months of launch delays followed as the company dealt with helium leaks. There was things the supplier had done in manufacturing the bottles that SpaceX hadn’t learned.

Rutan and his team also faced a steep learning curve. The hybrid turned out to be a nightmare to scale up for the much larger SpaceShipTwo. Virbrations and oscillations would plague the test program for a decade. SpaceShipTwo’s first three powered flights had engine burns of no longer than 20 seconds due to these problems.

The problem was exacerbated by the fact that Scaled had designed the ship before nailing down the engine it was going to use. This is the reverse of how most vehicles are designed. Normally one builds the ship around the engine’s size and capabilities.

Rutan and his team were also ignorant of a danger lurking in plain sight, one that would have far more serious consequences.

On a scorching hot afternoon in July 2007, Scaled Composites engineers prepared to conduct a cold-flow of nitrous oxide. The oxidizer would flow through a newly designed valve the engineers were testing. It was called a cold flow because there was no igniter or fuel present.

Three seconds into the 15-second test, the nitrous oxide tank exploded in a deafening blast that sent debris flying across the desert. Because no one thought the test hazardous, the area around the test stand had not been cleared of personnel. Three Scaled engineers standing nearby were killed by flying debris, three others hospitalized with serious injuries.

A memorial plaque to three Scaled Composites engineers killed in 2007 is displayed in Mojave's Legacy Park. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
A memorial plaque to three Scaled Composites engineers killed in 2007 is displayed in Mojave’s Legacy Park. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

In the wake of the accident, Rutan claimed there was no way to know that nitrous oxide could explode in the way it did. He pointed out that cold flow tests had been run many times before without incident.

The first assertion is questionable; it was known at the time that nitrous oxide is a mono-propellant, which means that under certain conditions it can explode on its own without the presence of fuel.

There had been other accidents with it in the past. In 2001, a tanker truck exploded during a routine transfer operation in Holland when the pump overheated, causing widespread damage. The driver of the tanker truck was only saved because he had left the area.

Propulsion engineers who worked with nitrous oxide knew it was a tricky oxidizer, one that had to be handled with the utmost care. Another company in Mojave had already decided to abandon using nitrous oxide after realizing its volatility.

The fact the test had been run successfully in the past was not a very good answer for failing to clear the area. Safety practices are not based on the 10 times that a test succeeds; they’re in place for the 11th time when it fails catastrophically. Rutan and his engineers had not envisioned that worst-case scenario.

The Road Not Taken

As with the Orteig Prize, it’s interesting to speculate how commercial space might have developed if there had been no Ansari X Prize. Unlike aviation, a gradual buildup of capabilities would have been far more difficult because not much of a commercial space industry existed at the time. There wasn’t an existing sector waiting for a spark.

Perhaps a prize focused on the space industry’s biggest challenge — a reusable rocket engine that could be used in aircraft-style operations — would have been a better expenditure of money. Once there were scalable versions of the engines, they could have been incorporated into a variety of space vehicles.

The requirements of the Ansari X Prize drove Rutan to make decisions about design and technologies that he might not have made otherwise. We can only speculate about what sort of vehicle he might have built had he not focused everything on winning the $10 million award.

Would Rutan have found financial backing from Allen or someone else to fund his spaceship? Would Branson had entered the sector without Rutan having won the prize? And what would others who were inspired to pursue commercial space ventures by Rutan proving what was possible have done if the competition had not existed?

The only thing we can say for sure is that SpaceShipTwo has taken a terrible toll on Scaled Composites.  A company had not lost any employees before ended up losing four of them in this one program.

Prizes, Stunts & Technology

Spirit of St. Louis on display at the National Air & Space Museum. (Credit: Ad Meskens)
Spirit of St. Louis on display at the National Air & Space Museum. (Credit: Ad Meskens)

Today, SpaceShipOne is displayed beside Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis and Chuck Yeager’s X-1 at the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C. One of these flying machines is not like the other two.

SpaceShipOne and the Spirit of St. Louis were stunt vehicles. They were specifically built to win prizes. Lindbergh’s plane contributed nothing technically to the aviation sector that boomed after his flight. SpaceShipOne’s legacy is more complex, and not entirely positive.

By contrast, the X-1’s contribution to flight was enormous. It was a research aircraft designed to explore high speed flight at Mach 1 and beyond. Multiple X-1’s were build and tested until their research potential was exhausted. The lessons learned were incorporated into future rocket planes and supersonic aircraft.

Prizes are useful in bringing credibility to an industry, inspiring entrepreneurs and investors, and attracting new customers to an industry. Both the aviation and space benefited from the Orteig and Ansari X prizes.

But, by challenging people to perform what are essentially stunts, they do not always address the fundamental technologies required to truly move a sector forward. And that can have deadly consequences.

Lindbergh’s flight greatly boosted an accident-prone commercial aviation industry at a time when efforts to improve its safety had barely begun. The accident and death rates increased.

Winning the Ansari X Prize left Rutan and his team over confident in themselves and their technology based on an incomplete flight test program. The result has been four deaths and more than a decade of frustration and broken promises.

The Series

  • It’s interesting to infer people’s motivations from their actions. While Paul Allen was interested in winning the X-Prize, he wasn’t really interested in commercializing space travel. I keep coming back to the “what might have been” question if he HAD been interested in doing Burt Rutan’s long flight test program. 50, 100, 200 flights, whatever. That would have led to a very good understanding of the vehicle.

    I thought the reason to have CHEAP spaceflight was so you could test again and again and really wring all bugs out, rather than analyze and inspect all the bugs out like current aerospace practice. What might have been…

  • Douglas Messier

    Coulda woulda shouda….

    In a perfect world, the best role might have been for Branson to sponsor the X Prize and then for Virgin to serve as an commercial operator of any technology that came out of it.

    Not sure that Virgin was the best development partner for Scaled. Virgin is good at running mature technologies like planes and trains. Virgin had no experience in actually building anything high tech. And Scaled was really good at prototyping new vehicles but not necessarily good at production.