Glittering in the early-morning sunlight, SpaceShipOne, the first privately financed spacecraft, sent pilot Michael Melvill, 62, into the fringes of space yesterday. Melvill, the first person to earn his astronaut wings without direct government support, has a lot to be proud of. But without additional support his flight, historic as it is, may not usher in the era of space tourism and cheap space access some eagerly await.
These optimists compare SpaceShipOne to Charles Lindberg’s 1927 flight from New York to Paris. Competing for the $25,000 (about $270,000 in today’s dollars) Ortig Prize, Lindberg’s flight created immense interest in commercial air travel and ushered in a new era of transportation. Within 25 years of Lindberg’s flight, most Americans had flown on airplanes and commercial airports had sprouted across the country.
But SpaceShipOne may have more similarities with a previous effort by Burt Rutan, the craft’s chief designer, than it has with Lindberg’s Spirit of St. Louis. Before SpaceShipOne, Rutan was probably best known for designing Voyager, the lightweight the craft that his brother Dick and Jenna Yeager flew around the world in 1987 without stopping or refueling. While Voyager’s flight transfixed the world for a week in, it had few immediate impacts. Boeing is only now building its first commercial jetliner, the 7E7, that makes heavy use of the advanced lightweight composites that Rutan used to build Voyager.
Neither Rutan nor Melvill, furthermore, will likely become a celebrity on anything near Lindberg’s scale. While Lindberg was the first person to ever fly nonstop from New York to Paris, Melvill only replicated the sub-orbital flight that Alan Shepherd took in 1961. While it’s a triumph of cost–putting Shepherd into space cost about three percent of America’s GDP while Monday’s flight cost less than one-one thousandth of one percent–the flight he took is not a true technological triumph.
What does make the flight interesting is its impetus. Part of the incentive for the SpaceShipOne flight comes from the privately financed $10 million Ansari X Prize. The prize–which requires two flights in a ship capable to carrying three people within a two-week period–did attract attention from the media. But serious business showed little interest. Although SpaceShipOne’s actual cost remains secret, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen invested at least $20 million in the project. Rides into space, which an Arlington, Va. company is selling for $100,000 a pop, may make up the difference, but Allen likely invested more to advance technology than make a profit. Major space contractors never even budged to win the prize.
As the government’s own space program–NASA–seems unable to sustain interest or excitement about space exploration, the government might seriously investigate trying to up the ante just as the X Prize did. Lindberg could rely on an existing aircraft industry that had developed for 20 years from government contracts (to carry mail and supply the military). Space industry, however, has yet to interest any big players: While over 20 teams (about four of them serious) have announced their desire for the X Prize, no major defense or space contractors have shown interest. Particularly when it comes to moving forward on technologies with dubious immediate commercial prospects, governments have always played an important role in funding research and development.
With Rutan’s team likely to win the X Prize in the coming months, Congress might seriously consider pitching a much richer “Y Prize” for a repeated private orbital flight on a similar craft. While sub-orbital flight may attract some wealthy tourists, placing private spacecraft into sustainable low-earth orbit would open the door for space hotels, greatly expanded satellite communications networks, zero gravity drug and crystal manufacturing, and a bevy of other uses. Orbital flight, however, is much harder and more expensive: It’s unlikely that today’s governments could do it for less than $250 million a person.
To keep the private sector involved, Congress could encourage private citizens to support a government-sponsored prize just as it encouraged private business to find uses for air mail. In fact, it might appropriate up to $50 million–all private contributions–to a prize fund matched 1:1. Thousands of private citizens gave money for the X-Prize, and billionaires staked millions. A richer prize with explicit government support could attract even more interest. Unlike government space efforts, which always get delayed, a private fund overseen by an independent board could set an absolute deadline: Miss the deadline and the money would revert to the treasury. If the fund failed to arouse interest, taxpayers would lose nothing.
If the private sector did manage to get humans into orbit, it would be a small task to develop a working orbital craft into the “Crew Exploration Vehicle” that NASA envisions to replace the space shuttle. A part of the $15 billion NASA spends each year could fund prizes, with the rest going for tax cuts, deficit reduction, or whatever else the nation needs.
Other rewards could encourage the development of private space stations, science missions to the outer planets, and even landings on the moon and Mars. There’s even a direct recent precedent for the government paying for space-exploration prizes. Earlier this year, the House passed a bill (404-1) from California Republican Dana Rohrabacher that will hand out $3,000 yearly rewards to amateur astronomers who locate asteroids that might hit the earth.
Prizes can make a difference; Congress should follow the lead of the private visionaries who made history Monday.
–Eli Lehrer is an associate fellow of the Sagamore Institute.