15 Years Ago Today….

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

There I am on the Mojave flight line with the video camera. My friends Eric Dahlstrom and his wife, Emeline, are to my left. Behind me taking the photo was John Criswick.

All waiting for Mike Melvill to make history with the first private spaceflight aboard the suborbital SpaceShipOne.

15 years ago today. That’s hard to believe. It seems like a lifetime ago.  So much has happened since then. And, paradoxically, so little.

I remember the optimism of that time. Burt Rutan had extended his reach into space. Space tourism seemed right around the corner.

But, it was a false dawn. As the saying goes, half of what you hear in NewSpace is bullshit, the other half are schedules that are not much better. SpaceShipOne’s successor would have plenty of both.

More than 14 years — equivalent to the time between Alan Shepard’s flight and the splashdown of the last Apollo spacecraft — would pass before SpaceShipTwo would reach the most charitable definition of space.

Those years were marked by two fatal accidents that landed four men in the hospital and four others in the morgue. The road to space tourism has been paved with blood. Hubris. Incompetence. Scapegoating. Evasion of responsibility. And the virtual erasure of the first fatal accident.

But, let’s not dwell on that now. We’ll save it for another time. This is a happy anniversary.

So, here we are again, 15 years after Melvill’s famous flight, on the verge of a new era of space tourism with SpaceShipTwo and Blue Origin’s New Shepard preparing the fly tourists on suborbital joy rides.

Am I optimistic?

That’s not really the right question. It’s not about optimism or pessimism. Obviously, you want these programs to succeed. And for everyone to come back from space safely.

The question is just how much should we care about these ventures.

In 2004, SpaceShipOne was the only game in town. Blue Origin and SpaceX existed as companies, but they had not achieved anything. There wasn’t much of a commercial space sector.

Space has been transformed over the past 15 years. With SpaceX and Boeing preparing to make commercial flights to the space station and NASA aiming for the moon again, the focus is once again on establishing a lasting and permanent human presence in space.

Compared to that, suborbital spaceflight seems much more pedestrian. Yes, tourists will love to float around for several minutes. And it’s useful for developing rocket technology, performing scientific experiments and testing new technologies. And it inspires people to dream.

But, in the end, they go up and come down. They can briefly visit space, but they can’t stay there. It’s like the difference between taking a harbor cruise and sailing a ship across the ocean. It’s the latter capability that really matters as we seek to expand into the cosmos.

So, as we mark the 15th anniversary of the first private spaceflight, I wish those who venture into suborbital space the best of luck. But, my gaze is focused on destinations far above the Karman line.