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The 5-year-old space age

Spaceport America
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.

Virgin Galactic
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.'"

Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic are on track to beat that schedule, even if SpaceShipTwo's first commercial flight doesn't come until 2012 or later.

Virgin Galactic
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."

Small steps
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.

Spaceport America
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.

  • Blue Origin: You don't hear much from New Space's most secretive player, but it's virtually certain that the venture - backed by Amazon.com billionaire Jeff Bezos - will start commercial spaceflights by 2010 as originally envisioned. In February, Bezos told talk-show host Charlie Rose that Blue Origin was working on its second test vehicle, and that there would be at least one more test vehicle after that.
  • PlanetSpace: Kathuria's venture lost out on NASA funding for a space station resupply rocket, and lost an appeal of that decision as well. But Kathuria told me PlanetSpace was still "looking for opportunities" at NASA, and is also seeking Pentagon funding for the development of an unmanned aerial vehicle. That vehicle would be a quarter-scale version of PlanetSpace's Silver Dart space glider design. "After the UAV is proven and built out, we'd eventually use that vehicle for point-to-point space tourism," Kathuria said. He's grown increasingly realistic over the past five years: "Building launch vehicles and spacecraft is not an easy process," Kathuria said. "It's a difficult process, and it a very capital-intensive process."
  • Rocketplane Global: The Oklahoma-based company says it has been hit hard by the current economic downturn but is still working out the plans for development of its rocket plane as well as spaceport arrangements. About $100 million is needed to turn the plans into reality, Rocketplane's Chuck Lauer has been quoted as saying.
  • Rocket Racing League: The league is working with Armadillo Aerospace to turn two airplanes into rocket-powered racers for a demonstration flight, most likely in November at the Aviation Nation air show at Nevada's Nellis Air Force Base. "We're looking at Nellis, and we have other options, too. We're just not in a rush," the league's co-founder and CEO, Granger Whitelaw, told me. The planes won't appear at September's Reno Air Races, as previously hoped. Whitelaw said the league will wait out the downturn before proceeding with plans for competitions. "When the market comes back to us, we'll be there. ... Had we been out there and starting to race right now, we probably would have been in a bad position," he said.
  • XCOR Aerospace: I've written quite a bit about XCOR's step-by-step approach to spaceflight. At last report, XCOR is still on target to begin flight tests of its Lynx Mark 1 high-altitude rocket plane next year. This month, The Globe and Mail quoted COO Andrew Nelson as saying about 30 people have paid part or all of the $95,000 fare for a Lynx flight. The Mark 1 is meant to blaze a trail for later flights that will go beyond the outer-space boundary.

Update for 7:20 p.m. ET June 22: I added pictures from Saturday's White Knight Two flyover and updated the text accordingly.