Why Space Needs You
SpaceShipOne's creator says private enterprise, not government funding, will conquer the final frontier.
By Burt Rutan

(Business 2.0) - Entrepreneurs have always driven our technical progress--and, as a result, our economy. They tend to be more innovative, more willing to take risks, and more excited about solving difficult problems. They seek breakthroughs, they have the courage to fly them, and they know how to market them. They will now provide the solutions and the hardware needed to enable human spaceflight with an acceptable risk--at least as safe as the early airliners.

Private enterprise in space

Many of our commercial breakthrough technologies of the past three decades, such as wireless communications and alternative-fuel vehicles, will be seen as enablers as we build and operate safe, affordable spaceships. Like the early airlines of the 1920s, those who offer safety and value to the space-flying public will develop profitable, expanding businesses. But first we need to stop thinking of space as an adventure for bureaucracies alone.

Yes, the first explorations into uncharted territory, from Lewis and Clark to the Apollo missions, are usually funded, directed, and managed by the government. These projects are pure research by their very nature: high risk with uncertain results. Return voyages, however, are best done by entrepreneurs. They are better at developing transportation hardware, and they have the marketplace incentive to provide affordability and adequate safety.

Powered flight did not need to go through the government-funded stage, since it was lone entrepreneurs who succeeded in the important pioneering efforts. They quickly followed with solutions for business activities: air shows within six years, barnstorming within 14 years, airmail flights within 15 years, and competitive airline service within 23 years of the Wright brothers' first flight.

The risk of dying in an airliner during early scheduled operations was about one in 6,000 flights. Within three years it had improved to one in 33,000 flights. Today it is one in several million.

High risk

Spaceflight took the more traditional path. Governments directed and funded all the research and conducted all the initial flights. Then, for 43 years, all manned flight activity outside the atmosphere was the exclusive domain of government programs. The Russians have sold several seats on Soyuz rockets, but out of financial need rather than as part of a plan to begin passenger flight operations.

The explosion of the Challenger in 1986, after 24 consecutive shuttle flights, grounded all U.S. manned space missions for more than two years. (Compare that with the early history of aviation, when 20 of the first 40 pilots hired by the Post Office died in crashes within three years, with no suspension of service.) Since the Columbia tragedy in 2003, spaceflights have seemed more hazardous than the pioneering ones of the 1960s. Now, 45 years after cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin first orbited Earth, spaceflight remains horribly risky: one fatal crash in every 66 flights.

It's time for private enterprise to step in and bring the risk down. Until SpaceShipOne's three flights in 2004, there were no entrepreneurs actively testing spaceflight hardware in order to solve cost and safety issues. No one was addressing the desires of the public to explore, to float weightless, and to see the black sky.

In the next decade, I plan to develop a fleet of suborbital spaceships that are robust and affordable enough to allow large numbers of opinion formers to look back at Earth and understand the importance of crossing our new frontier. The spaceline companies operating these ships will begin to satisfy the public's desire and passion for space--which is unlikely to happen with a continued government monopoly.

For-profit space travel

As the suborbital spaceliners mature, entrepreneurs will continue their risk-taking research. The next step is affordable orbital access with adequate safety, at which point the industry will expand rapidly. It will offer competing orbital resort hotels and "shore excursions"--swings around the Moon.

When space travel becomes driven by profit, activities such as energy generation, mining, and medical research will flourish. We will send not just a few robotic probes into the solar system every decade but thousands per year, each one in search of the rewards of human colonization. In 300 years, people who go to other planets will not return. They will stay, raise their families, and provide insurance for the survival of our species.

Humans have done this ever since we left that hot, humid valley of Africa. We are naturally selected for courage and strength, since the timid never leave and the weak die on the way. Our instinct to explore hostile places is what has distinguished us from Earth's other animals, and this trait is not likely to fail us at the top of our atmosphere.


Burt Rutan is CEO and president of Scaled Composites.

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