Happy Unbirthday Suborbital Spaceflight

Marking a Dubious Anniversary

This coming October 4th will mark exactly 10 years that a space aeroplane has not flown sub-orbital. There have been a number of basic test flights during this period. However, we are celebrating 10 years not repeating the events of September & October 2004.

Most space and aeronautical feats have historically worked through the process of incremental progress with a few giant leaps along the way. However these 10 years of sub-orbital no-flight are not without precedent: the Wright Brothers, the US space program on occasion and Concorde are past examples.

Such pauses, delays and even steps backwards, are driven by both technical and economic realities, and often political ones. However, the sub-orbital no-flight decade is a curious event and it bears some examination

Why was 2004 so memorable?

The events of 2004 were monumental with the audaciousness of both Paul Allen and Scaled Composites to develop a solution that categorically proved that a small private entity could independently access space: something that only a government subsidized activity had been able to do up until then and even now. They then used it to win the X-prize.

Our whole world then applauded the entry of Virgin Galactic. They would bring in exactly what a commercial suborbital project needed: creative and shrewd marketing, and an experienced non-traditionally-space business sense to both confirm and access the pent-up demand for private commercial spaceflight. They also created valuable short term returns on investment to bridge the lead up to the yet to occur revenue passenger flights.

This entrepreneurial approach and the extremely permissive legal environment being opened up in the US looked like a winning formula for making Virgin Galactic an early success. They blossomed and started to dance and everyone was watching. They were to have flights in about 3 years.

Even the US Congress believed that events would move far more quickly. They quickly approved legislation: the 2004 Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act, and specified that eight years would be enough for the “industry” to get its operational footing. Now ten years later, clearly things have not gone according to schedule.

How long do things normally take?

The reasons for this apparent failed decade are complex with a Great Western Recession and a Sovereign Debt Crisis thrown in. Small aircraft and business aviation came out severely bruised. Could this have had an influence? It most certainly did.

The evidence for Virgin Galactic’s delays is less easy to prove; until you compare their record to what others have traditionally done.

The average length of an aircraft development project is approximately 4 years. This is for an aircraft that undergoes full certification with the 1000’s of hours of test flying included. Bigger programs can take longer. Smaller projects can go much quicker. It all depends on the team and what resources are at their disposal, and what hurdles are placed in their way?

The biggest hurdle to the development of air and spacecraft is money. It always has been. So the financial commitment of the Virgin Group gave unparalleled credibility to their endeavour. This was a shout from the steeple. With the subsequent participation from Abu Dhabi, a market valuation closing in on the billion dollar mark, and an investment now being taunted in the half billion dollar range, the financial resource question seemed to have been answered. Virgin only had to deliver the product as promised. According to tradition, flight operations by 2009 seemed utterly believable.

So why are we again talking about flights sometime next year?

What could have gone wrong?

There have been some problems lurking in Virgin’s path. That the aeroplane part was “ready” before the rocket part was not good. Encountering modifications during development is normal. It is not a difficult thing to manage. This does not explain the delays. Let us hope their next flight confirms how much closer to a working prototype they have. But commercial air operations require technical maturity in the product and we should be seeing at least a test flight every two weeks…just like the first little Spaceship 1 did, before you let a paying passenger inside.

Incidentally, safety does have a standard and it is demonstrable. Engineers have an obligation to meet requirements and to do it on time and within risk budgets. Time is money. This is still a business.

Conclusions? Well not yet!

Today ‘orbital’ seems to have overtaken ‘suborbital’ in some respect. The SpaceX, Orbital, and now the Blue Origins and Boeings of the world are setting an example. Many in the rest of the world are now questioning their own status quo as a result. That is a good thing. NASA’s game changing financial and technical support for commercial orbital access for cargo and soon for passengers has energised a new entrepreneurial space transportation industry in ways we could only have dreamed about 10 years ago.

However, a more democratic access to space for the rest of us is only possible through a set of more measured incremental steps, one which would flow quite naturally through the operation of a reusable suborbital aircraft. This path could foster much needed innovation to enable a self-sustaining space transportation industry. So where is it? Why can orbital reinvent itself in 10 years, but sub-orbital which is an order of magnitude less difficult, not manage to replicate a feat done 10 years ago?

We are still no closer to even seeing another sub-orbital flight. Have Virgin squandered an early opportunity. We have lauded them. We have also been very reverent. In many ways, we need this very capable team to energise this market. We are counting on you guys to get it right. It really is not that hard, ladies and gentlemen. Hold to milestones and standards. Get it solved! Help us all to jointly create an industry that we can be proud of.