TOPICS > Science

The Rocketeers: Space Exploration

June 30, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Next, a new kind of space race. Jeffrey Kaye of KCET-Los Angeles reports.

ASTRONAUT: It went down very rapidly.

JEFFREY KAYE: From the dawn of the space age through the Apollo Moon landings…

SPOKESMAN: Yes, indeed, they have the flag up now.

JEFFREY KAYE: To today’s space shuttle program…


SPOKESMAN: Roll “Atlantis.”

JEFFREY KAYE: Space flight has been a largely government-run operations. National space agencies and militaries have run the programs, planned the missions, and picked and trained the astronauts. But governments’ monopoly on space travel is ending. Aerospace enthusiasts recently gathered in a southern California aircraft hanger to see a vehicle that could make history. It’s a completely privately built and operated spaceship that could launch within a year.

SPOKESMAN: It would go a lot better if the spaceship could go that way…

JEFFREY KAYE: The craft’s creator is aerospace engineer and entrepreneur Burt Rutan, a man who dreams of ushering in an era of affordable and routine private space travel.

BURT RUTAN, Aerospace Engineer: I’m going to safely send three people to space multiple times in this little craft, this little thing that costs less than 1 percent of what the cost would be in a government developed program, probably 0.5 percent .

JEFFREY KAYE: Rutan is no pie-in- the-sky dreamer. His aircraft designs have made him a legendary figure in the aerospace world. Although Rutan’s spaceship is months away from a launch, the craft’s mothership, called “White Knight,” has already taken to the skies in a series of test flights. This plane’s job is to ferry the smaller spacecraft high into the atmosphere for launch.

BURT RUTAN: You take this mated pair of a spaceship and a launch airplane and we fly much higher than airliners fly. We go to 50,000 feet. We release this into a glide and in a few seconds, the pilot throws a switch, which turns on a rocket that accelerates him at 3.5 G’s, straight up, to 62 miles altitude, which is 100 kilometers.

JEFFREY KAYE: After experiencing three to four minutes of weightlessness at the same altitude astronaut Alan Shepard reached in his 1961 flight, Rutan’s crew will then reenter the earth’s atmosphere and glide to a landing at an ordinary commercial airport.

BURT RUTAN: Isn’t that cool?

JEFFREY KAYE: Rutan’s spaceship is only a sub-orbital craft, unable to reach the moon or planets; but before this spaceship takes its maiden flight, a host of technical challenges– from designing the right kind of engine to figuring out reentry trajectories– must still be solved. If and when the craft does fly, test pilot Brian Binnie might be at the controls. He acknowledges the risks, highlighted by two U.S. shuttle disasters.

BRIAN BINNIE, Test Pilot: There’s always some risk and danger, just the new flight of any vehicle, but, you know, with danger there’s also a lot of excitement and fun, and that’s what motivates the people that work here.

JEFFREY KAYE: Despite the danger, Rutan and his colleagues aren’t alone in their quest to build the world’s first privately manned spacecraft. They are but one team in a global competition, a new kind of space race called the X Prize. Around the world, teams of engineers, pilots and dreamers are working to build and launch their own manned spaceship first. The man behind the competition is X Prize founder Peter Diamandis.

PETER DIAMANDIS, X Prize: We’ve put together a $10 million cash purse, and its going to be offered to the first team to build a spaceship and carry three adults, fly 100 kilometers, 62 miles up into space, come back down, and the important part is make the trip again within two weeks. We now have 24 teams in seven countries competing.

JEFFREY KAYE: Originally financed by a group of St. Louis businesspeople, the X Prize was inspired by the aviation contests of the early 20th century, contests which encouraged pilots and engineers to push the technological envelope. Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic was a successful attempt to win such a contest, the $25,000 Orteig prize. X prize boosters hope their competition, which has received the blessings of NASA, will not only rekindle the public’s enthusiasm for space flight, but also launch a lucrative new industry: Space tourism.

PETER DIAMANDIS: There’s a huge marketplace. There’s at least 10,000 to 20,000 people who would spend $50,000 or more for a ticket into space. And that’s a billion dollar-plus marketplace.

JEFFREY KAYE: Besides making some entrepreneurs rich, Diamandis says space tourism will help reduce the cost and increase the safety for all manned space travel.

PETER DIAMANDIS: You learn safety when you fly, not hundreds of times, but thousands of times. You learn how to make things robust. And the only market that can give us that kind of safe, that kind of large volume is people, tourists; self-loading carbon payloads, like you and me, that come with the money and want to go fly.

JEFFREY KAYE: But aerospace history is replete with failed private space projects, such as this unusual helicopter/rocket hybrid called the rotary- rocket. Like so many other designs, it failed to reach space because of a welter of technical and financial challenges. Rutan, who’s being financed by an anonymous backer, says the idea of a privately built spaceship might seem foolhardy now, but he draws inspiration from those brash mavericks of early aviation.

BURT RUTAN: A lot of them crashed. A lot of them didn’t even get off the ground. By natural selection the airplane was developed, and most of it was nonsense, but the ones that became breakthroughs are the airplanes of today.

JEFFREY KAYE: As Burt Rutan and X Prize contestants race to put a private manned vehicle into space, one business consortium, at this dock in Long Beach California, has already created the world’s only completely private unmanned space program. It’s called “Sea Launch,” a U.S., Russian and Ukrainian consortium started in 1995. It’s American partner is the Boeing Company, which owns 40 percent of the firm. Jim Maser is president of Sea Launch.

JIM MASER, Sea Launch: All the other launch providers are usually government supported and have some government base, if not a large government base, but we are a purely commercial venture.

JEFFREY KAYE: Since 1999, Sea Launch’s two giant vessels, one a command ship, the other a one- time oil rig converted into a launch platform, have set sail to the equatorial Pacific, where it’s cheaper to launch satellites into orbit.

SPOKESMAN: Three, two, one, lift off.

JEFFREY KAYE: Sea Launch charges customers, which have included Direct-TV and XM Satellite Radio, between $60 million to $70 million a launch.

SPOKESMAN: This is Sea Launch control, 40 seconds into the flight…

JEFFREY KAYE: Keeping launch costs low is vital to Sea Launch’s future. That’s because times are tough in the satellite launch market. In the mid ’90s, many aerospace companies positioned themselves for a boom in the business because of expected growth in the telecom industry. But that boom has gone bust, and now there are too many commercial rockets and too few customers.

JIM MASER: When this project was originally envisioned, we were predicting that there would be a demand for launches on the order of eighty a year, fifty to eighty a year. And what we’re seeing right now is a demand for launches of fifteen to twenty a year among a large group of competitors, so there’s a big excess of capacity and launching versus the demand, so we’re in a very tough price competition right now.

JEFFREY KAYE: After four years of operation, Sea Launch has only had eight successful launches, and the company has yet to turn a profit. But company executives are optimistic about the future, noting aging satellites have to be replaced. They also hope even NASA might one day be a customer, paying Sea Launch to re-supply the international space station. As for the X Prize, organizers hope a team will make a successful manned launch sometime this year, the centennial of the Wright Brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk.