Space Barnstorming: The Risk and Rewards For Private Rocketeers

If privately-backed rockets fly straight and true, those successes will show that piloted space flight need not be a huge governmental undertaking. Investors may well beat a path to the doors of firms with even grander passenger-hauling space vehicles on the drawing boards.

On the other hand, it is clear that today's "space barnstorming" also means risk-taking. Odds are that accidents will occur in flying homebuilt spaceships to the edge of space.

On the frontline of tackling the technology needed is Scaled Composites and their SpaceShipOne. They have had a series of successful test flights that culminated June 21 with the first civilian to fly a spaceship out of Earth's atmosphere. But that flight was not without its problems.

Now on tap are back-to-back suborbital flights of SpaceShipOne from the Mojave, California spaceport. The first flight is set for September 29 to be followed by another hop within the following two weeks -- all in the hopes of snaring the $10 million Ansari X Prize. That cash purse has been established to prime the rocket pumps, so to speak, to hasten the day of private space travel.

"Our success proves without question that manned space flight does not require mammoth government expenditures," declared Burt Rutan, head of Scaled Composites after the June SpaceShipOne flight. "It can be done by a small company operating with limited resources and a few dozen dedicated employees."

On site oversight

As Rutan and company, and others close behind, prepare to make their assaults on space, keeping a sharp eye on the trajectory of private-sector rocketry is the U.S. government.

"We will be watching very closely...on site as we always are in our safety inspector role," said Patricia Grace Smith, Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (AST). Her office is only space-related line of business within the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), housed under the Department of Transportation (DOT).

"Our overriding concern is and will always be the protection of the public. That's our mission," Smith told

The AST granted Scaled Composites on April 1 the world's first license for a sub-orbital piloted rocket flight. That license permits a sequence of sub-orbital flights spanning a one-year period.

On the history-making, over-the-top June 21 flight of SpaceShipOne, it was Smith that gave "DOT/FAA Commercial Astronaut Wings" to pilot Michael Melvill who flew an AST-licensed launch vehicle on a flight that exceeded 50 miles.

That flight, for many, Smith said, proved to be a wake-up call for asleep at the switch non-believers.

"No question about it," Smith said. "We spent many years with people saying 'yeah, yeah, yeah...reusable launch vehicles...I'll believe it when I see it'. And now they've seen it."

SpaceShipOne...government zero

Ultimately, for the upcoming back-to-back flights, it is the AST that has go/no-go sanction rights.

"We have the authority to suspend the license if we find the operator is operating outside of the terms and conditions as stipulated in the license, and therefore putting the public at risk," Smith said.

Asked if she cringed at the sight of a sign held up by pilot Melvill, as well as Rutan following the June mission that proudly exclaimed: SpaceShipOne...Government Zero, she responded:

"There's an appropriate role for all of us as we advance the frontiers of space. I think safety is the appropriate role of the government. It's exciting when developments occur. That flight was a very exciting day, and we look for more to come," Smith said.

Part rocket...part death trap?

It is clear that those seeking to claim the Ansari X Prize are risk takers. Several groups have already suffered test failures of hardware in pursuit of the $10 million purse. Even the recent milestone-setting trek of SpaceShipOne proved challenging for the experienced hands of pilot Melvill.

The specter of somebody getting hurt -- even worse, killed -- in attempting to grasp for the Ansari X Prize is a very real possibility.

Peter Diamandis, X Prize Foundation leader contrasts reducing exposure to risk and the idea of accepting more risk.

"There is no question that there is risk involved in winning the Ansari X Prize, as well as risk in going to the Moon or Mars or opening any portion of the space frontier. But, this is a risk worth taking," Diamandis said.

Many in America forget the debt owed to early explorers, Diamandis suggested. Tens-of-thousands of people risked their lives to open the "new world" or the American west. 

"Space is a frontier and frontiers are risky," Diamandis added. "As explorers...we must have the right to take risks that we believe are worthwhile and significant. We owe it to ourselves and future generations. In a time when people are risking their lives in motor sports or bungee jumping, it seems a bit shallow to be concerned about the risk involved exploring space," he said.  

Crazy idea turned breakthrough

Diamandis said that it is critical that in taking risk to push technology development that failure is allowed. Without risk and without room for failure the breakthroughs to quicken the pace of public space travel will not occur.

"A breakthrough, by definition, is something that was considered a 'crazy idea' the day before it became a breakthrough. If it wasn't considered a crazy idea...then it really isn't a breakthrough, is it? It would have simply been an incremental improvement," Diamandis pointed out.

But then there are those immortal words borne out of NASA's early space pioneering ventures: "Failure is not an option".

"If we live and work in an environment where we cannot fail, then breakthroughs may not be an option either," Diamandis responded. "I urge regulators and the public to understand that space exploration is intrinsically risky, yet a risk worth taking. Let's make space explorers heroes once again."

Go for broke

An international race to space is in the making given announcements of the da Vinci Project, led by Brian Feeney of Toronto, Ontario, and the filed flight plans of SpaceShipOne, designed by Scaled Composites of Mojave, California.

The teams must successfully demonstrate their vehicle's ability to launch three humans to an altitude of 62 miles (100 kilometers), return them safely, then repeat the feat within two weeks with the same spacecraft.

The da Vinci Project plans to fire its balloon-carried Wild Fire Mark VI spacecraft on October 2, just days after the planned September 29 flight of SpaceShipOne. Each will then attempt a second launch within two weeks from the first flight to win the Ansari X Prize purse

While SpaceShipOne has a long, step-by-step roster of flight tests, the da Vinci Project has more a go-for-broke feel to it.

"Generally we're not commenting on our past and remaining test program," Feeney said. "I understand the risk questions" from those that ask whether the da Vinci effort has done enough testing, he told

The project has done "a phenomenal amount" of computational fluid dynamics (CFD) work and finite element analysis (FEA) that will continue through certain areas prior to the flights, Feeney said. CFD and FEA are analytical tools used in engineering to simulate hardware reaction to aerodynamic, thermal and other stress conditions.

"There is some testing that remains to be done. The exact nature of the tests, the number of tests and their locations will remain confidential. We may release some test video prior to the flights," Feeney said.

Crash testing

Another Ansari X Prize team, Armadillo Aerospace of Mesquite, Texas, has seen both victory and crash landings in their quest to build a piloted rocket.

"As NASA has shown many times, you can spend ridiculous amounts of money trying to assure yourself that nothing can go wrong...but it will often still surprise you," said John Carmack, head of Armadillo Aerospace.

"We quite consciously chose to build fast and test often instead of spending years doing simulations and designs, even if it means crashing a lot. We learn a lot from flying the vehicles, and a crash is just an opportunity to incorporate all the new things we have picked up," Carmack said.

The idea that the da Vinci Project has announced a time for its first piloted flight "is laughable," Carmack observed. "They haven't flown a single solitary thing in the years they have been at it...I don't think they are serious," Carmack noted. "While it is true that they are a lot farther down the spectrum of 'design precisely' rather than 'give it a try', I don't think they are so divorced from reality that they would expect it to actually work in that time frame."

Success story rather than a dream

The outcome of private-sector spaceship flights in the near-term - good or bad -- can move-up or impede the future of space tourism.

That's the view of Robert Goehlich, author of space tourism books and a lecturer at Keio University in Yokohama, Japan.

Goehlich said that Rutan has designed a smart vehicle, strongly backed by the required amount of money. In addition, public access to his rocket flights can help prime the pump for others to invest in space, as well as support governmental space ventures by their tax dollars.

On the other hand, Goehlich continued, he's a little skeptical about the "sell" of spaceports as a kind of fairgrounds. In case of a catastrophe, emergency procedures must be well planned to handle crowds of people, he said.

New problems -- technical, political, or economical -- may arise and haunt the project, and plenty of flights with test pilots are necessary before SpaceShipOne's seats could be filled with paying tourists. But the fact that the vehicle has and can make successful suborbital flights will change things totally, Goehlich said. "It will show that a privately financed rocket is a success story rather than a dream of rocket enthusiasts and science fiction writers."

Motivate investors

"Successful SpaceShipOne suborbital flights will motivate investors to invest in those kind of vehicles," Goehlich said. "It will stimulate rocket engineers to think of alternative approaches."

Also a succession of suborbital trips is sure to strike a chord in the public," Goehlich added. It can create the desire in many of us: The "Why not? Why not me?" factor. "Space tourism activities will start growing like the plant that needs initially the seed," he advised.

But there's a literal downside too.

Any crash of SpaceShipOne might "de-motivate" investors, Goehlich said. An accident could also ripple through the public mind, creating thoughts that the time for space tourism suborbital flights is not now. In short, he said, a SpaceShipOne mishap would decelerate the development of space tourism.

Lastly, Goehlich senses that even triumphant SpaceShipOne flights might not spark the "big breakthrough" for space tourism. For instance, space travel customers like Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth - both shelling out top dollar to visit the International Space Station - haven't quite prompted a huge public hungering for space travel and a rush to the launch pad.

"But anybody would agree that only by trying hard for something can we also achieve it," Goehlich concluded.

Different and more prosperous world

Patrick Collins, a space tourism expert and professor of economics at Azabu University in Japan, underscores SpaceShipOne's flight costs.

"The whole project is said to have cost between $20 million to $30 million. That's what NASA spends every day before lunch," Collins emphasized.

Rutan's projection is that flights in a commercial version of a suborbital craft would cost about $20,000 per passenger, Collins said, a figure that is 1/1,000 of what it cost NASA to fly Alan Shepard back in 1961 on a suborbital mission - using an expendable rocket.

"This gives a good clue as to the potential for cost reduction in space flight by using some of the technology developed since Gagarin -- at a cost of one trillion dollars -- because space agencies have never used it for that purpose," Collins said.

Collins said that the former Soviet Union's R7 rocket, the first ever launch vehicle and the basis for the time-honored Soyuz booster is still the cheapest way to get to space, after nearly 50 years.

"For their own reasons, governments do not insist that space agencies work to encourage space commercialization. That means developing services that the public wants to buy, as they are legally required to do. If they had, suborbital space flights could have started in the early 1970s. I guess we would live in a very different and more prosperous world if that path had been taken," Collins said.

One of a series of milestones

From a space tourism standpoint, the coming out of SpaceShipOne "is just one of a series of milestones that have been and still need to be accomplished," said Troy Thrash, Program Manager for the Futron Corporation in Bethesda, Maryland. Flight to the suborbital heights is the next milestone, "but certainly not the last," he said.

Last June's rip roaring shot to the edge of space by SpaceShipOne in no way opens up the space tourism market, Thrash said. But the flight added "a significant checkmark" to the list of things that need to be accomplished before the market opens. 

"Its significance will lie in the fact that it is an important means to the end....the end being the opening up and flourishing of what is destined to become America's premiere space activity: suborbital space tourism," Thrash said. "Investors will no doubt see SpaceShipOne flights as proving that the technology exists to open up the market and someday meet the demand."

Investors may be more willing to open up their wallets to vehicle builders, Thrash predicted, "once they see that these types of flights really can be achieved by private companies with lots of brains, lots of desire, and big hearts."

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.