From May 1961, when Alan Shepard became the first American in space, Gene Kranz was the man to have running Mission Control. He was flight director for Apollo 11’s Mare Tranquillitatis touchdown in 1969 and Apollo 13’s aborted mission in 1970 (and he was played by the actor Ed Harris in the 1995 movie Apollo 13).
When I interviewed him in 2001, Kranz decried America’s abandonment of manned space exploration. “NASA is not living up to its responsibilities to make space more accessible,” Kranz insisted. “If you compare the situation to the development of the U.S., where they moved from the East Coast to the Mississippi and then onwards, it’s almost like we’ve halted at the Mississippi, and we just keep sending the explorers and scouts across, not the merchants, shop owners, and farmers.”
For anyone who had participated in NASA’s heroic age, it must have been galling that as the 21st century began, the only operational manned spacecraft in which the U.S. had a hand were the shuttle – an expensive Earth-orbiting truck – and a space station a few hundred kilometers above the planet’s surface. After all, to reach the moon in 1969, the U.S. space program had crammed an enormous amount of technological innovation into a single decade. In building the Saturn V rockets – 3,200 tons and 36 stories tall – and devising Apollo’s computer, imaging, and control systems, NASA had invented technologies with wide applications beyond spaceflight. Some of those technologies (like the telecommunications satellite) are vital elements of today’s global civilization. If we had sustained this rate of progress, true believers argue, we might have reached Mars by now.
If we’re not exploring Mars, they conclude, it must be NASA’s fault. Thus, when SpaceShipOne, privately developed by aviation pioneer Burt Rutan and Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, won the $10 million Ansari X Prize after its second ascent to the edge of space on October 4, 2004, some called it a defining moment – a sign that the era of privatized spaceflight had arrived.
If only for Gene Kranz’s sake, it would be pretty to think that the flight of SpaceShipOne bears comparison to the opening of the American frontier. But a cheap, reliable means of lifting payloads into low earth orbit, 350 to 1,400 kilometers from the planet, remains the sine qua non for opening space. To achieve its three minutes at an altitude of 100 kilometers, SpaceShipOne traveled at three times the speed of sound. To reach low earth orbit, it would need to travel 10 times faster than that and consume about 50 times as much energy; during reëntry, that energy would have to be dissipated.
No space plane constructed with existing materials could satisfy those demands and still carry enough fuel to power out of Earth’s gravity. SpaceShipOne, with a novel hybrid engine that used nitrous oxide (or liquefied laughing gas) and hydroxy-terminated polybutadiene (rubber), is a stunt designed to suck in moneyed space tourists and kindle a private manned-spaceflight industry. In those limited terms, it’s a success. Following an announcement by Virgin Atlantic Airways chairman Sir Richard Branson about a new space venture called Virgin Galactic, the X Prize Foundation – the St. Louis nonprofit that sponsored the Ansari X Prize – proposed an annual multimillion-dollar event that, commencing in 2005, could become a jaunty mix of Grand Prix car racing and a kind of Olympics for rocket engineers. Meanwhile, Nevada millionaire Robert Bigelow started talking about a $50 million contest, called America’s Space Prize, to build spacecraft that could reach orbit and service inflatable orbital modules now being developed by Bigelow Aerospace.