Ten years ago today, a former Navy pilot climbed into a homebuilt spaceship, was carried to a high altitude by a mothership in the skies over Mojave, California, dropped into free fall, and fired the spaceship’s hybrid rocket motor to blast out of the atmosphere.
It was the third time that SpaceShipOne had reached space. It was also, as it turned out, the last.
The National Air & Space Museum acquired the ship for its collection. SpaceShipOne hangs today in a place of honor in the Milestones of Flight gallery on the Mall in Washington, beside the Spirit of St. Louis, the X-1, and the X-15—all ships that inspired it.
With that third and final flight, SpaceShipOne and Brian Binnie won the Ansari X PRIZE for the first privately built craft to reach space with the weight equivalent of three people twice within two weeks. The idea was to open space to private enterprise by breaking the government monopoly on space travel.
SpaceShipOne launched my career as a journalist. In 2003, I was writing websites, junk mail, and encyclopedia articles for a living. I was also working on a science fiction novel for young adults.
The X PRIZE inspired me to write a book about it. When Binnie went supersonic in SpaceShipOne in late 2003, I knew it was too late for that; I’d have to write a book about the coming age of commercial spaceflight.
I told myself that I’d work on the science fiction and the science fact books concurrently, that whichever one I sold first would set the course of my career. Which was it to be? Would I be a young adult novelist, or a space journalist?
As it turned out, I sold *Rocketeers: How a Visionary Band of Business Leaders, Engineers, and Pilots Is Boldly Privatizing Space* to Smithsonian Books, and the novel went unfinished.
You could say that the Smithsonian Institution got SpaceShipOne and me.
But the promise of SpaceShipOne, of regular, affordable flights to space by paying passengers, has yet to be realized. Any day now, says Richard Branson, whose Virgin Galactic has been working on the 8-seat SpaceShipTwo since 2004.
I think a lot of people have gotten almost as tired of waiting for private spaceflight to take off as they were of waiting for NASA to get them into space before the advent of SpaceShipOne.
To be fair, a lot of progress has been made, not just by Virgin, but also its competitors, Blue Origin, XCOR Aerospace, and others. And, of course, SpaceX, which I also wrote about in my book, has become the first private company to launch and safely return a spacecraft from orbit. Last month, SpaceX won a NASA contract to start flying astronauts to the International Space Station by 2017.
But back on October 4, 2004, few of us on the ground in Mojave imagined the possibility that we were witnessing the last private manned spaceflight for a decade or more to come.
I think I should have finished that novel.
I’m doing it now. There may be hope for me yet as a young adult science fiction writer.
You can watch a webcast of an X PRIZE anniversary event in Mojave at https://plus.google.com/events/c5sonfvjupactstghn9k076tg7c starting at 1pm PT/4pm ET today.
After that, on Monday, look for my piece on popularmechanics.com called “Where’s Our Space Taxi?”