March 04, 2013
Credit: Stratolaunch Systems
This promises to be a banner year for private space, particularly at California's Mojave Air and Space Port, where major milestones in the race to sub-orbit and beyond are on the near horizon.
Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace are due to conduct the first powered flights of their respective reusable winged vehicles, Masten Space Systems plans to qualify for NASA's Flight Opportunities program with its vertical-takeoff-and-landing rocket, and Stratolaunch Systems is starting construction of its enormous orbital air-launch carrier aircraft.
Aside from location, the common denominator between these and other equally diverse commercial space projects is that all the key people behind them were in Mojave in 2004, craning their necks to witness the successful sub-orbital flights of the Scaled Composites-built SpaceShipOne. They were there to see Burt Rutan's design, funded by Microsoft co-founder and billionaire Paul Allen, clinch the $10 million Ansari X Prize for the first non-government organization to launch a reusable, manned spacecraft into space twice within two weeks.
First conceived by X Prize Foundation founder Peter Diamandis in 1995, the competition was aimed at spurring the development of low-cost spaceflight and, according to many of the Mojave community today, has succeeded beyond its founder's wildest dreams. The concept of galvanizing private enterprise and with it, the entrepreneurship of individuals and industry, is almost as old as the history of powered flight itself.
When Anousheh and Amir Ansari agreed to pump millions of dollars into the X Prize in May 2004, just months before it was claimed, they propagated a tradition reaching back to the first major aviation prize. In November 1906, British newspaper magnate Lord Northcliffe offered through his newspaper Daily Mail £10,000 (roughly $1.4 million today) to the first who could fly from London to Manchester in 24 hr. with not more than two stops.
Two years later, with the first prize still unclaimed, Northcliffe was growing impatient with the pace of technological progress as well as the government's apparent indifference to aviation. In 1908, he wrote to Winston Churchill, then a new cabinet minister: “a man with a heavier-than-air machine has flown. It does not matter how far he has flown. He has shown what can be done. In a year's time, mark my words, that fellow will be flying over here from France. Britain is no longer an island. Nothing so important had happened for a very long time. We must get hold of this thing, and make it our own. I will think out what is best to be done.”
The result was another Daily Mail prize. This time £1,000 was offered for the first to fly the channel between England and France “to be accomplished in daylight without touching the sea.” The prize was won in 1909 by French aviator Louis Bleriot, sparking a new wave of interest in, and appreciation of, aviation. Among those feeling the effect was Raymond Orteig, a French-born immigrant to the U.S. who owned a hotel in New York called the Lafayette.