The Real Dream of Space
by Jeff Wright, October 15, 2004
I've watched in wonder and awe, as have millions of others around the world, at the marvelous success of a tiny little company called Scaled Composites out in the Mojave Desert of southern California. Scaled Composites and its 20 employees ought to open wide the eyes of a skeptical, cynical and increasingly violent world to the possibilities that exist in individual and small team efforts to overcome seemingly impossible tasks, formerly the territory of only corporate monoliths and enormous government.
The creations of Scaled Composites, the White Knight and SpaceShipOne, seem almost too imaginary for anyone to dream them up. The carrier craft, White Knight, looks like a gangly albatross, yet seems so delicate as to be ready to fold up at any minute. It's cargo, SpaceShipOne, looks like a fat, sturdy Swallow, hardly ready for the rigors of manned spaceflight. Together, these two craft form what should be recognized as an earth-shattering duo that not only will transform mankind's relationship with the heavens and near space, but should set off seismic waves in the government and global manned space-launch community.
I grew up in America's early space program. My father worked in the hangars of North American Aviation as an assembly technician in the early '50s for the F-86 program. He had the great fortune to be assigned at the beginning of the X-15 project in the test and assembly area. Later, he carried and built on that experience in each successive space program until finally retiring from Rockwell Intl., Space Division, completing work on the Shuttle program.
Our family spent several summers in the Mojave during the test phases for the X-15, Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs. I saw and learned things that made me and a couple other boys, whose Dads worked on the program, the envy of our friends. I will never forget the day, when I was six, my Dad took me out to the Test hanger to meet Scott Crossfield and have him take me by the hand and walk me around and show me the X-15 he piloted, tail number 66670. I was literally agog in a way that could be described to no one. I have the autographed photo hanging in my office of Mr. Crossfield standing in his flight suit in front of the machine he piloted so well. Right next to a photo of Mr. Crossfield and my Dad chatting and laughing about something. It is one of my most prized possessions of so much "space stuff" my Dad and I collected over the years. The X-15 with tail number 66670 is the one now hanging in the National Air and Space Museum.
I would never, ever try to take anything away from those pioneers who built our first space program. I worshipped as heroes the ground the astronauts and those who worked in the program, like my father, walked on. What they did was an achievement that will stand for all time. However, what Burt Rutan and the merry little band at Scaled Composites did last week really, finally fired the first shot in what I call The Space Program for All Mankind. Up until last week most of the promise built by those pioneers had been squandered so unfortunately.
To catch a glimpse of the enormity of what Scaled Composites has achieved, think about this: To put Alan Shepard on his 15 minute suborbital flight in the Mercury (MR-7) "Freedom Seven" mission took hundreds of millions of 1960 dollars and over 100,000 workers. For Scaled Composites to do the same will take fewer than 100 people and $50 million in 2005 dollars. To make it a nearly "everyday" event as a commercial enterprise is projected to cost $100 million. After that it will make money. Enormous amounts of money. Why is that? Mindset and the paradigm that each group worked in.
The Manned Space Flight program of NASA was conceived in the paradigm of the Cold War, national defense, big government, and big corporations. SpaceShipOne was conceived in the mindset of safety, creativity, innovation, accomplishment, and profit. So it has always been, so it will always be that those attributes drive most of our best accomplishments as a civilization.
The Wright brothers designed, built, and launched their first propelled, heavier-than-air craft successfully for 1/100th of the cost of the government- and corporate-sponsored project led by Samuel Langley and his team of engineers. Langley, by the way, crashed everything he tried to build. Because of their drive, dedication, creativity and small budget, the Wright brothers had to learn every aspect of the principles of flight literally "from the ground up." Langley had other priorities, more political and image bound.
Government, IBM and other big corporations invent the "mainframe computer" to serve the government and the large corporations. The little guy invents the hardware and software for the PC used by the masses. Ken Olsen, the pioneering founder of DEC, predicted that personal computers had no real use whatsoever and were a "fad." Of course, almost all of DEC's business was with the government and large corporations. Even the Internet, invented by a small group of university researchers on government-funded grant money took 17 years to build up a 1,000 switching nodes in the original DOD controlled ARPANET/Internet. Since privatization of the technology in 1984, in the next 20 years the internet has grown to more than 58 million switching nodes globally and vastly improved technologically.
These examples are rife throughout the entire history of the development of technologies that serve mankind instead of government. However, there seems to be some kind of huge disconnect between the reality of private creation and innovation and the government's ability to propagandize the population that it is government that somehow does things better for the people at large. In doing so they soak up huge quantities of capital that could be used so much more productively creating new technology, jobs, and wealth that directly serve the people.
The basic design of SpaceShipOne is also inherently safer than anything the government has produced so far. The "feathering" technology of the wings not only makes the SS1 far less subject to catastrophic failure than any of the government designed craft, but because it eliminates the heat of reentry at high mach speeds, it is much cheaper to build, launch and operate. As Burt Rutan said last week, "our space tourism business will be at least 100 times safer than anything the government has produced." He also said when referring to employees of NASA's manned flight launch program, "They're screwed."
I certainly hope the next step for the government is not to begin immediate interference in attempting to "control and regulate" companies developing new space launch capability such as Scaled Composites. It would be the height of tragedy for that to happen. Instead, it should be offering complete tax credits to all companies that engage in such development.
Too bad the government didn't understand this and get out of manned space flight in 1975. We likely would already be obtaining vast quantities of necessary resources and energy from space and taking regularly scheduled vacations to Mars in 2004, as many forward-thinking folks were proposing back then. The real tragedy in all this is that we cannot even begin to reconcile the future the planet should have been experiencing now with the one we've gotten due to all the government interference. The vast amount of technology that would have come from the development of large-scale space systems and produced for a profit is all lost GDP to this point. Given current world events, I believe it's also hard to reconcile the difference this could be making in our desperate search to obtain the resources and energy necessary to keep America the economic and moral leader of the world, without it being under a soldier's boot heel. But it would have been profound, of that I'm certain.
After he retired and towards the end of his life, my Dad and many of his colleagues became highly disenchanted with NASA and the government/defense-controlled space program. My Dad almost to the point of bitterness. They all realized and agreed that NASA was screwing up the further development of manned spaceflight due to government and the military exercising such complete control of the funding and direction of launch and manned capability. Government defense and contracting companies have always been loathe to develop competing technologies that might compete with their government funding. They don't want to bite the hand that feeds them.
Government control and regulation of so many businesses is fast truncating America's ability to compete in many areas. It's hard for the citizens to understand just how much of the economy is being lost to this increasing level of control. The costs of taxation, regulation, and control together have more to do with the increasing outsourcing phenomena than anything else. We should be leading the world in the creation of entire new industries rather than immediately losing our technology companies and new jobs to offshoring. The number of jobs being created in this country right now that are for government positions and not private enterprise ones is even more tragic. Just take a look at the labor statistics for the last two years.
We are no longer the "light of the world" that leads by example. We are now the country the rest of the world is beginning to hate and resist in our constant push to advance our imperial power to every corner of the globe. I hope the example set by companies such as Scaled Composites, with its dream machine of SpaceShipOne, once again light a fire under the people to tell the government to get out of trying to strangle and tax to death the people and the private enterprises that are the true power behind the American Dream.