Stand by for dramatic and radical change in the emerging passenger space travel industry — but don’t count on NASA or major aerospace service providers to propel the public into space anytime soon.
Since the early 1970s, NASA seems to mean No Adult Supervision Apparent. The unaffordable space shuttle, for example, is a failure in trying to reduce cost for accessing Earth orbit. Moreover, companies out to build the space agency’s replacement for the shuttle — the Crew Exploration Vehicle — are doing so under an arrangement that cripples innovation, creativity and the chance for breakthroughs.
Thus says Burt Rutan, the private airplane and spacecraft designer, who is anything but shy when it comes to telling the world where he thinks the United States — and NASA in particular — has gone wrong since the heyday of human spaceflight.
Rutan, a private rocket designer, is the leader of the privately backed team that flew three suborbital flights last year of the piloted SpaceShipOne. Now he is working on a new passenger-carrying spaceliner that is coming together at his company, Scaled Composites in Mojave, Calif.
Rutan, who has been secretive about the details surrounding SpaceShipTwo, made several appearances in the Denver area on Nov. 12. His first stop was to help judge a student spaceship and spaceport design competition, hosted by the Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum and the Department of Aerospace at Metropolitan State College. Dozens of student teams vied for awards under the watchful eye of Space Voyage Educational Adventures America of Lakewood, Colo.
NASA’s ability to put humans into space has been fueled by taxpayer dollars. But Rutan said the government has left behind at the launch pad the most important payload: the taxpaying public.
"In fact, it’s more dangerous to fly in space in America now than it was earlier. It certainly is more expensive ... more difficult," Rutan said. "We’ve been relying on our taxpayer-funded research organization, Nay Say — excuse me, NASA."
The true role for NASA, Rutan said, should be doing the research so that American industry can compete favorably with the rest of the world. That was the approach taken by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA, the predecessor to the modern-day NASA, he noted.
Safe and affordable spaceflight
Rutan said that he and his Scaled Composites workers have solved the generic, basic safety issues of suborbital manned spaceflight.
The Scaled Composites team worked on key technical issues in a succession of flights last year by SpaceShipOne and its carrier craft, the White Knight, which hauled the rocket plane to high altitude for release. After solving those issues, Rutan is confident that flying the public out of the atmosphere can be done safely and affordably.
"We can show that we can move right into an industry to fly the public at the level of safety that the early airliners had," Rutan said. Even in that time period, he said, airlines were operating 100 times safer than all of government-manned spaceflight.
Rutan said the breakthroughs provided simple solutions to the safety challenges, and can give rise to suborbital services operated at high reliability.
One breakthrough he is determined to achieve is getting the entrepreneurial investors, free-spirited tinkerers — the "little guys" — to understand that they have it within their capabilities to enable public suborbital travel. Rutan said they need only understand one key fact: "I can do this."
Rutan told a largely student audience not to be risk-averse. "You’re going to be more creative, more innovative, and have a lot more ability to stumble into a big breakthrough," he said.
Tight-lipped about schedule
During a fund-raising gala, the aerospace designer also received the Spreading Wings Award for 2005 from the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum.
Rutan told the audience there he was mad that "the Russians are beating America as capitalists," pointing to recent Soyuz flights that have boosted paying passengers up to the international space station.
Rutan offered some clues as to the progress being made on building SpaceShipTwo, the commercial version of his space plane that will take tourists into space.
However, the rebel designer remained tight-lipped about the schedule. The mega-launching plane, a big spaceship that carries eight to 10 people, and a new rocket motor — all these have to be developed, certified and then put into production, Rutan said.
"I believe that after it [SpaceShipTwo] flies 10 or 12 years, that type [of spaceliner] will fly about 100,000 people outside the atmosphere," Rutan said.
"The ship that we’re developing in our shop right now in Mojave will have a very large cabin," Rutan explained. Passengers will be able to stand up in the compartment and float up to the ceiling. They'll be able to put their hands out and tumble, Rutan said.
"The windows will have handles on them. If you want to look outside, you’re going to have to go to a window and pull your nose up against it and just look," Rutan said. "You’re not going to be strapped into seats in a small thing with little windows ... if you do that, that spaceliner will not sell the tickets."
SpaceShipTwo will be "experience-optimized," Rutan said. The suborbital craft will cruise high above Earth, he added, giving passengers a weightless experience and seven or eight minutes of seeing the black sky of space.
Flight paths of his commercial spaceship can include over-the-ocean travel, gliding above California to a desert landing, Rutan said. "We applaud when you stop on the runway. The NASA folk applaud when they clear the tower on takeoff," he said.
Wanted: spaceship builders
Rutan told Space.com that he needed to double the size of Scaled Composites’ workforce —now at about 150 people — to handle the company's roster of projects, including his commercial spaceliner activity.
"We have a lot of openings for people ... not just engineers, but people that can help us build research spaceships and production spaceships," Rutan explained.
Rutan said his company would soon start aggressively looking for enthusiastic young people who want to learn how to build spaceships, canvassing the colleges for students who have "fire in their eyes."