Private Space Flight

THE 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!”

This 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. The 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.


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

The 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.

The 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.

In 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.

While 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.

The 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.

While 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.


Now 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.

Both 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.

Significantly, 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.

The 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.

On 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.

Indeed, 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.


The 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.

All 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.

But 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.

The 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.

It 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.

Thus 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.

As 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 away. 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.

11th July 2004

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