10 Years After SpaceShipOne, the New Space Age Is Still Revving Up

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Ten years ago, the prize-winning flight of a privately funded rocket plane called SpaceShipOne heralded a New Space Age — an age when everyday people could look forward to buying their own rides to the final frontier.

In part due to SpaceShipOne's X Prize triumph, hundreds of people have made reservations for suborbital spaceflights, on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo as well as XCOR Aerospace's Lynx rocket plane. In 2004, there was talk of sending up the first customers within three years. Those customers are still waiting.

Did something go wrong with the spaceflight revolution? Gregg Maryniak, who helped engineer the $10 million Ansari X Prize program, says no. In his view, the revolution is still just getting started.

"The ultimate purpose of our first X Prize was to crack open the door to all the energy and material resources of space," Maryniak said on this week's "Virtually Speaking Science" talk show. "Earth is an island, surrounded by an unlimited quantity of the things that we need to sustain human civilization. ... We didn't do this so rich guys could fly in space. We did it so it could create a steppingstone."

SpaceShipOne's place in history and the future of the commercial spaceflight revolution will be the subject of a celebration at California's Mojave Air and Space Port on Saturday, exactly 10 years after the X Prize was won in Mojave on Oct. 4, 2004. The leading figures in the SpaceShipOne saga — including spaceship designer Burt Rutan, billionaire backer Paul Allen and XPRIZE founder Peter Diamandis — will gather for a panel discussion that's due to be webcast starting at 4 p.m. ET (1 p.m. PT) Saturday.

Maryniak will be on hand as well. He compares the current age of commercial spaceflight to the era of early aviation, with Charles Lindbergh's trans-Atlantic flight of 1927 serving as a similar landmark. Back then, it took another 12 years for Pan American to start the world's first passenger air service over the Atlantic. So it shouldn't be surprising that SpaceShipOne's successors are still going through development and testing, Maryniak said.

"They're being very, very careful about expanding the envelope safely, because if we have fatalities early on, that would be the false start," he observed. "We haven't had a false start, we've had a great start."

Setbacks and switches

That's not to say the progress so far has been trouble-free. Far from it: Three workers were killed on the ground during a propellant test for SpaceShipTwo's hybrid engine at Mojave.

Just a few months ago, Virgin Galactic made the switch from the rubber-based fuel that powered SpaceShipOne to a new kind of plastic compound. That polyamide-based fuel has yet to be tested in flight — but Virgin Galactic's billionaire founder, Richard Branson, says it's still possible for SpaceShipTwo to break the 100-kilometer-high (62-mile-high) space barrier by the end of the year.

If all goes well, Branson himself plans to take a ride with his son, Sam, early next year, with passenger service starting at Spaceport America in New Mexico soon afterward. More than 700 customers have already bought their tickets, which currently go for $250,000 apiece.

The next year could be a big one as well for XCOR Aerospace, which is in the process of shifting its operations from Mojave to Midland, Texas. XCOR should begin flight tests in 2015, and could start flying passengers in its two-seat Lynx within the next year or two.

SpaceShipOne's legacy goes far beyond a couple of suborbital rocket planes, or course. Just this week, Sierra Nevada Corp. announced that it was talking with Stratolaunch Systems, Paul Allen's latest space venture, about the possibility of launching Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser mini-shuttle into orbit from Stratolaunch's giant carrier airplane.

The connections to SpaceShipOne are almost incestuous: Sierra Nevada helped Mojave-based Scaled Composites develop the rocket motors for SpaceShipOne as well as SpaceShipTwo. Meanwhile, Stratolaunch's airplane, which is currently being built in a Mojave hangar, looks like a dramatically scaled-up version of SpaceShipOne's White Knight mothership (which is now on display near Seattle as part of Allen's museum collection).

More space spin-offs

Still other billionaire-backed space ventures have come to prominence in SpaceShipOne's wake, ranging from Elon Musk's SpaceX, to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, to Robert Bigelow's Bigelow Aerospace. Bigelow helped NASA lay out a vision for space exploration that gives commercial ventures a leading role in lunar exploration and settlement.

NASA has capitalized on space commercialization in other ways as well: Two commercial ventures, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp., have taken over the job of sending cargo to the International Space Station for NASA, and the space agency recently earmarked billions of dollars for commercial space taxis that could start carrying astronauts to the station as soon as 2017. NASA is also offering X Prize-type incentives for a series of "Centennial Challenges" aimed at promoting space technology innovations.

"We've come a long way since 2004 — our move to commercial cargo and crew transportation to the International Space Station being only one example," Alexander MacDonald, program executive for the Emerging Space Office at NASA Headquarters, told NBC News in an email. "Looking toward the future, we have a Bigelow Aerospace inflatable habitat module that’s flying on a NASA-contracted SpaceX commercial cargo mission to the International Space Station, where it will be tested for possible future use on government and commercial missions. That’s a great example of NASA's new way of doing business."

Meanwhile, the X Prize push for progress continues: Since 2004, the foundation now known as XPrize has organized multimillion-dollar contests for super-efficient cars, lunar landing systems, oil-cleanup technologies, medical tricorders, next-generation educational tools and much, much more.

Like the era of commercial spaceflight, the era of prize-backed innovation is still just getting started, said Robert Weiss, a veteran Hollywood producer who serves as XPrize vice chairman and president. During the "Virtually Speaking Science" session, he said he hoped future X Prizes could address the challenge of cleaning up the space junk that's orbiting Earth, or the task of identifying and eliminating potentially hazardous asteroids.

Then there's the giant among X Prizes: The Google Lunar X Prize program could pay out as much as $30 million to private-sector teams that are able to send rovers to the moon and get live video transmitted back to Earth. If the feat can be done, it'll be a bigger show than SpaceShipOne. And Weiss thinks it can be done.

"It is the largest cash prize ever offered for anything. ... We're not supposed to handicap prizes, as it were. I don't think there is a Vegas line on this competition yet," Weiss said. "But it looks like that prize could be won within two years' time."

"Virtually Speaking Science" is hosted by NBC News' Alan Boyle and airs on BlogTalkRadio and in the Exploratorium's Second Life virtual auditorium. If you missed the live show, never fear: You can catch up with the podcast via BlogTalkRadio or iTunes. Last month's show featured University of Washington exoplanetologist Sarah Ballard discussing the search for alien worlds.

NBCUniversal has established a multi-platform partnership with Virgin Galactic to track the development of SpaceShipTwo and televise Branson's spaceflight.