June 19, 2009 at 9:30 PM ET
Virgin Galactic's White Knight Two carrier airplane flies over New Mexico's Las
Cruces International Airport on Saturday, showing off its dual-fuselage design.
Five years after the private-sector space age began, rocketeers are taking circuitous routes to turn their spaceship dreams into reality. And the pioneers of the age say that's just as it should be.
The Space Age, with capital letters, dates back more than 50 years to the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik 1 on Oct. 4, 1957. That marked the first time an artificial satellite was put into orbit. The 5-year-old space age I'm talking about dates back to June 21, 2004, when the SpaceShipOne rocket plane became the first privately developed craft to carry a civilian astronaut into outer space.
When SpaceShipOne flew, some observers thought regular folks would be going on day trips to outer space within just a year or two. Indian-American millionaire Chirinjeev Kathuria, who helped extend the life of Russia's Mir space station in 2000 and now serves as chairman of the PlanetSpace rocket venture, certainly thought so.
"When the industry started out, I think everyone - including ourselves - were naive in saying we could do this in 12 months or 24 months," Kathuria acknowledged. "I think everyone's becoming more realistic. That's why no one is saying, 'OK, we're going to do it this year or next year' anymore."
Other observers were far less optimistic, even back in 2004. Millionaire investment adviser Dennis Tito, who became the first paying passenger to visit the international space station in 2001, told me five years ago that "it may take many decades" for private industry to create passenger spacelines.
SpaceShipTwo designer Burt Rutan peeks out from one of the rocket plane's
windows during construction at Scaled Composites in Mojave, Calif.
The most realistic time frame for suborbital space tourism seems to have come from aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan, who famously designed SpaceShipOne on a restaurant napkin and is now leading the development effort for Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo at Scaled Composites in Mojave, Calif.
"We at Scaled are very aware and proud of what we did five years ago," Rutan told me in an e-mail. "Memory fails me of what I was predicting would happen, so I did a Google search and came up with a podcast that had a prediction."
Rutan pointed to a speech he gave at the Academy of Achievement in 2004, 10 days before SpaceShipOne's first sally into space. "At the end of the pitch I predicted that the public would be able to buy tickets for a spaceflight 'about 10 to 12 years from now.'"
Burt Rutan takes a seat inside SpaceShipTwo's fuselage during construction.
"There is a lot of activity at Scaled right now on manned spaceflight," Rutan said. "Not a large number of folk working, but very impressive hardware being developed and tested for Virgin. We all know how important the work is, and our team has a passion for the goal of providing public access to the black sky view of our planet."
Some small steps were taken toward the fulfillment of Rutan's prediction on Friday: New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and other dignitaries gathered at Spaceport America to break ground for the multimillion-dollar space terminal that's being built for Virgin Galactic's operation. Richardson said the groundbreaking ceremony was "an important step toward our goal of being at the forefront of a vibrant new commercial space industry."
Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn provided the latest word on SpaceShipTwo's time line. After the ceremony, he told me in a phone call that the rocket plane would have its unveiling and first unpowered glide test in December. Dec. 7 has been reported as the target date, but Whitehorn said it's too early to pencil that into the appointment book.
He said he expected SpaceShipTwo's first rocket-powered test flight past the 100-kilometer-high space boundary to take place within 12 to 13 months after its unveiling. The test flights would be conducted in Mojave, but he expected the first $200,000-a-seat commercial flight to take place in New Mexico (with Virgin's billionaire founder Richard Branson on board). That milestone would most likely come in the 2011-2012 time frame.
Whitehorn emphasized that the schedule was dependent on how the test program proceeds. Unlike the superpowers who started the Space Age, the SpaceShipTwo team feels no pressure to run a space race. "We're in a 'race' with only one thing - a race with safety," Whitehorn told the crowd in New Mexico.
The safety theme was brought home when the carrier aircraft for SpaceShipTwo, known as White Knight Two, set out from its Mojave base to fly over the New Mexico ceremony. En route, an indicator light came on, forcing a diversion to the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport for a safety check.
Scaled later reported that a speedbrake actuator had failed during the descent for the flyover. To make up for the no-show, White Knight Two flew over New Mexico's Las Cruces International Airport during the return trip to Mojave on Saturday. Even though it didn't turn out exactly as planned, the excursion marked White Knight Two's first round-trip, point-to-point journey.
White Knight Two makes a pass over Las Cruces International Airport on Saturday.
The rocket report
Here's a fifth-anniversary status report on five other suborbital ventures that have been active in the "New Space" age. If I'm missing anyone, please feel free to fill me in by leaving a comment below.
Update for 7:20 p.m. ET June 22: I added pictures from Saturday's White Knight Two flyover and updated the text accordingly.