NASA Brass Laud X Prize as Extention of Agency's Work
MOJAVE, CALIFORNIA - SpaceShipOne sits in a hangar here at the Mojave Spaceport, no worse the wear from its first shot at bagging the Ansari X Prize earlier this week.
Late yesterday, the official thumb's up was given by the Mojave Aerospace Ventures team, led by Burt Rutan, for the second flight of the rocketplane to claim the cash purse on October 4.
That day marks the 47th anniversary of the former Soviet's Union's launch of Sputnik 1 -- the first artificial satellite to circle the Earth and the event that triggered the space race and the birth of NASA. Sean O'Keefe, NASA's current chief administrator, was among those gathered to see SpaceShipOne's attempt at the Ansari X Prize.
Asked by SPACE.com if there are any take home messages that come from watching the privately financed SpaceShipOne plow its way skyward, particularly when contrasted to the large investments made in the NASA space shuttle program, O'Keefe responded:
"You bet. It's the same signal and the same chapter we've seen over the course of every major development. You've got to invest the time and the effort in order to get the technology breakthrough. That then opens up the opportunity for a whole new set of market challenges that reduce cost...making things more accessible," he said.
"It's how commercial aviation began. It's how everything else that has developed over time. And as a consequence of investment upfront to break down those technology barriers...that then opens up routine accessibility. That is what we're seeing playing out in this new opening chapter of spaceflight," O'Keefe said.
O'Keefe explained that NASA's approach is to engage in work that nobody else does. Space agency efforts are focused on working through technology barriers and challenges that prohibit or limit further exploration.
"We open up those opportunities...and then progressively turn over those activities that are certainly possible for enterprise to engage in," O'Keefe said.
For example, O'Keefe pointed to the needs of the International Space Station program for logistics and routine supply.
"We are now actively pursuing how we find commercial services that can fill that roll. That's a routine, repetitive kind of challenge that, frankly, we know how to do, but we do it in a way that, frankly, you'd rather expend that effort and energy and resource towards breaking down those new technology barriers that limit you from further, broader exploration," O'Keefe said.
The real challenge in management and leadership, O'Keefe concluded, is to take the extraordinary technical skill, engineering and scientific talent, "and always keep it vectored toward the new challenges, rather than continuing to buff the rock they already know."
Space is not passe
NASA's Bill Reedy, Associate Administrator for Space Operations, was also on hand at SpaceShipOne's X1 flight. He called the movement of the private sector into human spaceflight as "inevitable."
"It's fantastic. I think it kind of blunts the notion held by some that nobody's interested in space...that space is passe," Reedy said. The flights of SpaceShipOne "unleashes what I think is a real pent-up demand and enthusiasm," he said.
Regarding SpaceShipOne pilot, Mike Melvill and his talents, Reedy told SPACE.com: "I'm so envious...that's all I can say...of anybody that goes out and rings out a new ship. As a test pilot, I've got nothing but utmost respect for him and anybody that straps on a new airplane."
Pushing the envelope
"I think this is great stuff," said NASA's Michael Kostelnik, Deputy Associate Administrator for Space Station and Shuttle, also attending SpaceShipOne's flight.
"I'm a test pilot myself," said Kostelnik, a retired Air Force Major General, wearing a flight jacket and aviator glasses.
"When you're in that business and you are professionally trained for it, you really understand what the risks are. This is what test people do. They push the envelope," Kostelnik said. "Certainly with a designer like Burt Rutan, with all the kind of things that he's done...if they didn't think they could pull it off, Mike Melvill wouldn't be sitting in that seat," he added.
"Test pilots are not the risk takers people think. They do incredible things, but they expect to come back," Kostelnik said.
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