Why is suborbital space more exciting than NASA’s latest exploration plans?

Earlier today, Virgin Galactic flew the first powered flight of their SpaceShipTwo suborbital spacecraft.

In case you are out of the loop, Virgin Galactic is the company that intends to fly paying tourists to suborbital space on their 8 passenger spacecraft. The company was founded after Scaled Composites won the Ansari X Prize in 2004 for being the first private company to reach space with their SpaceShipOne. Virgin Galactic was formed when Sir Richard Branson saw dollar signs after the X Prize was won and decided to partner with Scaled Composites to design an upgrade to SpaceShipOne that could make a profit off of tourism. Virgin Galactic has around 500 customers already with down payments ready for a quick suborbital hop – for a mere several hundred thousand dollars – as soon as the SpaceShipTwo flight test program ends later this year.

From my view here at Johnson Space Center, as a member of the International Space Station flight control team, SpaceShipTwo should look like small potatoes. The max altitude of SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo each is a meager 110-120km – barely past the Karman Line, or the official border of space. And yet, this morning I found myself waiting for news of Virgin Galactic’s flight in eager anticipation, like a typical fan boy.

Let’s look at some other space news to see if maybe I’m just a big fan boy all the time?

Earlier this month, the White House released their federal budget proposal for 2014, which includes the exciting prospect of  funding “for a robotic mission to rendezvous with a small asteroid—one that would be harmless to Earth—and move it to a stable location outside the Moon’s orbit”. This is classic stuff. Exactly what most space advocates would say we should be spending our NASA tax dollars on. This idea combines robotic planetary exploration with human spaceflight (astronauts will visit the rock once it is in Earth orbit) with the practical application of planetary defense. Awesome. This is the kind of stuff I would be happy to spend my career working on. So why am I underwhelmed by this and excited by Virgin Galactic?

The likelihood of either of these missions failing is reasonably high. Both are high risk. But, I think the key difference is in the type of risk we are talking about. Virgin Galactic has a high risk of failure due to the challenges of spaceflight, and the reaction from their shareholders and customers if and when they have a major failure. Rockets fail. Accidents happen. People die. The company already lost three employees in 2007 in a rocket test stand explosion, which surprisingly did not slow down development much. Virgin is facing the same kind of risk that aerospace pioneers have always had when operating at “the edge of the envelope.” This is understood and accepted in the industry. But since they are trying to send rich comedians like Russell Brand to space and not trained test pilots, I’m not sure the program could sustain itself after a fatal accident.

By contrast, I think the risk that NASA’s new asteroid mission faces has largely to do with politics and little to do with the risks of high performance spaceflight.

In the same year that SpaceShipOne successfully earned Scaled Composites the Ansari X Prize, US President George W. Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) which evolved into the Constellation Program. Over the next 6 years, Constellation progressed as most government aerospace projects due – with steady progress, but a growing budget. Eventually, in 2010, the new Obama Administration cancelled Constellation, taking NASA back to square one with the cancellation of the Space Shuttle Program also on the horizon. In the meantime, Virgin continued steady development of their space plane – admittedly, with their own budget growing past expectations – and here we are less than ten years later looking at paying customers flying to space by the end of the year.

So, to answer to my rhetorical question…

The reality is that the chances of the political winds in Washington cancelling or underfunding an exciting Near-Earth Asteroid mission seems higher than the chances of SpaceShipTwo failing in flight, based on historical evidence. Thus, I am watching the skies for successful suborbital tourism with eager anticipation, while I also read about political progress in NASA exploration missions with cautious optimism.

In the meantime, you should support organizations like The Planetary Society, who hope to show lawmakers the benefits of space exploration of all kinds. This kind of lobbying seeks to secure steady funding for NASA to prevent the kind of stop-and-go programs that has most of us jaded to taxpayer funded exploration. With more excited enthusiasts showing support and private companies like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX posting more successes, the future may be brighter. But in the end a rocket’s flame is more convincing than a balance sheet, and that’s really what has me cheering for Virgin Galactic. Results.

SpaceShipTwo in flight on April 29,2013 (via @VirginGalactic)

April 29, 2013 10:41 pm

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