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Private space race, public hurdles

SpaceShipOne will need to clear government regulatory hurdles that almost make building a spaceship look like child’s play.
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The night before the first flight of a new aircraft, Burt Rutan gathers his test pilots and describes in detail just how the aircraft will fly, how it will feel to the pilot — as though Rutan himself had already spent dozens of hours in the plane’s cockpit. “I’ve been amazed at how accurately Burt has predicted handling qualities,” says pilot Mike Melvill, who has debuted many of Rutan’s creations. “He just knows.”

That uncanny understanding seems pretty standard for Rutan, who has a tendency to remold conceptions of aircraft design with each new project. It is a reputation storied enough to prompt space consultant Charles Lurio to call the unveiling of the new space plane developed by Rutan’s firm, Scaled Composites, “the true beginning of the space age.”

There’s more to that than hype. Rutan’s career has been marked by relentless innovation — whether with the round-the-world Voyager, which his brother Dick and Jeana Yeager piloted into the history books; the sleek designs for the Vantage and Beech Starship corporate aircraft; or his numerous space projects.

Indeed, insiders have long wondered when Rutan might finally try to build a private manned space vehicle, something he’s hinted at doing since the late 1990s.

His unveiling last week of the SpaceShipOne vehicle put the speculation to rest. And though other private spaceship hopefuls have already debuted some hardware, the track record set by Rutan and his 150 employees gives him a solid boost ahead of the competition.

Airplane or spacecraft?
But there’s a more serious adversary on the horizon: the federal government and its tangled approach to space. Rutan’s uneven relationship with the public side of the industry is reflected in his dismissive take on NASA’s manned space efforts, which he sees as tossing out perfectly good rockets like the Mercury program’s Redstone in favor of massive new space programs. “The only ones that have had fatalities are the ones that currently fly,” he said last week.

No surprise, then, that he zealously mandated secrecy for the entire project: monitoring Internet posts to make sure word hadn’t leaked, and even holding back project details from ATK Thiokol Propulsion, a key contractor on SpaceShipOne’s propulsion systems. (Rutan says he promised himself he would ’fess up if they asked. They didn’t.)

“He’s trying to play this step by step,” says Lurio, a private space advocate who believes Rutan’s technology will be developed into private spacecraft for regular flights. “They’re trying to prove the reliability and regulatory questions first.”

Rutan’s engineers said they scrutinized every flight system of both SpaceShipOne and its White Knight launch jet, placing extreme loads on each part to “test it to failure” — blowing pressure holes in fuel tanks, dropping hundreds of 25-pound sandbags on wing structures to verify load capacities.

But Rutan’s creation remains in a murky zone between airplane and spacecraft. Space planes have certainly flown before, but always by NASA or the Pentagon. In contrast, SpaceShipOne is currently registered with the FAA as a glider, and according to FAA records, it has no engine — which is technically true, if you ignore that large rocket in back.

Rutan and his team have encountered governmental static before. When pitching their Proteus high-altitude jet to NASA, they received a seemingly endless round of questions about its safety. “I mean, we’ve flown the damn thing to the North Pole and back,” Melvill retorts.

But at least one key backer of private space efforts expects the space plane concept to get a smooth ride from the FAA and its Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

“They’re working hard not to be a roadblock,” says Dr. Peter Diamandis, founder and chairman of the X Prize, which Rutan stands to win if his flights are successful. “The funding and technical barriers are hard enough.”

Wresting control from NASA
Diamandis and Rutan share the same essential goal: to prove the private space industry can produce more than scale models and blueprints. Diamandis has spent nearly a decade gathering a stable of 24 hopefuls, waiting for one to meet his $10 million prize’s requirements: a manned flight to 62 miles (100 km) altitude, with a safe landing and the ability to repeat the flight in the same vehicle within two weeks. Rutan says he planned his craft around Diamandis’ requirements.

Though both are eager for a historic thrill, they also have pragmatic hopes to inspire a robust private industry.

For Lurio, that would be a long-awaited undoing of the sovereign role NASA acquired during the the Apollo moon program. “Because it was such a stunning achievement to people at the time,” he says, “it became embedded in the culture that manned space is something that requires a national effort.”

In contrast, some of NASA’s unmanned successes have come from smaller, maverick programs: the 1970s Pioneer interplanetary probes developed at Ames Research Center and, more recently, the Mars Pathfinder from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., for example.

Rutan’s program is similarly compact. The complete launch system fits inside a modest hangar (which also seems to have kept nosy neighbors from prying too much). Rutan has also taken NASA’s huge outsourcing process and shrunk it down to entrepreneurial size. He even has two upstart propulsion companies, SpaceDev Inc. of Poway, Calif., and Environmental Aeroscience Corp. of Miami, competing on elements of SpaceShipOne’s engine.

Certify the passengers?
Another savvy decision by Rutan: He won’t put SpaceShipOne through the FAA certification necessary for commercial aircraft to carry passengers. That process, which can take years, has cost firms like Boeing and Airbus up to 10 times the price of development.

While someone would presumably have to go through that process before paying passengers could be taken into space, space developers fear the cost of the process would kill their chances.

“If you have to certificate a space vehicle before you put passengers or payloads in it, you won’t have an industry,” says Jeff Greason, president of Xcor Aerospace, which is developing its own reusable rocket just doors down from Rutan’s hangars. “Neither the FAA nor anybody else has the slightest idea on how to go about certifying a space vehicle, and they know that.”

Instead, some in the industry would prefer to certify the passenger instead of the vehicle. Greason notes that owners of satellites being launched into space by commercial rockets are required to sign a waiver against liability if the rocket is destroyed. The FAA ensures the launch won’t hurt anyone on the ground, but the spacecraft’s fate lies with its operator.

“If you want to see suborbital and even orbital space develop, passengers have to be able to fly in a similar manner,” Greason says. “They have to be able to assume the risks of their own transportation.”

Similarly, Diamandis wants to win government approval for the concept of an “accredited passenger,” one willing to train for space flight and waive liability, similar to the assurances offered by Dennis Tito and other space station tourists. Diamandis compares it to the certification process that people must undergo before sky diving or scuba diving.

Defense Department interested
Given the enthusiasm military officials have expressed for his project, Rutan may also find support in a different corner of government. For the Pentagon, suborbital flight is less about sending humans into space than the ability to open what they call “tactical space” — the common use of small devices, such as microsatellites, to achieve more range and flexibility than they get with their current space platforms. (One incidental advantage of the Mojave launch location: It sits next to a large chunk of restricted military airspace.)

For now, programs like Rutan’s — which would provide a reusable vehicle at least to a suborbital altitude — seem to have attracted the enthusiasm Pentagon officials once had for single-stage-to-orbit technologies, most of which were canceled after some big, costly development efforts failed to produce a viable rocket.

“Folks tried to jump too soon to a big program,” Brig. Gen. Simon “Pete” Worden, who seeks out new space technologies for the Air Force, said last week at Rutan’s unveiling. “You’ve really got to crawl, walk, run.”

Rutan, of course, is not the only one in the game. Other X Prize entrants have made significant progress toward flight tests, and at least two — Canadian Arrow of London, Ont., and the British company Starchaser — have the advantage of doing their work without many of the regulatory hurdles faced by their U.S. competitors.

Meantime, Melvill and his three fellow test pilots are almost ready to begin the first round of atmospheric flight tests on SpaceShipOne, ensuring that the glide back to earth can be easily accomplished.

On that time line, Diamandis estimates, plans for an actual space launch could begin to surface by the end of the year: “They’ll get higher and higher until someone says, ‘We’re ready to give it a go.’ ”