Future Imperfect: The Ansari XPrize, SpaceShipOne & Private Spaceflight

how_make_spaceship_coverHow to Make a Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, An Epic Race, and the Birth of Private Spaceflight
by Julian Guthrie
Penguin Press, 2016
Hardcover, 448 pages
ISBN 978-1-59420-672-6
US $28/Canada $37

Reviewed by Douglas Messier

On Sept. 8, I arrived home at about half past noon to find a package sitting on my doorstep. It was a review copy of a new book by Julian Guthrie about the Ansari XPrize and SpaceShipOne titled, How to Make a Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, An Epic Race, and the Birth of Private Spaceflight.

I laughed. The timing was perfect. Ken Brown and I had just spent five hours in the desert — most of them in the rising heat of a late summer day — waiting for WhiteKnightTwo to take off carrying SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity on its first captive carry test flight.

It was the first flight in nearly two years of a SpaceShipTwo vehicle since Unity’s sister ship, VSS Enterprise, had broken up during a Halloween test flight, killing co-pilot Mike Alsbury. Ken and I had been there on that day, too.

As I leafed through Guthrie’s book, I was left to ponder anew a question that had preoccupied me for years. If the Ansari X Prize and the SpaceShipOne vehicle that won it had been the amazing successes this book claimed they were, why had a dozen years passed without a single commercial suborbital flight?

The successor SpaceShipTwo program had consumed hundreds of millions of dollars and taken four lives without once ever flying anywhere near space. Nor had any other company accomplished this feat.

Like flying cars and Chicago Cubs’ World Series titles, the era of commercial space tourism that SpaceShipOne was to have heralded seemed to be perpetually just out of reach, a series of wait ’til next years that have come, gone and inevitably failed to deliver on much of anything.

If you’re looking for an explanation of why this is so, you won’t find it in this book. Guthrie chooses to focus on the triumph of 2004 and what led up to it, not the imperfect future we inhabit today.

What you will find is a very entertaining and well written inside history of the Ansari X Prize, with portraits of the major players involved and a recounting of SpaceShipTwo’s nail-biting flights. It would make a fine addition to your library.

The hero of the story is Peter Diamandis. Guthrie follows him as an 8-year old watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon through MIT and Harvard Medical School to his rejection of a medical career to pursue his dreams of space.

Along the way, Diamandis co-founds the student space group SEDS, the International Space University, and a handful of commercial ventures both successful (Space Adventures) and otherwise (Blastoff Corporation, the inspiration for the Google Lunar X Prize).

Inspired by reading Charles Lindbergh’s autobiography, The Spirit of St. Louis, Diamandis decided to emulate the $25,000 Orteig Prize the famous aviator won for his solo, non-stop flight between New York and Paris in 1927.

Lucky Lindy’s flight had electrified the world and convinced the public, which had shied away from air travel because of its poor safety record, to take to the skies in record numbers.

Diamandis hoped the $10 million XPrize would do something similar for human spaceflight, an expensive endeavor controlled by government space agencies. To win the prize, a competitor would have to fly a privately-built, crewed spacecraft above 100 km (62 miles) twice within two weeks.

Diamandis announced the $10 million prize in 1996 without having the money. He struggled for years to raise the prize funds with limited success; he eventually took out an insurance policy written by a company that bet against the prize being won by the Dec. 31, 2004 deadline. He convinced the family of Anousheh Ansari family, which had grown wealthy during the telecom boom, to pay the premiums.

Although dozens of groups signed up for the competition, only one team — led by Burt Rutan and backed by Microsoft co-founded Paul Allen — had the right combination of technical chops and funding to win the prize. No other groups even came close.

Guthrie does an excellent job of profiling the eccentric Rutan, a legendary aircraft designer best known for designing the Voyager aircraft that his brother, Dick, and Jeana Yeager had flown around the world nonstop in 1986.

The author describes the struggle of Rutan and his small Scaled Composites team to design, test and fly SpaceShipOne without getting anyone killed. Along the way, we meet test pilots Mike Melvill and Brian Binnie, who would make the prize winning flights, and other members of Rutan’s crew. They worked hand-in-glove through some white knuckle flights.

The author also weaves in the story of Charles Lindbergh’s grandson, Erik. Beset by health problems and drifting a bit through life, Erik found purpose in supporting the Ansari X Prize. In 2002, he retraced his grandfather’s solo New York to Paris flight on its 75th anniversary.

Despite all the other people and all the things they were doing, this is really Diamandis’ story. It hews closely to the heroic, triumphant narrative that he has built around the prize. In the end, the flight are successful, Burt and Paul win the prize, and a new era of commercial spaceflight is opened.

And that’s basically where Guthrie leaves things. Although more than a few of the problems the industry and the SpaceShipTwo program have experienced can be traced back to the prize and how it was won, the author really isn’t interested in exploring them. They don’t fit the narrative.

In an epilogue that updates readers on what everyone has been doing since 2004, Guthrie largely glosses over the exceedingly slow progress and the accidents that killed four of Scaled Composites employees. (She briefly mentions Alsbury’s death, but ignores three engineers who died in a 2007 test stand accident.)

Despite these shortcomings, Guthrie has produced a really well written book that tells a very inspiring story. This might not be the full story, but it’s an entertaining one. It’s definitely worth a read.

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  • Cincy

    Does the book mention America’s Space Prize? This was Bob Bigelow’s attempt to incentivize the commercial humans-to-LEO market. It was announced in 2004 and and terminated 6 years later — without a single attempt to win it. Another testimony to the efficacy of prizes in spurring the commercial human spaceflight industry.

  • ThomasLMatula

    The failure of the Ansari X-Prize just confirms the economic literature on prizes.
    Namely they succeed by stimulating the creativity of crowds, but are only able to do so if the cost of competition is within the range that large number of contestants are able to have a realistic chance of winning. Multi-million and even worst, billion dollar prizes undermine this basic principle and as a result fail to create any real innovation.

  • publiusr

    I don’t call Space Ship one a spaceship. To me spaceship means something of size–in orbit.