Private Space Flight

People’s Democracy

Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 28

July 11,

Space Flight



successful flight in the US last week of the entirely private-funded
SpaceShipOne taking 61 year-old pilot Mike Melvill into space made history in a
number of ways. The event has been hailed as a triumph of human ingenuity, a
significant technological innovation and as a great demonstration of the
potential of lean organisational structures to cost-effectively deliver results
even in complex high-tech contexts. A large number of aerospace enthusiasts,
including several officials from NASA, Astronaut Buzz Aldrin who was a part of
the pioneering moon landing, had gathered to watch the launch and landing of
SpaceShipOne at the small airstrip in the Mojave (pronounced mo-hah-vay) desert,
which has now been declared the USA’s first private spaceport licensed to
operate space flights. After the craft had landed safely, a sign held up by one
of the spectators proclaimed: “SpaceShipOne, Government Zero!”


article examines the achievements and limitations represented by SpaceShipOne,
and similar endeavours in the pipeline, for the future of manned space travel.
The article also looks more closely at the loud claims that this space flight
clearly shows the superiority of the private sector over the state sector in all
respects and especially in technological innovation, and that it has opened the
door to space tourism by private individuals, have perhaps been overstated.
relationship between, and comparative performance of, state and private
institutional structures in science and technology cannot be viewed in isolation
but only in their historical contexts, as the story of aviation and space
technologies bring out.




us first look at the flight, the spacecraft itself and the technologies
developed and used to launch it into space.


race to be the first private-sector manned space flight, while going back
several decades in the form of humble if adventurous attempts, similar to the
early and often laughable attempts in aviation, got seriously underway through
the impetus of the “X-Prize” announced in St.Louis, USA, in 1996 by a
foundation headed by Peter Diamandis, co-founder of the X Prize, an award
intended to spur civilian space flight. The idea was to stimulate the
development of a low-cost efficient spacecraft and hence commercial space travel
in much the same way as the $25,000 (about Rs 10 lakh) Orteig Prize for the
first non-stop transatlantic flight, a race won by the famous aviator Charles
Lindbergh of the USA in 1927, acted as an incentive for the development of
commercial air travel. The X Prize endeavour received a major boost with the
donation of a huge additional sum of money by the Iranian-born American space
enthusiast couple, Anousheh and Amir Ansari. This brought the prize money to $10
million (Rs 45 crore), an amount worth seriously striving for quite apart from
the prestige involved, and the award was itself renamed the Ansari X Prize.


award is to go to the team that first launches a 3- person set (simulating a
pilot and 2 passengers format for initial space tourism launches) up into space
(defined as a minimum altitude of 100 kilometres i.e. 62 miles or 328,000 feet
which is the internationally recognized “boundary” between the earth’s
atmosphere and space beyond) and repeats the feat within 2 weeks using the same
craft (which would demonstrate the reliability and repeatability of the
potentially passenger-carrying launch vehicles), all before January 1, 2005.


last week’s launch, White Knight carried SpaceShipOne to an altitude of around
15 km (48,000 feet, around 10,000 feet higher than the cruising altitude of
commercial airliners) when SpaceShipOne separated, glided briefly and then, with
its rocket engines ignited, climbed sharply with a 60 degree angle of climb at a
speed of Mach 3 or three times the speed of sound. (Scaled Composites
incidentally claims that SpaceShipOne is the first private craft to break the
sound barrier). When SpaceShipOne reached 50 km (about 160,000 feet), its rocket
fuel had been exhausted, after which it continued on by sheer momentum,
encountering little resistance in the very thin atmosphere at this altitude, for
another 3 minutes and reached an altitude of 100.12 kilometers (328,491 feet),
barely 400 feet above the targeted international boundary of space, at the top
of its flight with zero velocity i.e. at a virtual halt. The pilot then let the
craft drop back down, gradually guiding it from a free fall to controlled
flight, gliding down from 25 km (80,000 feet) for about 17 minutes.      


the landing itself was very smooth, there were some problems during the flight.
Close to the top of the supersonic climb, pilot Melvil tried to get the
craft’s nose further up when the trim surfaces, or control surfaces on the
craft’s wings, failed. The craft rolled twice through 90 degrees and veered
more than 30 km off course. Fortunately the back-up systems, though built-in to
the aircraft design, were able to take over the restore control of the craft to
its pilot who, soon after, opened a bag of chocolates and watched them float
around as the craft reached an altitude beyond earth’s gravity and where
weightlessness prevailed. 


spectacular achievement of SpaceShipOne demonstrates what is common knowledge in
aerospace circles namely that the Scaled Composites team, led by its founder and
CEO, the highly innovative, experienced and respected aircraft designer Burt
Rutan is way ahead of its rivals including the American Euclid Software’s John
Carmack and Armadillo Aerospace, the da Vinci Project and Canadian Arrow of
Canada, the United Kingdom’s Starchaser and a highly energized team from Poland.
There are totally 26 other registered competing teams from 7 nations, some of
these teams having conducted successful test launches and plan to announce their
competition launches within the next few months. Burt Rutan has many successful
if unusual aircraft designs to his credit including the one which in 1986
achieved the record for the longest non-stop flight without refueling. Rutan’s
mission here is to establish that “manned space flight does not require
mammoth government expenditures… It can be done by a small company operating
with limited resources and a few dozen dedicated employees.” Scaled Composites
itself has about 150 staff and has developed over 50 aircraft.


Burt Rutan is clearly the brains behind the design team, the SpaceShipOne
project has obviously benefited immensely by the full financial backing it has
received from Paul Allen, the co-founder along with Bill Gates of the software
colossus Microsoft, and reputed to be the fourth richest man in the world.
SpaceShipOne has been developed from drawing board to the successful maiden
space launch in less than a decade starting from 1996 at a total cost of around
$20 million (Rs 90 crore), most of it having been met by Paul Allen — a great
achievement by any measure. Allen has so far kept his cards close to his chest
as to if and how he proposes to translate his investment into a business venture
in space tourism. 




to the technologies used in the craft itself. Burt Ratan’s SpaceShipOne is
itself loaded with innovations. It is a rocket-propelled craft designed
specifically with gliding capabilities with which it can manoevre without power
during landing. The craft is launched from a specially-designed supersonic
aircraft called the White Knight which carries SpaceShipOne under its belly
roughly half-way up in its journey to space. The rear tail-section of
SpaceShipOne can be tilted up or down, enabling the craft to adopt a nose-up
belly-first attitude when re-entering the atmosphere and providing the necessary
braking forces to slow down its descent and reduce heat and mechanical stresses,
with the tail folding back to its normal position for nose-down face-first
gliding during the latter half of the descent.


the craft bore features quite characteristic of Burt Ratan’s designs over the
years. One such feature is his use of canard wings, with the control surfaces
far ahead of the main fuselage and the propulsion systems, a concept long
considered obsolete but used and made popular once again by Rutan. His use of
extra-long narrow wings, quite similar to the wings of gulls and other
sea-faring birds helpful in maintaining long glides, another Rutan trademark
used to dramatic effect to achieve substantial lift increasing the aircraft’s
endurance and reducing fuel costs, was again in evidence.


the entire design-development process of both SpaceShipOne and White Knight have
been accomplished through computer simulations and over 47 flights without any
of the conventional, and expensive, wind tunnel testing and other test-bed
experiments common to most aviation and aerospace development. This is not just
a testament to the confidence of the Scaled Composites team in their design but
mostly due to huge advances in computational capabilities now available even to
relatively small design outfits such as Burt Rutan’s. Over the years a vast
amount of experience and data have been generated in aviation and space fields,
a major proportion of it through governmental or government-supported research,
which is now available in the public domain. Advances in computers have now
enabled design groups to conduct rigorous testing of designs through computer
simulation which, even a decade ago, would have been unimaginable except in very
large public institutions or private corporations.


propulsion system or rocket motor used by SpaceShipOne is a hybrid engine, a
cross between traditional solid and liquid fuel rocket motors. In SpaceShipOne
in which the different constituents of the propellant come together only during
the combustion process rather than being pre-mixed as in the solid rocket
booster (SRBs) used in NASA’s Space Shuttle built by Boeing or filled into
tanks (as liquid oxygen and hydrogen) just prior to launch. In both the latter
cases, the propellants are highly volatile and can be toxic to handle besides
having negative environmental consequences. SpaceShipOne uses hydroxy-terminated
polybutadiene (HTPB) — in which ISRO has recently taken great interest and
developed one of the world’s few facilities —  a common ingredient in tyre rubber, as fuel, along with
nitrous oxide (commonly known as laughing gas) as the oxidizer to aid in the
burning of the fuel inside the rocket’s combustion chamber. The nitrous oxide
is converted into gas inside the chamber and the rocket motor can therefore be
easily shut down by simply closing a valve through which liquid nitrous oxide
enters the chamber.  SpaceShipOne’s
fuel is thus less non-explosive, easier to store and transport, relatively
inexpensive and has less environmentally harmful by-products.


the minus side, the power available from such an engine is relatively lower and
questions as to whether the SpaceShipOne engine is “true” hybrid remain
since the exact ingredients of its fuel are a commercial secret known only to
Scaled Composites and its partners such as SpaceDev. While the engine has
attractions for the kind of sub-orbital launches made by SpaceShipOne, which
would increase interest in hybrid engines, there are still issues remaining as
regards longer voyages deeper in space.


the very sub-orbital character of SpaceShipOne and the entire Ansari X Prize
project raise serious questions regarding the very nature of 
the much touted “space tourism” in comparison with the
government-funded manned space programme and the hype being made about private
versus public-funded manned space flights. 




history of aviation and space exploration tells of a very complex relationship
between public funding, governmental institutions and private initiative, which
renders any simplistic comparisons quite facile.


initial efforts at manned flight, including the Wright Brothers’ pioneering
effort in 1903, were mostly individual private initiatives, as indeed was much
of scientific research in the 19th and early 20th centuries until the beginnings
of corporate industrial research in Germany during the latter period. After
Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, the first commercially viable aircraft, the
venerable Douglas DC-3 or Dakota, was flying by the late 1930s, and much of
aviation was funded privately. By this time, however, governments in the US,
Europe and Japan had become highly interested in defence aviation but
essentially confined themselves to buying the best of what was offered or
offering prizes for whoever could best meet their needs. The years immediately
preceding and during World War II, and the cold war, however saw huge
governmental investments into defence aviation research and manufacture,
although civil aviation remained largely in private hands.


even this was soon to change. Billions of dollars of public funding thus went
into aviation with dual use but chiefly direct military application. In 1947,
the first supersonic flight was flown in the Bell X-1 rocket under a US
government research programme. Since then many supersonic aircraft have been
developed for research, military and even, in the case of the Concorde,
commercial applications. All these efforts were undertaken by increasingly large
aerospace corporations using extensive public resources. In many countries, even
these companies have been government owned and managed, not only in the
erstwhile Soviet bloc but also notably in Britain and continental Europe.


saga of space flight started much like that of civil aviation with Dr.Robert
Goddard launching the first liquid-fuel rocket in 1926, his subsequent work
being funded by the private Guggenheim Foundation. But rocketry soon becoming a
governmental effort during and after World War II,. The Pentagon brought the
great Werner von Braun and a team of scientists from Germany to the US to
develop more advanced rocketry based on the German V-2 rockets.


hardly needs emphasis that since then almost the entire space programme in all
countries, unlike with aviation, has not only been public funded but also run by
governmental institutions.  After
the launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957, both the military and
civilian aspects of space in the US, represented by the Pentagon and its missile
programmes on the one hand and NASA on the other, were entirely public funded
albeit with significant corporate participation.


much of what has been learned in aviation and space technologies has been the
result of public funded research and, in the case of the latter, almost
exclusively so.

True, as with so many large even bloated bureaucratic organizations, this has
led to high costs and some dearth of innovation. The private sector can today
build upon this entire body of experience, indeed lean on it, and bring its own
efficiencies into play but to claim natural superiority at this stage of the
game is disingenuous.


for space tourism, well, the future will tell. Three private individuals have so
far flown on Russian launchers to the Space Station and back, an experience of
several days preceded by months of training, for all of which they paid $20
million (Rs 90 crore) each!  SpaceShipOne
plans to take “tourists” at roughly $100,000 (Rs 45 lakh) each, but the
“tour” would have very much less to offer. A short ride of a few hours,
merely reaching the technical boundary of space, experiencing a few minutes of
weightlessness and getting a glimpse of black sky and the blue earth before
dropping like a stone. It would be fun all right, but let’s not get carried
The launch of SpaceShipOne has been a great
success but it is no Space Shuttle and a catapult shot to the top of the
atmosphere, not even able to orbit the earth, can surely not be termed space
exploration. Private sector space travel has a long way to go yet.