The sun-baked town of Mojave, CA, with a population of just 3,700, boasts an airport that takes up almost as much area as Los Angeles International. The vast, isolated site, at the mountain-rimmed edge of a wide expanse of high desert plain, has been home to several maverick aerospace companies. Voyager, the extremely lightweight airplane that in 1986 became the first to fly nonstop around the world without refueling, was spawned here. Now, in an unassuming low building at the airport’s edge, the future of space transportation is, just possibly, being born.Mind you, that future doesn’t look like much yet: a tiny two-seat airplane that resembles a jet fighter with its tail chopped off and stubby winglets installed near its nose. Last July this lightweight craft, dubbed EZ-Rocket, reached a new aviation milestone when pilot Dick Rutan, who had also piloted Voyager, put its twin rocket motors through a pivotal “touch and go” maneuver: taking off, shutting down the engines, landing, firing the motors up again, and taking off without stopping. This represented a new high-water mark in giving airplane-like flexibility and controllability to a rocket-powered craft, a fact that carries heightened significance since the Space Shuttle Columbia catastrophe raised new questions about the viability of the U.S. government’s manned space program.
Each of those two flights lasted less than 15 minutes and never reached altitudes higher than 3,000 meters. But they showed that Xcor Aerospace, the company behind EZ-Rocket, may have the best shot yet at actually giving the world a reusable rocket plane-bringing routine, airline-like operations to the world of rocketry and slashing launch costs to as little as one-tenth those of launching the space shuttle and today’s expendable rockets. Such a craft could, within several years, allow cheap satellite deployment for research and communications and jump-start space tourism. Over a longer time frame, successor craft might provide a New York CityTokyo passenger flight that takes less than three hours. And because breaking free of Earth’s gravity is the largest cost of every space mission, cheaper launches are essential prerequisites for such visionary ventures as space-based solar collectors that would beam energy to Earth 24 hours a day and precious-metals mining from asteroids.
Of course, people have tried for decades to realize the vision of a reusable rocket plane, with little success. “Rocket science has become synonymous with advanced technology, but the fact of the matter is that there has been very little in the way of new development of rockets since the early 1960s,” says Xcor Aerospace president Jeff Greason, a former Intel executive. What’s different now, he and others say, is that even before Columbia broke apart on February 1, people were actually starting to build and test new designs. Indeed, more than two dozen companies worldwide, not to mention NASA and other national space agencies, are actively developing rocket planes. And with the loss of the Columbia, deaths of seven astronauts, and subsequent grounding of the remaining shuttles, both the number of developers and the urgency of their task are likely to grow. “The need to find some way to get new technologies and new approaches to space transportation is probably a lot clearer than it was before,” Greason says.
Many private players are spurred by the prospect of capturing the $10 million X-Prize. This bounty, offered by a St. Louis, MO-based foundation funded by space tourism boosters, will be awarded to the first privately financed rocket craft that carries three people to the edge of space (an altitude of at least 100 kilometers), returns them safely to Earth, and does it all again within two weeks. Already, 24 players have signed up to make the attempt.
But $10 million is a drop in the bucket compared to the real prize: space tourism. Last year a NASA-commissioned poll concluded that if reliable craft were available, 15,000 wealthy thrill seekers annually would sign up for suborbital flights costing about $50,000 each. That represents a $750 million market. And while it would not equal today’s principal space business of launching satellites-in 2001, 39 launches worldwide generated nearly $3.3 billion in revenues-it might mark the start of something far bigger. “Space tourism has the potential to grow into a major new industry as important as civil aviation,” says Patrick Collins, an economist at Azabu University in Fuchinobe, Japan, and a longtime advocate of space commercialization. In the near term, he adds, “There is no other application of space with even remotely similar potential.” And whether or not such a market materializes quickly-it’s possible the chilling images of Columbia breaking apart will make would-be space tourists nervous for years to come-the technology itself is clearly maturing. Last November the report of a presidential commission on the U.S. aerospace industry said reusable launch vehicles that could, at the least, substantially lower the costs of putting satellites into space are “well within our grasp in this decade.”