A Look at the History of Suborbital Spaceflight

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

With Richard Branson once again predicting that Virgin Galactic will fly SpaeShipTwo into space before the end of the year, it seems like a good time to take a look at the history of suborbital spaceflight.

The number of manned suborbital flights varies depending upon the definition you use. The internationally recognized boundary is 100 km (62.1 miles), which is also known as the Karman line. The U.S. Air Force awarded astronaut wings to any pilot who exceeded 80.5 km (50 miles).

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Mojave: The Once and Future Spaceport

Sunset from the Mojave Air and Space Port on Oct. 30, 2014. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

At some point in the next six months, the Mojave Air and Space Port could experience something that not happened here in 13 long years: an actual spaceflight.

Richard Branson is predicting that Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Unity could reach space on a flight test from Mojave by December. For once, his prediction does not appear to be based on unrealistic hopes, the need to reassure customers about delays, or a complete misunderstanding of what is happening on the ground here.

In other words, it’s actually plausible. Whether it will happen on that schedule…that’s another question. Flight test is notoriously unpredictable and very tough on timetables.

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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.

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Mojave Journal: Good Rockets are Hard to Find

Stratolaunch carrier aircraft rolled out of its hangar for the first time. (Credit: Stratolaunch)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Checking my messages on Wednesday at LAX after a long flight from back east, I was startled to learn that Paul Allen’s ginormous Stratolaunch aircraft had been rolled out of its hangar for the first time in Mojave while I was in transit.

I had been expecting some official roll-out ceremony later this year ala SpaceShipTwo where the press and public could get a good look at the twin fuselage, WhiteKnightTwo-on-steroids air-launch platform.

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Author of SpaceShipOne Book to Visit Mojave

how_make_spaceship_coverThe author of a new book about the Ansari X Prize and SpaceShipOne will be in Mojave this Saturday, Nov. 19, to give a talk and sign books.

Julian Guthrie will be at the Mariah Country Inn & Suites at 1385 Highway 58 from 2 to 4 p.m. The inn is located next to the main entrance to the Mojave Air and Space Port.

Other participants in the event include: Brian Binnie and Mike Melvill, two Scaled Composites who flew SpaceShipOne to space; Matt Stinemetze, the program’s lead engineer; and aerodynamicist Bob Hoey.

Guthrie’s book chronicles the history of the $10 million prize, the development of SpaceShipOne, and the prize-winning suborbital flights of the first privately-built crewed space vehicle.

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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.

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Chuck Yeager: Not a Big Fan of SpaceShipOne

Gen. Chuck Yeager has been doing ask me anything sessions on Twitter over the last few days. If nothing else, he’s been candid. He apparently doesn’t think much of SpaceShipOne.

A Tale of Two Prizes

SpaceShipOne on the floor beside the Spirit of St. Louis of the National Air & Space Museum. (Credit: National Air & Space Museum)
SpaceShipOne on the floor beside the Spirit of St. Louis of the National Air & Space Museum. (Credit: National Air & Space Museum)

Two major flight-related anniversaries are being celebrated this week. Today marks the 89th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo flight across the Atlantic aboard the Spirit of St. Louis. Lucky Lindy took off from New York on this date and arrived in Paris some 33.5 hours later, claiming the $25,000 Orteig Prize.

Wednesday was the 20th anniversary of the launch of X Prize (later Ansari X Prize). Inspired by the Orteig Prize, it offered $10 million for the first privately build vehicle to fly to suborbital space twice within two weeks. The Ansari X Prize was won in October 2004 by a team led by Burt Rutan and Paul Allen with SpaceShipOne.

After Lindbergh’s flight, a public that had previously shunned commercial aviation embraced it with a passion. Following the Ansari X Prize, Richard Branson vowed to begin flying tourists to space aboard a successor vehicle, SpaceShipTwo, within three years. Nearly a dozen years and four deaths later, Branson has yet to fulfill this promise.

The SpaceShipTwo program has now taken longer than it took for NASA to go from President John F. Kennedy proposal to land a man on the moon to the completion of the program with the splashdown of Apollo 17. NASA launched the space shuttle Columbia exactly 20 years after the first spaceflight by Yuri Gagarin.

So, why have things taken so long? And why did one prize succeed beyond the dreams of its sponsor, while the space prize it inspired has promised so few practical results? The answer is a complex one that I addressed back in March in a story titled, “Prizes, Technology and Safety.” I’ve republished the story below with links to other posts in a series about flight safety.

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Boldly Going Where 14 Men Have Gone Before

For nearly a dozen years, Virgin Galactic has used the number of individuals who have flown into space as a target to shoot for once the company began suborbital space tourism service. Virgin promised to double the number, which was around 500 when the company launched in 2004, within the first year of operation. That year was originally targeted for 2007 in the confident days after the success of SpaceShipOne.

That goal has long since faded away, and it’s unlikely Virgin will double the number of space travelers during the first year. In any event, the number of space travelers cited by Virgin has always been a bit misleading. The company’s well heeled customers, who are paying upwards of $250,000 per flight, will actually be joining a much more elite group on their suborbital flights.

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So Exactly How Safe Will SpaceShipTwo Be?

Richard Branson rolls out Virgin Galactic's Spaceship Unity in Mojave. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
Richard Branson rolls out Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Unity in Mojave. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Part 5 of 6

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

With the recent roll out of VSS Unity, Virgin Galactic marked a symbolic milestone in its recovery from the October 2014 accident that destroyed the first SpaceShipTwo and killed pilot Mike Alsbury.

Two questions loomed large over the celebrity-studded event. When will it fly? And how safe will it be when it does?

Company officials gave no timeline on the first question. Their answers about SpaceShipTwo’s safety differed significantly from previous claims they made over the last 11.5 years.

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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.

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Early Aviation & the Safety of Space Tourism

Crashed Boeing Model 299 at Wright Field, Ohio in 1934.
Crashed Boeing Model 299 at Wright Field, Ohio in 1934.

Part 2 of 6

“I question whether our insatiable appetite for total safety is serving the needs of the exploring human inside us.”

– Stu Witt, former CEO & General Manager, Mojave Air & Space Port

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

After he won the $10 million Ansari X Prize with SpaceShipOne in October 2004, Scaled Composites Founder Burt Rutan had two goals for the SpaceShipTwo suborbital tourism vehicle he was building for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

He vowed the vehicle would be at least 100 times safer than any human spacecraft that had ever flow. And the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) would certify the spaceship in a manner similar to way the agency certifies aircraft.

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Stu Witt Retires From Mojave Spaceport in Style

Stu Witt (center) stands with Congressman Kevin McCarthy, X Prize Chairman Peter Diamandis, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides and others in front of a replica of SpaceShipOne. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
Stu Witt (center) stands with Congressman Kevin McCarthy, X Prize Chairman Peter Diamandis, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides and others in front of a replica of SpaceShipOne. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

They came to Mojave from near and far — from the dusty desert communities of Lancaster, Boron and Ridgecrest to the snow swept tundra of Sweden — to send Stu Witt off in style. One of the most powerful men in Washington, D.C. played hooky from Congress to wish his friend a happy retirement.

Hundreds of people gathered on Jan. 8 to mark the end of Witt’s nearly 14-year term as CEO and general manager of the Mojave Air and Space Port. The event featured a reception and a long parade of friends and colleagues singing his praises.

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Missing the Significance of Blue Origin’s Landing Milestone

It has occurred to me in recent days that the significance Blue Origin’s landing of its New Shepard rocket and capsule last month has been totally misconstrued by the public, press and most of the commentators on this blog. Now, I don’t really blame them for this; I blame Jeff Bezos.

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