NASA Brass Laud X Prize as Extention of Agency's Work

MOJAVE,CALIFORNIA - SpaceShipOne sits in a hangar here at the Mojave Spaceport, noworse the wear from its first shot at bagging the Ansari X Prize earlier thisweek.

Late yesterday, the official thumb's up was given by theMojave Aerospace Ventures team, led by Burt Rutan, for the second flight of therocketplane to claim the cash purse on October 4.

That day marks the 47th anniversary of the formerSoviet'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 gatheredto see SpaceShipOne's attempt at the Ansari X Prize.

Asked by SPACE.comif there are any take home messages that come fromwatching the privately financed SpaceShipOne plow its way skyward, particularlywhen contrasted to the large investments made in the NASA space shuttleprogram, O'Keefe responded:

"You bet. It's the same signal and the same chapter we'veseen over the course of every major development. You've got to invest the timeand the effort in order to get the technology breakthrough. That then opens upthe opportunity for a whole new set of market challenges that reducecost...making things more accessible," he said.

"It's how commercial aviation began. It's how everythingelse that has developed over time. And as a consequence of investment upfrontto break down those technology barriers...that then opens up routineaccessibility. That is what we're seeing playing out in this new openingchapter of spaceflight," O'Keefe said.


O'Keefe explained that NASA's approach is to engage in workthat nobody else does. Space agency efforts are focused on working throughtechnology barriers and challenges that prohibit or limit further exploration.

"We open up those opportunities...and then progressively turnover those activities that are certainly possible for enterprise to engage in,"O'Keefe said.

For example, O'Keefe pointed to the needs of theInternational Space Station program for logistics and routine supply.

"We are now actively pursuing how we find commercialservices that can fill that roll. That's a routine, repetitive kind ofchallenge 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 towardsbreaking down those new technology barriers that limit you from further,broader exploration," O'Keefe said.

The real challenge in management and leadership, O'Keefeconcluded, is to take the extraordinary technical skill, engineering andscientific talent, "and always keep it vectored toward the new challenges,rather than continuing to buff the rock they already know."

Spaceis not passe

NASA's Bill Reedy, Associate Administrator for SpaceOperations, was also on hand at SpaceShipOne's X1 flight. He called themovement of the private sector into human spaceflight as "inevitable."

"It's fantastic. I think it kind of blunts the notion heldby some that nobody's interested in space...that space is passe," Reedy said. Theflights of SpaceShipOne "unleashes what I think is a real pent-up demand andenthusiasm," he said.

Regarding SpaceShipOne pilot, Mike Melvill and his talents,Reedy told "I'm soenvious...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 thatstraps on a new airplane."

Pushingthe envelope

"I think this is great stuff," said NASA's MichaelKostelnik, Deputy Associate Administrator for Space Station and Shuttle, alsoattending SpaceShipOne's flight.

"I'm a test pilot myself," said Kostelnik, a retired AirForce Major General, wearing a flight jacket and aviator glasses.

"When you're in that business and you are professionallytrained for it, you really understand what the risks are. This is what testpeople do. They push the envelope," Kostelnik said. "Certainly with a designerlike Burt Rutan, with all the kind of things that he's done...if they didn'tthink 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 doincredible things, but they expect to come back," Kostelnik said.

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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.