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Piers Bizony -- Private Companies' Space Technologies Are Challenging NASA

By Piers Bizony
Sunday, July 19, 2009

On Oct. 4, 2004, a group of revolutionaries in the Mojave Desert sent a little dart-shaped rocket called SpaceShipOne beyond the Earth's atmosphere.

Burt Rutan, the ship's designer, had gotten tired of waiting for NASA to change -- to become more nimble and innovative -- or else get out of the way. So he created the first purely privately funded manned space vehicle. "Government space agencies want to commit us to their old-fashioned technologies," he says. "We already know how that stuff works. What we need is the freedom to try some new, smarter and less expensive ideas."

On the ground, watching the smoke trails through powerful binoculars, were two lifelong space fans from Britain: Richard Branson and his colleague Will Whitehorn. Branson had just announced that his Virgin Group was ready to finance SpaceShipOne's larger successor. More than $100 million was allocated to set up a new company, led by Whitehorn and called Virgin Galactic, to develop a suborbital space liner accommodating six passengers.

This was the opening salvo from a clan of wealthy Internet pioneers and business entrepreneurs who grew up in the Apollo era and imagined that by the time they came of age, the experience of spaceflight would be available to thousands. But to date, barely 500 of the world's 6 billion people have left the Earth's bounds.

Forty years after NASA's Apollo 11 triumph, these men concluded, it is the space agency itself that has kept us grounded. NASA has suffered tragedies with Challenger and Columbia while falling victim to managerial decay. But the biggest problem with the agency today is a lack of that most American of motivators: competition.

After President John F. Kennedy's 1961 speech urging America toward the moon, the agency could call on a dozen eager aerospace companies to submit proposals for the Apollo spacecraft and choose the best from a strong field.

Four decades later, a succession of corporate buyouts and takeovers has left just two contenders, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, that have the heft and experience required for building the big, beefy spacecraft NASA will need for any future moonshots. NASA cannot innovate radical new rocket technologies while it is so dependent on a couple of huge corporations with an interest in protecting their investments and infrastructure dedicated to the old shuttles.

But beyond that creaking federal-industrial universe, change is afoot. Rutan, Branson and other private pioneers in the "NewSpace" business are starting to unveil cheaper, faster and sexier ships. Last July, Branson proudly introduced his new craft, which he called "one of the most beautiful and extraordinary aviation vehicles ever developed."

The Virgin mothership (VMS), named Eve in honor of Branson's mother, is a twin-fuselage aircraft capable of lifting a passenger-carrying rocket plane, SpaceShipTwo, to the uppermost levels of the Earth's atmosphere and releasing it for the final blast into space. Eve is conducting test flights now, and SpaceShipTwo will be unveiled in December.

The VMS is pushed along by jet engines, but most of the work of lifting this huge carrier into the sky is done by its enormous 140-foot wing. The delicate appearance of the craft is deceptive: Its carbon-composite structures render it incredibly strong, yet lightweight and fuel efficient.

Whitehorn says personal spaceflight is just one of several markets that Eve will service. SpaceShipTwo, he says, "takes people up and brings them all down again to a safe landing. . . . So what would happen if we didn't have the people, and we didn't need to bring any of the spacecraft down to Earth again?"

That might seem an odd scenario for a space tourism company, but Virgin Galactic's business plan assumes that payloads of metal and silicone will be just as profitable as those of flesh and blood. With slender disposable rockets carried under Eve's huge wing, the system will be capable of launching small scientific and commercial satellites into orbital space, at a fraction of NASA's costs for similar missions using ground-launched rockets.

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