up, up, and...
June 21, 2004 6:34 AM   Subscribe

SpaceShipOne is set to take off around 9:30 ET today. Funded by that other guy who founded Microsoft, this (if successful) will be the first non-government-sponsored manned spaceflight.
posted by casarkos (79 comments total)
Hands up everyone who's going in to work late today in hopes of seeing the flight. (Obviously I am.)
posted by Zonker at 6:43 AM on June 21, 2004

It's gorgeous.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 6:51 AM on June 21, 2004

I turn into a libertarian when it comes to pointless undertakings like going into space.

I know, I know. The freeze-dried ice cream was pretty cool. But I could live without Tang or the expensive pens. Really, the best thing that the space program gave us was really funny material for Eddie Izzard.
posted by Mayor Curley at 6:53 AM on June 21, 2004

Cool! I've been following on the space.com page, but it's stopped responding :(
posted by carter at 6:55 AM on June 21, 2004

You could live without Tang?
posted by pealco at 6:55 AM on June 21, 2004

But going into space will be the only way to escape Izzard when he finally takes over.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 6:56 AM on June 21, 2004

MSNBC webcast here, bottom of second paragraph.
posted by casarkos at 7:03 AM on June 21, 2004

Perhaps it is not the act of going into space that one should concentrate on, but the research and investigation that makes exploring space possible that we benefit from. Perhaps you are against funding research, I doubt, but I think it is too easy an argument to be come out and say going to space is not fruitful. The outcomes of Rutans research and developments in aerospace are being felt across multiple industries; the same goes for NASA (e.g. firefighters have better protection thanks to NASA research.) We have safer public air travel due to NASA research.
Going into space (manned or robotic) is the outcome, so many things spin-off from this. Does this still really need to be explained today?
What I find horrible is 500 million airplanes (B2 bombers)

But I digress, this topic is about the X Prize brass ring.
posted by fluffycreature at 7:08 AM on June 21, 2004

Where the hell can I find a (free) reliable webcast of the thing? I'll even settle for audio. MSNBC, as usual, isn't responding.
posted by bondcliff at 7:13 AM on June 21, 2004

You could live without Tang?

Please note that I wrote " Tang " and not " 'tang ". Buzz Aldrin may have tried to take credit for inventing the latter, but it predates the space program by several years.
posted by Mayor Curley at 7:16 AM on June 21, 2004

Live stream here (find the video streaming link within the article, 3-4 paragraphs down).
posted by costas at 7:43 AM on June 21, 2004

SpaceShipOne Kitty Hawk is nothing less than a stunt of staggering ego-stroking.
posted by bondcliff at 7:49 AM on June 21, 2004

If NASA could develop from scratch a sub-orbital plane for less than 200 million (not the 20 million that Scaled is doing it with), then maybe I'd share your sentiments. But they can't so I don't.

Faster. Better. Cheaper. It's only possible with government beauracracy out of the the way.
posted by PenDevil at 7:51 AM on June 21, 2004

Yeah, Mayor Curley, let's all just follow along with that famous 80s band Devo, and de-evolve, and forget about growing beyond this biosphere, and stay down here on our single planet and wait for the next asteroid to smack us into extinction.

I have never understood that attitude, but it sure is becoming widespread today. It seems that all of those who pose as being practical and cynical and just so realistic come to the same conclusion: human space flight is just a waste of time and money.

I think it results from exposure to bad (meaning most) science fiction: nothing real can live up to the image of the Jetsons, or Star Wars or (gods help us) Star Trek. Even decent work like 2001 and Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land were all too fantastic, too hopeful, too outside of reality.

Those images of space flight are not the reality. Space -- practical space -- is much more about getting a good trucking system in place. It is all about fighting against a huge gravity well. And it really is not about personal rocket ships, laser guns, and meeting aliens for fun anf profit and crazy-assed sex. Sorry.

It really is about survival. It is all about high risk, high radiation count, high explosives, and high insurance premiums. It is risky, scary, and essential.

I really feel sorry for you in your limited vision, self-absorbed, ironic little hole. You are in good company -- you and all of those aquatic creatures who shouted at the evolving land vertebrates "Heh! You with the stubby feet! Yeah you! Water is where you should stay -- why are you trying to crawl up onto the shore?" Greet the other evolutionary losers for me on your way down the devolution slope. Bu-bye.
posted by mooncrow at 7:53 AM on June 21, 2004

That's great news! I hope they win.
posted by riffola at 7:54 AM on June 21, 2004

Sounds like they did it. They just need to return in one piece.

So the next step is to go for the X-Prize, which if I understand it means three people twice in two weeks.
posted by bondcliff at 8:06 AM on June 21, 2004

11:02 a.m. ET: Mike Melvill and his SpaceShipOne have made it into space. Everything looks good, mission official said, and the craft is now gliding back toward a landing at the Mojave Airport, where it took off earlier this morning.

"I got goose bumps when I saw contrails," Greg Klerkx, author of Lost in Space: The Fall of NASA and the Dream of a New Space Age. "I never thought I'd see this moment, but here it is."
posted by stbalbach at 8:13 AM on June 21, 2004

Faster. Better. Cheaper. It's only possible with government beauracracy out of the the way.

Kind of like how Halliburton has kept down the cost of Iraq.
posted by waldo at 8:15 AM on June 21, 2004

I was unaware that Gagarin was sent up by a private enterprise trying to make space accesible to all and not a government pumping billions and billions of rubles into an militarised space program in an attempt to one up the other side.

Boy were my history text books wrong.
posted by PenDevil at 8:17 AM on June 21, 2004

Who cares about your ego stroking, ed.

Anyone popping the cork yet? Man this is a great day.
posted by stbalbach at 8:21 AM on June 21, 2004

This is absolutely awesome. I feel like a kid again (and I really love the names Rutan comes up with for his craft -- "White Knight", "Space Ship One" -- the latter isn't terribly original at first blush, but I now think it smartly recalls the can-do attitude of the people making this stuff happen).

Rutan has some crazy sideburns, doesn't he?
posted by Kikkoman at 8:33 AM on June 21, 2004

Kudos to Mike Melvill, Paul Allen, and co. I'm glad I was able to see this live.
posted by riffola at 8:34 AM on June 21, 2004

But if we don't go into space, who will signal the Vulcan's to protect us from the Klingons?

Seriously, space exploration is important stuff. The trick will be getting out of our solar system in order to really realize the full potential. But it takes time, and steps, and complaining that its not worth it because we get no immediate benefits is somewhat shortsighted, because we have to look to the future of space exploration, and not just the here-and-now.
posted by benjh at 8:34 AM on June 21, 2004

It really is about survival.

Yeah, it's definitely more fantastic than trying to live sensibly with what we have. We must find virgin planets and rape them-- our current fuck-pig is about to die from the abuse but we can't take it easier on her.
posted by Mayor Curley at 8:34 AM on June 21, 2004

Kind of like how Halliburton has kept down the cost of Iraq.

Wow. That's a stretch.

Ed -- What's so bad about ego?

Also, when you said it had been done before I thought you were talking about this guy.
posted by coelecanth at 8:34 AM on June 21, 2004

We must find virgin planets and rape them-- our current fuck-pig is about to die from the abuse but we can't take it easier on her.

Aww, Curley...are you trying to make me horny?
posted by ChrisTN at 8:56 AM on June 21, 2004

Amazing that a group of enthusiasts seem to be able to do what France and Germany could not.

Mayor Curley, I think you're a very strange individual, referring to your home as a "fuck-pig."
posted by swerdloff at 9:01 AM on June 21, 2004

Team gets ego stroked, world gets new hope for affordable space exploration. Everybody wins, except a handful of MeFi misers. Go Allen & co!
posted by dagny at 9:02 AM on June 21, 2004

Some people's eyes get real big and they get excited about space because they can envision themselves going up there, and they build up the whole thing into the pinnacle of human experience.

The truth is we will rape and destroy every orb and irregularly-shaped body we touch. I mean, it's nifty and all, and a hell of a fun way to spend money (especially if it's someone else's money). It's shiny and pretty and full of promise and and and and....

Rich boys, rich toys. I'm supposed to be impressed? I'll reserve my awe for things we really need, like cheap safe birth control for anyone who wants it.

And if you want to fund a space program, it's easy. Sell lottery tickets, with the winner getting to go up (or designate another person to take their place). Make 'em real pretty with engravings, so people will put them in frames and whatnot.
posted by beth at 9:03 AM on June 21, 2004

Oh yeah, and just wait til the world sees the first space terrorist. We are human, we bring our troubles with us.
posted by beth at 9:07 AM on June 21, 2004

> Faster. Better. Cheaper. It's only possible with government
> beauracracy out of the the way.

Faster. Better. Cheaper. It's only possible because of the billions of
public funding that got us to the point where it now costs only a few
million dollars to build something that NASA built 40 years ago.

Get Real.
posted by NewBornHippy at 9:12 AM on June 21, 2004

/me cheers! (and poo-poos on the poo-pooers.)

The truth is we will rape and destroy every orb and irregularly-shaped body we touch.

Hey, it's what we do. You can't fight your nature.
posted by rushmc at 9:14 AM on June 21, 2004

Whether or not this flight is actually a stepping stone for spaceflight or not, I love how ANY activities in space bring out all the tools that think OMG EVERYTHING MUST BE DONE IN THE NAME OF IMPROVING THE EARTH. WHERE'S MY CANCER CURE?

Can't we do ANYTHING just because we can or want to? Or just because it might be fun?

And if everything we do is supposed to be improving the Earth, your using precious resources to post could've gone to cancer research instead. Or I bet some kid whose single mother had her electricity shut off and can't cook a warm meal feels great warmth in the fact that you squandered some electricity to post a rant on Metafilter.

Just spare us, we've heard it before.
posted by yupislyr at 9:20 AM on June 21, 2004

the sentiments of beth, Mayor Curley, etc... are exactly why space exploration should be privatised - it's a luxury and is certainly not supported by all. On the other and, there are many that are very enthusiastic about it, and they can and will find the funding for it on there own.

NewBornHippy, you're the one that needs to get real. NASA is just evolving into NSF of the space industry. The federal government funds NSF to prime the R&D pump, but the expectation is that in the long run private industry will pick up ideas explored in NSF research and run with them, creating jobs and building up the economy. It's a good division or labor - researchers just want to do research, they don't want to have to worry about what the "market" wants or how to productize things. Likewise, industrialist don't want to spend a lot of time barking up the wrong tree with their R&D, they need someone to scout the territory. Once the way is known, they're the most suited to make it accessible to all. It's a very productive dynamic balance of interests.

Concerns about our potential for exploitation and misuse are going to be valid regardless of the funding model for space, but as others point out, it's a symptom of human nature that we need to resolve, not just a symptom of space exploration.
posted by badstone at 9:34 AM on June 21, 2004

Beth, Curley -- I just love your attitude. You must really hate your species to believe that we can and should live with no impact. Get used to the fact that there are now so many people on the face of the planet that we can no longer live like noble savages. Now go tend your fucking organic garden and leave the rest of us to our evolution, thanks.

Actually, you'd think you people would be cheering the space elevator concept and requesting that our gov't stop sending up huge, polluting explosive roman candles into space and dump money into the carbon nanotube research that's necessary to build it. After all, it'd be solar powered and would have practically no environmental impact, since it would be built on an existing structure in the ocean. Being able to create long-strand carbon nanotubes would have a lot of benefits here on earth, too ... they'd allow computers to be MUCH smaller than they are today, since nanotubes can move one atom or electron down the tube, and they could lead to things like rechargeable drug dispensers that are implanted in the body with timed-release computers; i.e. when a diabetic's computer detects that he/she needs more insulin, the computer simply releases more into the body. That's an example of 'technological backwash' -- and any time people or pushing for a dream, they leave a littering of new technology with all kinds of interesting and very humanitarian applications in their wake.

Keep in mind that the private entrance into space will allow us to move things like dirty, polluting, evil manufacturing and *gasp* MINING mostly off of the face of the planet. It's much easier, once you're up there, to simly snag a convenient Near Earth Object, park it out somewhere beyond the moon, gut it, move the refined ore into another orbit for a factory, and then drop the finished goods down into a canister for a nice ocean landing (kerplunk!) for retreival by boat and a haul into the nearest port. Look, ma, no dirty smoky pollution! No ugly factories! Oh, wait, you'll complain about the microscopic amount of heat that's released into the atmosphere from re-entry. And you'll say that the products that are being produced are unnecessary, of course.

No, space travel & the future won't bring with it a total solution to humanity's problems. Huddling here on the ground, hiding our heads in the sand, and growing our meals in our backyards, loving one another and smoking pot won't, either. (Heck, if anything, the beach party I went to this weekend was proof positive over this -- after a nice, organic meal, a decent amount of organic wine, and some organic pot, an economics PhD and a sociology PhD got in a fistfight over some academic point. *hums: everybody get together, try to love one another...*)

There will always be problems. Technology isn't the problem, and the advancement of technology and the movement of people into space will help solve some existing problems and will create completely new ones that no one can predict.

Beth -- That's a social problem, and until people lay down their ideologies, it's not going to get solved. You try to tell a staunch pro-life christian that they should allow everyone to have birth control in any way at any time. But on the bright side, if space travel/living in space becomes cheap enough, it's easy to relieve overpopulation in the oldest way known ... go elsewhere.

Faster. Better. Cheaper. It's only possible because of the billions of public funding that got us to the point where it now costs only a few million dollars to build something that NASA built 40 years ago.

Nah. Stop talkin' out of your ass. This could've been done twenty years ago; Burt Rutan (The founder and owner of Scaled Composites) just hadn't developed most of the aerospace technology used in the construction of the White Knight (the carrier vehicle) or the actual spacecraft itself yet. Space travel and rocket technology hasn't moved forward significantly in any way since the space shuttle, although some of the payloads (i.e. robots) have certainly moved forward. What has moved forward is using composites (carbon fibre, etc.) in aerospace, and Burt Rutan's company did most of that work.
posted by SpecialK at 9:39 AM on June 21, 2004

It's much easier, once you're up there, to simly snag a convenient Near Earth Object, park it out somewhere beyond the moon, gut it, move the refined ore into another orbit for a factory, and then drop the finished goods down into a canister for a nice ocean landing

So we've done this, then? We should do it more if it's so easy.

SpecialK, I'm sorry. I didn't realize that you were one of those types that feels threatened when someone says that you should conserve. As for the population problem, why couldn't we use the space program budget to fund population control initiatives? Right-- the defense industry woudn't get a cut (unless it involved just vaporizing existing people).

I hope you're right that stripping space of its resources is as simple as parallel parking and the spacemen have gas vouchers.
posted by Mayor Curley at 10:10 AM on June 21, 2004

posted by homunculus at 10:22 AM on June 21, 2004

stripping space of its resources

:) I think the whole of outer space, all 10^31 cubic light years of it, can absorb the footprint of our little old selves for a while. Meanwhile, the Earth cannot. The only way to really "save" the Earth, is for homo sapiens to get the fuck off of it and declare the entire Earth-Moon system a wildlife reserve. We are just getting too damn big for our little old nest to absorb our waste products. Yes, shitting less is an OK temporary solution, we should certainly try to tread as lightly as we can, but we need to plan on moving on ASAP before we poison ourselves and everyone else in the nest to death with our waste.
posted by badstone at 10:23 AM on June 21, 2004

I can't imagine anyone in the private sector investing in manned space flight.

Putting people in spacecraft vastly increases the costs of missions, while greatly diminishing the kinds of missions to be undertaken and the tolerable level of risk in those missions -- the return on investment can never be there.

Before we'll get meaningful private investments in space we need to modify the network of treaties and national statutes which comprise the "Law of Space." The Law of Space is totally socialist in its orientation, and provides virtually no protection to investors, in terms of taking title to extra-terrestrial territory developed or preserving title to minerals and chemicals extracted and brought back to earth.
posted by MattD at 10:23 AM on June 21, 2004

There are two time-tested ways to alleviate population growth:

1. strife through war, disease, and famine
2. going elsewhere

I choose going elsewhere.

Educating the masses will be much more expensive, and possibly quite fruitless. China's efforts in the one-child policy were ignored by farmers who need children to work the fields. It also caused the deaths of unwanted girls, and has caused the gender imbalance that China today considers a crisis.

Massive cultural change? I dare you to dictate such a policy to people simply trying to make ends meet.

It's time to colonize space and stop keeping our eggs in one basket... or were you not aware that a single meteor strike can wipe out this planet's ecosystem, us included? Perhaps that is ideal... hating the overpopulation of the earth and praying for a return to noble savagery through an ecological disaster is an old wish... and hey, thus guy makes it sound cool, even.

But I'd rather preserve every life born, and to me, that means colonize.
posted by linux at 10:27 AM on June 21, 2004

NASA built a mostly reusable launch system 40 years ago? So the big ass rockets falling into the sea were just an optical illusion? This looks to me like what the space-shuttles should have been like.

Anywho, YAY human race, private enterprise, etc. And a big FU to all naysayers. We are growing up and out, and I plan to recieve a trip into outerspace from my kids for my 50th wedding aniversary, paid for by my daughter's succesful zero-gravity-architecture practice.
And what's all the blabbing about birth control et al? This is private funds used for private enterprise, and cost much less than a medium-priced hollywood flick, so go protest at your local cineplex and leave this space for happy celebration.
posted by signal at 10:28 AM on June 21, 2004

I just hope this isn't going to turn into the next form of the Rich Man's Aerial Adventures. We had enough of Richard Branson and What's-His-Name and their hot air balloons. To quote Blackadder, "I don't care if they go up-diddly-up-up; they're still gits."

So, who's offering the prize for the space elevator?
posted by RakDaddy at 10:38 AM on June 21, 2004

SpecialK, I'm sorry. I didn't realize that you were one of those types that feels threatened when someone says that you should conserve. As for the population problem, why couldn't we use the space program budget to fund population control initiatives? Right-- the defense industry woudn't get a cut (unless it involved just vaporizing existing people).

I hope you're right that stripping space of its resources is as simple as parallel parking and the spacemen have gas vouchers.

Au contraire, I've been kind known (hated by some, loved by some) in the business school that I just graduated from for promoting sustainable business practices. I also managed the business affairs of a cafe that makes sustainable, organic food in order to teach sustainability concepts and to demonstrate the importance of sustainability.
However, when it comes to the human footprint on earth, as badstone said so beautifully, shitting less is only a temporary solution. From now on, by governmental decree, you can only pinch a log every other day. Go, try it, see if you can manage it. But seriously, think bigger -- and remember that your ideology blinds you; not everyone feels the way you do.

As for population control, your ideology is blinding you again, just as Christian, Mormon, Hindu, etc. so on so forth ideology blinds people against population control. Many religions feel that they have a duty to 'go forth and multiply', and by telling them that you can't, the least you'll do is get written off as a heritic. Or, are you willing to deal with the effects of population control in this manner as demonstrated by china?
Besides, all we have to do is spread education. Looking at birth rates and the population curve, if global education continues to spread at the current rate and the effect that education and urbanization has on population is consistent, I think we'll see a global population decline in about sixty years.

Look, this is a great example of how independent businessmen can create something in a better way than the government can, almost in spite of the government. It's a dream for many people to go into space, and space is seen as an interesting opportunity by many, many others. Privately funded spaceflight doesn't stop or change the things that people are doing on earth, and in many ways will improve what people on earth are doing if you give it fifty years or so to mature. I'm having a really hard time understanding the hostility ... sure, it's $20 million invested that could've gone towards solving world hunger -- a drop in the bucket compared to what our government has been spending in our tax dollars to solve that same problem over the past year alone. And it'd be gone, poof. These investors spent $20 million in a high tech area that has the potential create a whole bundle of skilled jobs, and they have something pretty darned cool to show for it.

Is there a point to the kvetching, or do you just like to bitch, curley?
posted by SpecialK at 10:39 AM on June 21, 2004

Ed: ever flown in a plane? Used to be just for the rich and big too. Your Model T Ship won't happen tomorrow, but moving space travel to the private sector is already a step that way.
posted by casarkos at 10:55 AM on June 21, 2004

It's another thing altogether to take something as noble as space travel and cheapen the achievement through free enterprise and the purported democratization through capitalism.
How on Earth is this the relative "cheapness" of this "noble" form of transportation effected by the funding source? Why do we always have to assign this religious sanctity to the new? Why shouldn't we share this experience as broadly as possible? What gives you the right to determine who is allowed to fly in space and who is not?

I wouldn't feel comfortable for a second putting myself into a MicrosoftShip or a NikeFlyingSaucer, whereby I am beholden to the Corporation for a little security while traveling into an atmosphere without oxygen.

So, I take it when you go to the airport, you fly on one of those government operated airlines that I've been reading so much about?
posted by badstone at 11:00 AM on June 21, 2004

Ed - So you're not beholden to Honda or Subaru or Ford or whatever you drive when you climb in? I mean, they're making sure that the steering doesn't suddenly lock to the side or a tire doesn't suddenly blow out and throw you into a ditch. Oh, and you're not beholden to United or Southwest Air or Boeing or Airbus when you climb into a plane to go visit a relative or go on vacation either...

So instead of free enterprise, space travel is so noble that it either should be accomplished by an astounding wasteful and beaurocratic government that's making no appreciable progress, or should just be dreamed about and should remain perfect in our hearts and minds?

(And yes, maybe nature abhors a vacuum, but most of the nature they're going to is vaccum...)

And yeah, we were supposed to run out of trees to cut down by 1900, too, according to newspapers in 1850. ;)
posted by SpecialK at 11:00 AM on June 21, 2004

Eh, need to learn to spell check. Sorry.
posted by SpecialK at 11:01 AM on June 21, 2004

ed: If you're so down on "nouveau riche vulgarians" then what could you possibly prefer to launching them into deep space? We could send them with the telephone sanitizers. We'll tell them they're purchasing the chance to boldly speckle where no one has speckled before.
posted by coelecanth at 11:10 AM on June 21, 2004

Wow. Some of the sentiments in this thread are astounding.

The need to conserve resources, limit population, and engineer wisely for the sake of our planet - both publicly and privately - does not mean that cheap, private, independent space transportation is not tremendously important and a crucially positive thing for the progress of mankind. (The flight today is a small first step in what promises to be a quick march.)

You can bark while the train goes by, ed, Mayor Curley, Beth, and find more negative sentiments to throw at this. Or you can realize the foolishness of it and contribute to the causes you think most important, while realizing that they should all be advanced. Burt Rutan and his team did not get where they are by jeering at environmentalists. They reached their goals by decades of hard work in underfunded aerospace engineering enterprises, and a series of spectacular previous records that are characterized by their daring. They damn well deserve today's limelight.
posted by azazello at 11:12 AM on June 21, 2004

NASA built a mostly reusable launch system 40 years ago?

Yes. They called it an "X-15." Just about totally reusable.

SS1 is cool and all, but it has about as much to do with an orbital launch system as a bicycle does. It has a top speed of about Mach 3, or, roughly, 2000mph. Congratulations -- all they need to do to get it into orbit is go another 15,000mph faster.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:34 AM on June 21, 2004

azazello - I'm not astounded at all. I've been helping out some of the Mayor Curleys and Beths and Eds of the world manage their socially just causes without causing them to nosedive straight into the ground for the past few years, and some of the misconceptions that I've run into about the whys and hows of money management and the way businesses works is astounding.

Actually, it's kind of funny. Robert Heinlein, a sci-fi author, said over and over in books that a migration into space and away from a planet is kind of like self-natural selection... the smartest or most able people naturally migrate to newer areas and leave the dumb, misguided, and/or fearful remainder behind...

Ed - Agreed that the government helped define standards of service, which they've done nicely with the Space Shuttle. Now it's time to get the American Airlines and TWA of the world involved, and we saw the first step towards that this morning with Scaled Composite's successful suborbital shot.

And ed, you missed *our* points -- if you're so mistrustful of a corporation that runs or builds a space ship, then you made an astoundingly hypocritical and fallacious argument unless you drive a car that you manufactured yourself or have never ever travelled in an airplane ... that you haven't built yourself. And if you did build it yourself, you most likely built it from a kit or parts developed by Burt Rutan and test-flown by Michael Melville.
posted by SpecialK at 11:37 AM on June 21, 2004

I'm not really sure what your point is here, ed. So the gov't did some of the groundwork in aviation safety. I'd say NASA has done the same type of thing, but now that NASA is thinking smaller rather than larger when it comes to manned spaceflight, it's time for the private sector to build on what's been done and take it further. If you don't think any of the efforts of these guys is going to amount to much, you're free not to invest in any of their companies. If you think that the machines they build aren't going to be safe enough, you're free not to fly in them either.

It's one thing to climb Everest "because it's there." It's another thing altogether to take something as noble as space travel and cheapen the achievement through free enterprise and the purported democratization through capitalism.

I really don't understand the sentiment behind this paragraph. How is space flight especially "noble?" How is free enterprise (gasp!) going to cheapen it?
posted by deadcowdan at 11:48 AM on June 21, 2004

NASA built a mostly reusable launch system 40 years ago?

No. And neither has, for that matter, Scaled Composites.

What they have built is a killer glider with a clever system of gaining altitude. But, in reality, what they've built brings us no closer -- none, whatsoever -- to the commercial use of space than a paper airplane. It does nothing we haven't already done, it teaches us nothing that we don't already know.

The facts are simple.

1) What Rutan has done is something NASA did over 40 years ago. Let's take a small craft, with a rocket on board, hoist it up with an airplane, drop it, and have it fire the rocket to get really high in the air. NASA called it the X-15. It went to 352,400 feet -- 107 km, on August 22, 1963. It went well over Mach 6 several times. Given the amount of instrumentation carried by the X-15, it may well have had a larger payload capacity than SpaceShip One.

The improvements Rutan has made? Carbon fibre, instead of Alloys. Three seats. Half the velocity. This doesn't get us any closer to space. Needed to build a custom lifter for the craft, to get another 10,000 feet of altitude.

There's a reason NASA stopped the "fly and drop" idea for manned orbital boosters. You can only loft so much mass under an airplane, and it's not enough mass to safely get humans into orbit. NASA, in fact, uses this idea to this very day -- working with Orbital Sciences and, yes, Scaled Composites, they developed the Pegasus orbital booster. It can put 1000 pounds into low earth orbit -- and it takes an L-1011 to loft. You'll note that the sales of other boosters is still pretty high. 1000 pounds to LEO isn't that much -- esp. if part of that payload is a booster to get to Geosync or higher.

And the reason it gets 1000 pounds to LEO? It's not reusible, so there's much less of a mass fraction involved in structure. That's more for fuel and payload.

2) SpaceShip One doesn't scale. You cannot take that design, make it larger, and get to orbit. It's not built to be a stepping stone into space. It's built to win bragging rights and $10M.

3) It uses a solid fuel motor. This is a *bad* idea. You cannot turn off a solid motor once it starts. Never mind Challenger. I hope nothing goes wrong with it. Most of the engineers horrified by the Space Shuttle cite the SRBs as one of tier greatest area of concern.

Go ahead, jump up and down for SC and SpaceShip One. But don't think your ride to orbit is any closer. If anything, SS1 is a distraction from finding feasible and economic space access -- as are all of the X prize entries.

At least we're not spending taxpayer money. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, the X-15 taught us lots of useful things about the hypersonic and high-altitude regimes. SpaceShip One has taught us that, well, if you huck a rock hard enough, it goes real high.

Fun ride, probably, but as a reusable launch system?

On preview -- sort of what ROU_Xenophobe said.
posted by eriko at 12:08 PM on June 21, 2004

Xenophobe - That was actually addressed in a slashdot thread here.

Your post is kind of misleading. May I remind you that escape velocity is defined as the initial velocity necessary to leave the Earth's gravity well provided that there is no additional acceleration. As long as your acceleration away from Earth is greater than than the Earth's gravitational acceleration at your distance from it, you will eventually escape Earth's gravity well, and at a speed of much less than Mach 25 to boot. Think of a balloon: they certainly never travel very quickly, but they get very far towards escaping on very small velocity.

A spaceship is not launched like a cannon, but rather, it has engines on it that provide thrust. In this way it is possible to escape Earth's gravity with continual acceleration and never actually experiencing speeds of Mach 25. You are right, to get into a low-Earth orbit one would need to be travelling at Mach 25, but that is simply a result of the Newtonian mechanics of an orbit plotted at that arbitrary altitude. Any number of different orbits - such as a parabolic orbit arcing away from the Earth - could have any number of different (higher or lower) necessary velocities.

And besides, once you are in space, without having to worry about air resistance, it's trivially easy to build up that extra velocity. Your post makes it sound like getting to Mach 3 is trivial and they need to put in eight times the work to reach LEO. This is simply not true. Getting to 100km through most of the atmosphere has already accomplished most of the work. The rest is easy. It's not as simple as looking at the difference between the numbers 3 and 25 and saying, "Oh, they have eight times more speed they need to get!"

Rutan has said many times that this is just the "Tier One" craft. They have another craft in development at the moment that will be an orbiter.
posted by SpecialK at 12:08 PM on June 21, 2004

Do you honestly believe that the results would be the same if the priorities involved profit over standards and service?

That's why the Federal Aviation Administration sets the rules, and the private airlines follow them when they deliver their services.
posted by badstone at 12:09 PM on June 21, 2004

eriko - i thought it was a hybrid motor - turn of the nitrous oxide and it stops burning.
posted by andrew cooke at 12:13 PM on June 21, 2004

Sweet mother, the Downers in this thread.

Okay. Here's some givens that we can all stop arguing about:

Yes, government led the way into space. Our grandparents's, parents's and our own tax dollars have paid for it, hundreds of billions of dollars since the 1950s. Great, fine, wonderful, lots of advancements.

Yes, there's a lot of other bad crap going on here on earth that needs to be fixed and should have money and effort thrown at them.

Are we good with those? Can we all agree there? I hope so...

ROU, the X-15 was a technology testbed, not a payload-launching spacecraft. It was part of the process of developing space flight and testing everything from rocket engines to flight-capable and heat resistant and spaceworthy materials, to say nothing of life-support systems for astronauts. So even though it was a reusable spacecraft, comparing it to the Space Shuttle is apples to oranges, and can be discounted. Sorry.

The comparison of it to SpaceShip One is actually probably more accurate, in that Rutan is developing and testing new spaceframe technology and materials application and aerodynamic configurations as well as the specific goal of competing for the X Prize -- which by the way will only pay off half the investment, so Paul Allen's losing money. That's okay tho, because he can afford it.

Rutan has publicly stated that he wants to continue developing this technology into larger and more-capable reusable lifting systems to start putting things in actual orbit. Note that since most of the $20 million already spent has been in R&D, future flights of SS1 each cost, essentially, fuel, parts, consumables and payroll. I.E., should the system prove as reliable as Rutan's other aircraft, it just gets cheaper and cheaper.

Designing something that could put things in orbit cheap is a Good Thing To Do.

That said, I'm all about the Space Elevator. I've already sent them my investment money.

I'd write a lot more but it's lunchtime. Put me in the "we need to get off this rock and out into space for survival and betterment" column.
posted by zoogleplex at 12:13 PM on June 21, 2004

ed - Napoleon had an ego. So did Salk. So do you. Many things good and bad occur because of ego. Nothing could be more natural.

eriko -- minor point: they do shut down the rocket motor. I read about it on space.com.
posted by coelecanth at 12:30 PM on June 21, 2004

Might I remind the naysayers that the '03 Wright Flyer was also pretty damned useless and unimpressive.
posted by bondcliff at 12:34 PM on June 21, 2004

SpecialK: I saw that too, and the immediate and long list of people shooting it down.

Yeah, you don't, technically, have to go Mach25 to get to orbit. You could, for example, just go straight up to geosynchronous altitude and stop thrusting. But guess what -- you'll find that you've spent the same energy as going there the more traditional go-real-damn-fast way. There's no free energy lunch.

And it's not trivially easy go accelerate from 2000 to 17000mph. You need a lot of fuel to accelerate from 16000 to 17000mph, and you need to accelerate that fuel to 16000mph, and that takes a lot of fuel, and... this is why fuel requirements are exponential to speed, not linear -- and why lots of work and thought goes into systems like space-elevators and Lofstrom loops and linear-accelerators, where you don't have to accelerate your fuel.

I don't mean to take anything away from Rutan and Co. It's an impressive accomplishment. But suborbitals hops and orbital spaceflight are totally different ball games. I'm giving props to NASA, yo yo*, not dissing Rutan, if that makes any sense at all.

So even though it was a reusable spacecraft, comparing it to the Space Shuttle is apples to oranges, and can be discounted. Sorry.

My point was that the X-15 did everything SS1 did, and more, 40 years ago.

*Obviously this would all go a lot faster if NASA would give contracts back to Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:00 PM on June 21, 2004

In case someone else hasn't already pointed this out to the organic gardeners who seem to be so against space exploration... take a look at what the space program has done for you so far!!!
posted by matty at 1:04 PM on June 21, 2004

This is private funds used for private enterprise, and cost much less than a medium-priced hollywood flick, so go protest at your local cineplex and leave this space for happy celebration.


And what the fuck is wrong with this Ed guy? Probably watched The Corporation one too many times?
posted by VeGiTo at 2:10 PM on June 21, 2004

I just think it's too early in the game to get all up in arms with the naysaying. Rutan and Scaled are a relatively small effort, with some big ideas and dreams. There are at least 4 or 5 other small private space ventures out there, including Jeff Bezos' BlueOrigin, which are developing various types of civilian space launch systems. Burt's got an awfully good track record though. And Paul Allen's got a lot more money to throw in... and he's certainly not the only billionaire out there.

There is already a large commercial demand for space launches - I believe a majority of the satellites up there now are commercial in nature, mostly telecommunications systems of one type or another. Currently, nearly all of those lifts are being done by government or quasi-governmental space agencies, with the exception (as far as I know, I could be wrong) of SeaLaunch. The French Ariane and US Delta V's carry most of the heavy stuff, followed by the various Russian boosters.

However there is a small but growing market for much smaller satellites. As technology gets more advanced, the amount of, say, sensor power you can cram into a small object gets larger. I'd guess that right now, someone could put the sort of gear that the original LandSats carried into a package weighing 500 kilos or so, for a fraction of the price.

So, if Burt Rutan can come up with a system that will put something like what the Pegasus booster can lift into orbit for around $2,000 per kilo, there will be a line of people a mile long waiting to put their sats on his ship - because that $1,000,000, if spent on a Space Shuttle or Ariane launch, would only put about 5 kilos into orbit right now (current launch costs are about $100,000 per pound, or $220,000 per kilo).

Think about that - it currently costs $110,000,000 or so to lift 500 kilos to space on a current standard launch system. ONE HUNDRED TEN MILLION DOLLARS. And that's just for the lift to orbit - not counting the cost of creating and building your satellite and anything else you need to deal with.

If I could put the same payload in space for $1,000,000... well you better believe I'd put a good chunk of the other $109,000,000 I would have spent on that launch into other good use. Right off the bat, on miniaturizing as much of the functionality as possible to either cram more capability into the sat or to cut the launch weight even further. Might even donate some of it to worthy causes!

So, let's see what happens, shall we? As has been pointed out many times in this thread, nobody in 1903 guessed that people would be flying all over the world in airplanes, routinely, just 75 years later.

Just a thought - there is an immediate military application for this. In theater, On-site, launch-on-demand high-altitude photography. A manned rocket spy plane, capable of launch from just about anywhere as the strategic intel situation demands. Sometimes the KH-11 is not positioned conveniently to get the pics you want when you want them; an adaptation of Rutan's spaceplane would allow you to deploy the launch system to a convenient airfield near the battle area, go up to space and take hi-res photos of the exact spot you want, and fly them right back down to your airfield, in less than an hour. That's a very handy tactical and strategic intel asset.

Not to mention the fact that you could attach any number of other payloads of more destructive nature to such a launcher. Yeah yeah, I know, we have ballistic missiles. But there could be enough military potential for the Air Force to buy a bunch of these from Burt, eh?

And if you tried to tell me that Boeing could whip up a system like that for the US military for total project cost $20 million over 5 years, I'd probably bust a blood vessel laughing at you.

Let's sit back and watch what happens. My feeling is that it's going to be amazing watching it happen. I'm still going for the Space Elevator though; I think it's a better idea. Stop mucking around with all this high explosive stuff and just climb up there.
posted by zoogleplex at 2:20 PM on June 21, 2004

man, some of you people get worked up over stupid shit.
posted by angry modem at 2:41 PM on June 21, 2004

Without reading any of these awesome posts i'm just going to link to an essay i had to write for my final paper in a History of the US space program class. I address privatizing space, militarizing space, and a brief bit on how we got to where we are. It's a bit dense, like 20 pages, but i have some obscure refrences so if you want to look into some other strange sources its a good place to start.


It would be kick ass if at least one of you would read it and offer some commentary, anyway now i have to go back and read down to see everyone elses point.
posted by sourbrew at 5:35 PM on June 21, 2004

man, some of you people get worked up over stupid shit.

Agreed. Actually, i think that can be applied to the whole planet. WTG, SpaceShipUno.
posted by moonbird at 7:16 PM on June 21, 2004

The Mile High Club will soon get even higher.
posted by Dukebloo at 10:02 PM on June 21, 2004

... stay down here on our single planet and wait for the next asteroid to smack us into extinction

You do realize that even if the Earth were smacked with an asteroid it would still be easier to survive here than any place else in our solar system, right?
posted by moonbiter at 10:32 PM on June 21, 2004

Define "easy". If Earth goes the way of Venus, there would certainly be less hostile environments in the solar system than Earth. But, in general, you're absolutely right.

His point is still valid, though, because while even a hostile Earth would be more benign than most anywhere (or everywhere) in the solar system, the process of it becoming hostile could so damage the human manufacturing infrastructure as to make repairs to civilization impossible. Meanwhile, self-sustaining (key point!) extraterrestrial enclaves would be, um, self-sustaining. It might be impossible or impractical for those folks to transport their industries down to the Earth's surface. Therefore, even if their environment is inherently more hostile, they're adapted to and self-sufficient within it. The damaged Earth civiization very well may not be. So, it's still a very good idea to get all the eggs out of one basket.

Note that short of a runaway greenhouse effect, I seriously doubt a calamity could set human Earth civilization back more than a few hundred years. Certainly it wouldn't wipe us out. Life might really, really suck for the survivors, though.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:24 PM on June 21, 2004

1) I was wrong about the SS1's engine, it's a hybrid, not a solid. However, hybrids are far from proven technology.

2) current launch costs are about $100,000 per pound, or $220,000 per kilo

Only on the Ariane 5, a new, not yet fully proven, large orbital booster that was initially designed as a man rated booster for the Hermes mini-shuttle. The STS costs far more.

But current launch costs are getting far cheaper. Space Exploration Technologies is building two new boosters. They've signed launch deals for both of them. They're offering launches of tier smaller model, the Falcon 1, at $5.9 million per. Going into a 200km 28° orbit, it will loft 1474 pounds. That's not $100,000 per pound, that's $4,000. And the cost keeps dropping. The Falcon V contract price is $12 million, and to that same orbit, offers a (downrated) 9240 pounds lofted -- which works out to $1300 a pound.

The theory behind the Falcon launchers is simple. They're not building a sports car. They're building a truck. Trucks are reliable, but don't offer peak performance. By not trying to extract every possible pound of loft from the booster, they're aiming to build a vastly cheaper and more reliable booster.

I think it'll work -- and I think that, of all the possibilities for chemical rockets, they're on the right track. Go for 90% performance, make it reliable, reuse only part of the craft, and drive down the costs with volume.

SSTO is a lovely dream, reusable SSTO even more so, but until you beat the twin problems of a .96 fuel fraction *and* the fact that every kilogram of a craft that comes back from orbit is one kilogram of useful payload lost, it becomes obvious that, for putting payload into orbit, reusable orbiters (as opposed to reusable stages) is a bad idea.

For manned craft, that may be different. There's a lot of systems that have to come back if you expect your astronauts to come back alive, not throwing those away may be cheaper. However, building another Shuttle -- which attempts to be a manned orbiter *and* a payload booster, results in something that works poorly at both. Heck the only reason the Shuttle does what it can do is that it launches with three fifths of the thrust of the Saturn 5.

Indeed, both the Shuttle and Space Ship One prove the same thing. If you throw a rock hard enough, it'll go really high. That's easy.
posted by eriko at 6:58 AM on June 22, 2004

I can't imagine anyone in the private sector investing in manned space flight.

Two words: Space tourism.
posted by rushmc at 9:36 AM on June 22, 2004

Indeed, both the Shuttle and Space Ship One prove the same thing. If you throw a rock hard enough, it'll go really high. That's easy.

That's all any escape from earth's orbit (or, in the case of the space elevator, "pull a rock really high", cept you gotta get the pully up there first.) is, so I'm not sure what your point is.

This is still the first time that a rock has been thrown this hard by a private party. That's what's worth noting. Who cares if it's been done before; if private industry is going to catch up with governmental agencies, they're going to have to pursue some of the same steps to see how their solutions work.

There's two good reasons to use manned craft and to get regular traffic to orbit. One, it's the dream factor. It's a big dream for many to get off of the planet, to get away from humanity, and like it's been said many times above, people will pay for that. Two, it's the repair factor. If we hadn't had the Space Shuttle, how would we have done the Hubble repair? I mean, you're attacking millions or billions of dollars to the tip of a firecracker and lighting it at the bottom. If it doesn't go boom and makes it into orbit, there have historically been some pieces that jolted loose or they find out weren't quite right when they flip the switch on the ground. So instead of going, "Oh well, better luck next time!", it'd be kind of cool to regularly be able to repair or refuel/service them. That ability would also reduce the need to engineer the type of redundancy and electrical/fuel supplies into sattelites that makes them so complex and heavy and hard to launch now. Agreed, SS1 wouldn't be able to do it, but Rutan supposedly has another ship, an orbiter, in development. What's paying someone a million bucks to throw a human up there to fix a malfunctioning sattelite when a new one, plus launch, costs twenty million?

If you're interested in human space flight and what it could do, and you'd like to read some near future sci-fi, check out Michael Flynn's "Firestar" ... excellent book, well-written, great plot. The rest of the books in the series are nowhere near as good as the first one and I wouldn't reccomend them.
posted by SpecialK at 10:03 AM on June 22, 2004

I was gifted with the opportunity watch the flight. And I mean gifted. I didn't find out until very late Sunday night that they were inviting the public to Mojave Airport to watch. I had sent an email to a friend, who answered "I'll be there in 30 minutes" just as I was going to bed early Monday morning.

Who needs caffiene at 3am when you have giddy schoolboy excitement? Well, I do, but just not as much.

Grab a few gallons of water, throw the laptop, camera, and binoculars in the backpack, fold up the folding chair and go. We leave my driveway at about 3:30, stop once in upper Lancaster for some snacks and a smoke break about 4:30 and arrived in the parking field about 5:15 am after an easy and orderly queue directed by Boy Scouts, Explorers and Civil Air Defense folks. Practically perfect easy going.

The winds were gusty as they are just before dawn in the Mojave high desert, but were mild and calmed down after sunrise.

As always, the skies out there were just indescribably large. Enourmous bright white, gold and blue yawning domes of sheer, palpable space and openness, almost unbearable in the nakedness they bestow.

It was fantastic and gorgeous. So many people out there. Right wing, left wing, no wing, chicken wing, Grandmas and grandpas, little kids both deathly bored and absolutely enthralled, WW2 vets, aviation addicts, some aerospace archeology dude in an Indiana Jones getup that wasn't overtly ironic, Burning Man freaks bedecked in gadgets, boots and black, Mormon missionaries in shirts and ties, and a whole lot of people with silly antennae on their heads. The libertarian nut cocktail brigade was in full effect, and I use the euphamism quite endearingly. There was a guy with a "Hey Mr. Spaceman! Take me with you!" sign. Of course.

Everyone was grinning, strangers talked to each other, friends old and new recognized each other unexpectedly, or in some cases, "Fancy seeing you here!" with wild, knowing grins. Newscasters scurried around and were generally dwarfed by the mass of folks, some of which were wielding much more gear than they were. People were delightfully nice and well behaved, it seemed. Patient and smiling.

Energies - as they say - were high, laden with expectation. There was an air or a strong scent of what it must have been like in the heyday of the barnstormer. This wasn't a sanctified NASA launch, there were hulks of jetliners being dismantled or repaired smack dab in the middle of anything, and rows of them parked in the distance. The scene set before us almost being apocalyptic in nature, post-apocalyptic, rebirthing. Surreal isn't a heavy enough word for it. Bewildering approaches, and will suit, and I'll probably use that word again before I'm through.

The PA system was insufferable in it's audio quality, though informative, entertaining, and timely.

And amazingly, more or less on time the chase planes began to taxi for take off. People went yay and whistled with sincere enthusiasm. Scanners and ham radios crackled alive as the chattter between ground, tower, and air began to liven up.

And I'm going to just drop a spoiler here. I should perhaps put this right at the top, but where's the story in that? Here's my one line description for the whole shebang: "Delightfully and wonderfully mundane." That's it. And it's absolutely gorgeous to see. Watching the whole experience in person was remarkably nonviolent compared to just watching video of a NASA Saturn V or SST launch. Granted, there are mechanical and logistical reasons for this, but I feel there are valid philosophical reasons and differences as well, considering the birthplace of rocketry, be it an arrow or V2 missle.

WhiteKnight and SpaceShipOne are some seriously odd looking aircraft. They're perhaps even difficult to look at, but almost impossible to take your eyes off of. WhiteKnight is also impressively quiet.

Mundane, and bewildering. Okay, brain, you got that? You're not getting heatstroke this early in the morning, are you? Drink your water, piss clear.

So, the planes go up. And they spiral around and around and climb, and we all strain our necks and eyes trying to track them, losing them in the sun now and then. I don't know how pre-radar (or current) fighter pilots do it. These are nice, big, shiny white planes and they get lost in that swallowing sky like dust motes.

Watching them or trying to find them dazzles me silly a few times. More than once I feel like I'll just fall up into space. I'm plagued by now noticable floaters in my vision as I stare into the blue and sunspots from accidentally getting full eyeballs of the damnable thing. Then finally the ship is spotted just below the sun and moments later the trail from SpaceShipOne is seen zooming right up out of the flare of blinding sunlight.

We heard Mike Melville's jokes all the way up until the trim got stuck or glitched, when he began to get real nervous sounding for a bit. (Later, I saw the video of the apogee with the bag of M&Ms floating around, and I was giddy all over again.)

And so, the planes come down as they went up; Quiet, unassuming, gorgeous, peaceful. Flight for the sake of it, because we can, because it's beautiful and graceful and perhaps unites us in a dream to become more than the mud we've spawned from.

And that's life - not to disparage the honorable primordial ooze that may have birthed us. To self organize into something more. To strive, and try, because until you try, you never really know if you can. To grow, and expand.

After SpaceShipOne has landed, the chase planes land, and WhiteKnight does a high performance tower buzz, just because it can, gracefully pulling up and banking away over the centerline of the runway, showing us her graceful and unusual lines from below. It looks and feels like the scene at the beginning of the Robotech movie or graphic novel, at the dedication of the SDF-1, especially with the derilict hulks of old era jetliners scattered about, and these graceful, new, strange and effiecient planes buzzing around. Yeah, I went there, and I'm wearing my geek badge on my sleeve, day-glo stitching illuminated in UV leds. But it feels like that, looks like that, and gives me the willies just like that.

After the VIPs celebrate out of our sight and the hand shaking and hugs are over, they tow SpaceShipOne back up the runway for us to ogle and cheer at. Michael Melville rode atop the towed craft looking a little bewildered himself, and perhaps a little shakey. Almost tentatively he waved and raised his arms in salutation, and was visibly affected by the cheering throng. He let the cheers die down, and raised his arms again triumphantly to even more cheers, visibly moved by the whole thing.

At one point he reached down for his camera, and took pictures of all of us taking pictures of him. The crowd laughed and cheered, and waved back obligingly and cheerfully, appreciating the irony and the sentiment. Somehow we were all part of this, and felt it, and it was good and fine. And really, we are all part of it. How many thousands and thousands of people there have bought Microsoft products over the years - willingly and unwillingly - allowing Paul Allen the resources to sponser this crazy thing? Even if we only came out to cheer and ogle and spectate, how could you not feel included?

As the craft came to the a rest at one end of the crowd, one of the libertarian nutters ran out on the tarmac with a sign to hand Melville: "SpaceShipOne: Government none!" to the cheers of the crowd. He took the sign, grinning madly, and to us in the crowd it looked like he was laying the sign down on the other side of the ship to hide it or something, but he was just showing it to some of the crew walking on the other side of the ship. People called for him to hold the sign up for a photo-op, perhaps a PR nightmare for Scaled Composites, and he just turned around and held it up, grinning even more, people cheering and hooting, clapping and laughing.

So delightfully not like NASA, flexible, endearing, personable. Grungy and graceful. Human, not superhuman. One of us. And in that, the dream of millions is even closer.

Yes, it was a stunt - but a glorious one. But what else is a stunt but a proof of concept? What else is showing off but dancing? Proof of concept, proof of skill, proof of ability. Dreams become tangible. Thoughts and ideas materialized, pulled from the ether, sculpted from nothingness into something real. And again, it's so beautiful my hair is still standing on end nearly twenty-four hours later.

To me, the most beautiful thing of all about all this is the demonstrated concept of the boundary of space not being really a boundary, but a gradient. It's not a wall to punch through, it's not a barrier. It's a gentle and easy gradient to climb, welcoming, beckoning for us to come explore it's vastness, and in that exploration and vastness, we can learn things about ourselves we might not learn anywhere else.

The Scaled Composites SpaceShipOne craft - to me, in my honestly humble opinion - shows and embodies a very clear, but highly unusual plan. Rutan is up to something big, and the Voyager flight - and this one - are just stepping stones. The man is very clearly advancing forward into the grips of an inescapable vision that makes Hughes look like a greengrocer. (And so we stand on the shoulders of giants.)

I Am Not An Aerospace Engineer, but I used to dream of being one as a kid. My brother and Dad and I would build solid balsa wood free flight thermal gliders or WhiteWings craft, and try to get them to catch rising thermals and vanish - spiraling slowly - into the sky.

We spent nearly two decades making paper and wood airplanes off and on. Simple one sheet of paper affairs made with office and art supplies. We'd make some rather impressive still-air indoor gliders. This hands on making of airfoils and thinking about it and just throwing out the rulebook for making little toys that fly gives you a sort of ability to reason and see what someone like Rutan is thinking.

And if he's thinking what I think he may be thinking and he's planning what I think he might be planning, his genius and single-mindedness on a scale of 1-10 is utterly mad, in the best way possible. I can only expect more of the same from him, and others like him.

Godspeed and keep dreaming, Burt Rutan and crew. Keep climbing. And don't forget to take us with you!

This article has also been posted at everything2.com. This article is published under a Creative Commons license. All rights reserved.
posted by loquacious at 3:24 PM on June 22, 2004 [13 favorites]

Nice report, thanks, loquacious!
posted by rushmc at 5:26 PM on June 22, 2004

Thanks, rushmc. It was an honor.
posted by loquacious at 8:49 AM on June 23, 2004

Excellent comment loquacious!
posted by riffola at 7:42 PM on June 23, 2004

posted by amberglow at 8:01 PM on June 23, 2004

I'm glad everyone had a swell time. Very Retro. Very NASCAR-ish.

So after the little whizztoy lands, I'm standing around in a tight white t-shirt, grease-slicked pompadour reflecting the bright Mojave sky, reaching for the pack of cigs rolled up in my sleeve, radiating the right stuff and looking for a gig on a gasoline alley space crew when I spot an alien chick walking towards me talking into a really strange-looking cellphone; she's shaking her head, saying something about noise and nostalgia, and as she passes me her eyes roll skyward and I hear her exclaim, "Yes!- that's exactly what I thought - it was all so poignantly unimpressive!"
posted by Opus Dark at 9:07 PM on June 23, 2004

I am a bit tired of hearing all the "ho-hum, SpaceShipOne is nothing special" comments here and elsewhere, so let me try to set some things straight (why yes, I am an aerospace engineer).

There is a big difference between craft that carry people and craft that are built to carry people: thing of the difference between a fighter jet and a jetliner: both have the capability to carry people on board, but only the latter is designed around that capability: nothing is more important to a jetliner than carrying people.

With that in mind, WhiteKnight/SpaceShipOne is:
  • The first passenger spacecraft of any kind, anywhere, ever. Did you notice that Mr. Melville stepped out of a spacecraft wearing a regular pilot's overalls? not even a pressurized suit, much less a full spacesuit? After going Mach 3 and hitting 5G+? SS1 is the first spacecraft to have a fully pressurized cabin, and the first to be built around the comfort of passengers first (decreased decelaration, increased safety features, pressurized cabin).

  • The first passenger aircraft to exceed Mach 3: Concorde only did Mach 2.

  • The first all-composite spacecraft, ever.

  • The first spacecraft to use a hybrid rocket, ever (I believe it was actually the first operational use of a hybrid rocket ever, but not as sure).

  • The first spacecraft to have a near fool-proof re-entry method, ever. That feathered wing is not just cool: it is ingenious, in the true sense of the word.

  • The first operational, purposedly-built dual-stage-to-orbit platform: the X-15 used a B-52, the Pegasus an L-1011 (IIRC).

  • Now, all that is admittedly just innovation, the progress of technology. But I also have to say as an ex-aero engineer who followed the project since White Knight was spotted on MeFi, studying Rutan's design is like studying a master-piece: nothing more than it needs to be and nothing less, truly a thing of beauty. Paul Allen bought, for the price of a luxury yaught, a Mona Lisa...
    posted by costas at 7:13 AM on June 25, 2004

    « Older Hot Sauce!   |   Why Smart People Believe Weird Things Newer »

    This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments