Thirteen Years Ago Today in Mojave…

Me on the right with the video camera filming White Knight with SpaceShipOne on the taxiway prior to the first commercial spaceflight. (Credit: John Criswick)

Thirteen years ago I was on the Mojave flight line to watch Mike Melvill make the first private spaceflight aboard SpaceShipOne.

I remember well the excitement of that day, the feeling that a new era of human spaceflight lay right around the corner. Today, there’s really only one thing to say:

All the hype we’ve been listening to for the last 13 years about how great SpaceShipOne and the Ansari X Prize were and what great things they did. Meanwhile, SpaceShipTwo has dragged on longer than the entire Apollo moon program without flying to space. And there have been no other commercial human spaceflights, either.

In terms of inspiration, these things were great. A bit of a disaster from a technological standpoint.


  • ThomasLMatula

    I was there watching it from the XCOR area. Yes, the expectations greatly exceed the actual event.

  • ReSpaceAge

    Still interested to see if Blue Origin makes a profitable business case with New Shepard. I route off these Space plane fantasies years ago. I would ride a New Shepard tomorrow if I could afford it.
    I recall when SpaceX bailed on stratolaunch years ago and figured he had good reasons.

  • Chad Overton

    Not sure you can say the success of the Xprize was what caused commercial space to not materialize. The one company that had momentum (VG) squandered it by making bad engineering choices. Btw not saying I’m some insightful informed critic, Tuesday AM QBs and such. But it still raises a relivent question which is – Would commercial space have succeeded if VG/Scaled/TheSpaceShipCompany simply made some different choices like making sure they had a good rocket motor first?

  • Douglas Messier

    Probably. Also worth asking if the X Prize had a different name and purpose whether we’d be further along. Rather than high profile prizes why not put the money toward actual tech development? Systematically address the issues with reusable technology that you need to make spaceflight affordable. It’s never going to be affordable if you have to replace the engine after each flight.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

  • Robert G. Oler

    no engine and high cost….you have to have a business model that works

  • nathankoren

    I was also there that day, watching from Xcor’s spot on the flight line. Hard to believe it’s been 13 years — and yes, the results have been disappointing.

    I think the brightest legacy of the Xprize is quite indirect, flowing through Armadillo Aerospace, which Elon Musk frequently cited his admiration of during the early days of SpaceX. That *has* gone somewhere!

  • windbourne

    i doubt that is why musk bailed on SL. I suspect highly that they were simply stretched to the max on human and financial resources.

    At this time, I am hoping that Allen will consider buying one of rocket companies and simply devote their resources and expertise to building these.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Of course one of the secrets of the X-Prize was that Peter didn’t have the money for it until he discovered “hole in one” insurance and finally got the Ansari family to donate enough for the policy. So he never had any money to invest in it.

    Of course the sad thing is that it focused everything into suborbital tourists flights and in doing so resulted in folks overlooking the SER markets that could have funded more modest uncrewed reusable suborbital vehicles. Its no accident that the only space flights that have taken place out of Spaceport America was to service those markets.

    New Mexico would have been in a much better position if it had focused on those markets first and only spent the money on the expensive terminal and runway after VG demonstrated it was ready for them. But sadly the state threw good sense aside because of the Ansari X-Prize and the nearly forgotten Wirefly X-Prize Cup. This is the real damage the Ansari X-Prize has done to the industry.

    Also, as Paul Allen told in his biography, SpaceShipOne would have been a very different vehicle if Burt Rutan hadn’t bought into the Ansari X-Prize hype. It would have been optimized for one person and had higher performance as a result. It would have also been flown as a X-vehicle should be flown, to explore and expand the knowledge of aerospace flight. Instead it was focused on the Ansari X-Prize, cut corners to meet the deadline, and ended up in a museum adding very little to our knowledge of small high performance rocket planes. This resulted in SpaceShipTwo having to do double duty as both a X-Vehicle and a commercial passenger craft, which explains the delays, fatal accident and other problems that have plagued it, and probably ones that haven’t bit them yet.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    One of the lessons learned might be this … To the libertarians out there who rail at Apollo leading to nothing. Well guess what? It’s an easy trip to fall into no matter if you’re a entity funded and mandated by the public, or if you’re an entity entirely privately owned and operated by the private sector. The problem is not politics, it’s the simple fact that while expanding into a totally new environment we’re going to take wrong turns that lead to dead ends, complicating that, our own social ills will take a completely viable path and turn it into a dead end. Get used to it, welcome to the space age.

    P.S. I was there too. The vibe I got from a lot of people in the crowd was that they had no understanding of what was happening.

  • Douglas Messier

    BYOB! Believing your own bullshit.

    Rutan bought into the hype around these flights. So did Diamandis. So did a lot of other people.

    NASA was inept. They were smarter than the government. They could do
    it better and faster and cheaper and safer. Not just Burt believed this, but it filtered up and down the flight line in Mojave.

    The moment you start believing you’ve got human spaceflight figured out is when you start down the road to a bad day. Or two.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    I remember facepalming myself when I watched that guy run up to SS1 with a sign that read “Spaceship 1, Government Zero”.

  • JamesG

    I don’t know how you make money with a one seat SS1 unless you sell it to the government or a handful of them to rich guys with death wishes. There was/is already plenty of knowledge about high-performance rocket planes. A littl’er SS1 would have just been a “budget X-15” and it would still be in a museum. The point of the exercise was to develop something that could carry people to space, the reason why Rutan’s rocketplane isn’t doing the job it was designed for was because Virgin’s accountants got into the act and convinced them that if 3/2 was good, 8/7 (or whatever the number winds up being) would be great!

  • publiusr

    Heady times. What made me angry was how some of that bunch of newspacers dumped on NASA–wanting to raid its budget–going after Mike Griffin.

    Now all they have is hot air.

  • duheagle

    Well, Mike Griffin and the puffed-up New Spacers are now united in that each has the only manned vehicle to actually fly in space on their watch on exhibit in the National Air and Space Museum, albeit not at the same site.

    VG is eminently snipe-able. Doug snipes at VG because he’s a journalist and that’s his job when a target is snipe-worthy. Paleo Spacers sniping at VG, though, put me a bit in mind of the possibly apocryphal lady who is said to have upbraided Winston Churchill on one occasion because he was drunk.

    “Yes, Madame,” Churchill is said to have replied, “I am drunk. But you are ugly. And in the morning I shall be sober.”

    I doubt VG will ever be a roaring success. But, even if it involves a weapons-grade hangover, I think VG has a decent probability of seeing “sobriety” in the next couple years. VG is plainly far too ornery to simply up and die, else that would have happened by now.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Paul Allen had zero interest in making money on SpaceShipOne version 1.0. He just wanted to see if a low cost piloted suborbital rocket plane could be built and see what it could do.

    ‘“Burt had already begun thinking about a supersonic plane that could fly above the atmosphere,” Allen writes. Two years later, in Seattle, this
    idea took the form of a crewed suborbital rocket. At the time, Allen
    said he had a relatively narrow goal: “I wanted to do something in
    rocketry that no one had done before.””

    “Although Rutan attended the St. Louis event in May 1996 that formally
    announced the X PRIZE and was the first to register for the competition,
    Allen notes in the book that their effort was not originally designed
    to win the prize: in fact, the original vehicle design was apparently
    only intended to carry a single person. ”

    First, you get it to work and understand how it works, like the Wright Brothers did. Then you build it bigger and better.

  • duheagle

    Well, he recently hired a rocket guy who’s been at least a medium-tall Indian on pretty much every rocket engine development project of consequence in the last 20 years. Probably both cheaper and more useful than buying a whole company.

  • JamesG

    As I believe you or someone else have noted previously, Paul Allen isn’t exactly the most astute investor in the world. If Rutan et. al. had followed Allen’s instincts, I doubt even very many people here would remember SS1, and it sure wouldn’t be an ongoing (if stumbling) concern today.

    “First, you get it to work and understand how it works, like the Wright Brothers did. Then you build it bigger and better.”

    Except we already understand how it works. High altitude flight and reentry were well worn paths at Mojave.

  • patb2009

    what vehicle did Mike Griffin work on?

  • redneck

    Somebody should go after Mike Griffin for bringing the Aries disaster after he was on record years earlier advocating better architectures that could have resulted no gap at all. Either Mike or whoever pulled his strings or both.

  • publiusr

    He just didn’t like folks trying to shove EELVs down his throat.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Perhaps. Perhaps suborbital tourism would be so routine now from a follow on design one would get excited by it.

    Also you forget the selling point, the feathered tail. High Altitude flight and entry may be well known for heavy titanium and aluminum supersonic craft that just push their way by brute force through the high heat of reentry. But Burt Rutan’s whole point was you could build a light composite craft that avoided the high levels of heat and stress. That was a new flight envelope to explore.

  • savuporo

    The entire suborbital hype kind of just didnt work at all. Beyond trusty old sounding rockets and weather balloons, cant really say there is a bustling suborbital launch industry

  • savuporo

    But it had never been done with an oversized toy motor, so that’s new /s

  • redneck

    He was the one advocating them shortly before. I wonder what his percentage was for the switch.

  • savuporo

    Citation ? Armadillo was formed in 2000, SpaceX in 2002. Can’t have been a lot of inspiration, as in 2002 Carmack’s crew wasn’t doing anything much interesting. Besides, regardless of all their hype of low cost approach to building stuff they .. never actually got to space.

  • Douglas Messier

    Sadly the feather was only half brilliant. Scaled could not get past its aviation heritage in evaluating risk. The first analysis was approved by a FAA official with minimal experience. Instead of making them do it right, FAA issued a waiver for pilot and software errors.

    Whether proper analysis would have addressed the issue that caused the crash we will never know.

    “The game changes above 50,000 feet.” one of the FAA official said this in an interview. Took a crash for Scaled and VG to grasp it.

  • Douglas Messier

    The prize was very inspirational because it was so high profile and audacious. It showed what could be done. But it was only 1 of many newspace projects going on at the time.

    A key thing is nobody wanted to fund the prize. Elon didn’t put money into it. Bezos was asked but said no. They preffered to invest in their own hardware. SpaceX has been much more impactful than anything the prize inspired. Bezos is on his way.

  • publiusr

    I don’t know that it was pay-off by ATK. We are always going to have to prop-up energetics. The EELV models of depots would have allowed endless flights of Delta IVs with hydrogen boil-off as a way to sell more. Shuttle-derived HLLVs would eat into that–so they ginned up all the AresV hate that persists with SLS bashing.

  • redneck

    As you said, it would have allowed endless flights. Instead we have endless excuses