A Tale of Two Spaceships

October 26, 1998 • Commentary

October 1998 witnesses two events of interest to space travel enthusiasts. The first, John Glenn’s return to space on a Shuttle flight 36 years after he became the first American in orbit, is receiving extensive public and media attention. The second, changes made by the Commercial Space Act of 1998 to chapter 701 of title 49, U.S. Code, will be little noted. But it is the latter that potentially will do more to ensure that space becomes part of mankind’s domain.

Let’s start with the question of why Glenn’s junket is such news. Why can’t he book a regularly scheduled commercial flight into orbit the way any of us might book a flight to Paris? After all, 36 years after the Wright brothers took to the air in 1903, and only a decade after Charles Lindbergh flew from New York to Paris, the first commercially viable aircraft, the DC-3, was up and flying.

Consider the different paths taken by civil aviation and space flight. The Wright brothers acted as private individuals, pursuing their own vision and using their own money. Lindbergh was trying to win the privately offered $25,000 Orteig Prize. Much of early civil aviation was funded privately. The government, of course, was interested in aircraft for defense purposes. But often it simply offered a prize to whatever private provider could make a wing or fuselage to best meet its needs.

World War II and the Cold War saw the government pump billions of dollars into defense aircraft. But civil aviation remained in private hands. And since airline deregulation 20 years ago, the average cost of flying has dropped 30 percent and the number of Americans taking to the skies has jumped from 275 million to nearly 600 million each year.

More significant will be the flight of the first private manned spacecraft. That’ll be the first day of the free market future of civilian space.

The saga of space flight started much like civil aviation did. Dr. Robert Goddard launched the first liquid‐​fuel rocket in 1926. His funding in the 1930s came principally from the private Guggenheim Foundation. But after World War II, space flight became entirely a government effort. The Pentagon brought Werner von Braun and a team of scientists from Germany to the United States to develop more advanced designs of their V-2 rockets.

When the Soviets launched Sputnik in October 1957, American space policy went in two directions. The Pentagon sought intercontinental ballistic missiles to carry nuclear warheads. And NASA was established to put satellites into orbit and men into space. Unlike that of civilian aviation, development of military and civilian space efforts was government run.

The flights of Mercury astronauts like John Glenn and the landings on the Moon were great human and technological achievements. But NASA systematically stifled competing private space enterprises. In the 1970s potential providers like American Rocket Co. wanted the government to contract with them for launch services. But NASA’s principal mission had changed from science to freight hauling, and it wanted cargo to go up on its own Shuttle. Federal agencies were forbidden to use private launchers, and NASA offered cheap, subsidized rates to commercial customers that might otherwise have used private companies to put payloads into orbit. A raft of regulations and government‐​to‐​government treaties hampered private space efforts as well.

But a series of small, hard‐​won reforms after the 1986 Challenger disaster has allowed the private sector to struggle for its place in space. The government, for example, had been the principal customer for Lockheed-Martin’s Atlas rocket, the vehicle that put Glenn in orbit, and Boeing’s Delta. Both companies now launch mostly private commercial satellites. And of special significance, private firms are beginning to develop a space tourism industry. For example, the X-PRIZE Foundation of St. Louis is raising $10 million to award to the first entrepreneur who sends a craft capable of carrying three persons at least 62 miles into space and return it to Earth twice in a two‐​week period. The first contender to test a vehicle that could go for the gold is Burt Rutan. He designed the first plane to fly around the world nonstop, without refueling, in 1986. That craft, the Voyager, hangs in the Smithsonian near John Glenn’s Friendship‐​7. Perhaps another Rutan craft could join those two.

This brings us to the Commercial Space Act. That new law removes a government ban that has barred private parties from bringing anything back to Earth from space, for example, tourists. This clears the way for what the X-PRIZE contenders and others are trying to do. The act also pressures NASA to contract out to the private sector for data rather than build its own rocket to collect them. If that agency wants a new lunar Atlas, it should offer to purchase one from any entrepreneur who mounts a mapping mission to the Moon.

Glenn’s Shuttle flight is more sentimental than scientific. More significant will be the flight of the first private manned spacecraft. That’ll be the first day of the free market future of civilian space.

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