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By Senior space writer
updated 4/20/2005 10:51:52 PM ET 2005-04-21T02:51:52

Speaking before the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics on Wednesday, SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan said that the commercial space industry will thrive, but also that the current regulatory system is in need of repair and nearly destroyed his program.

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Rutan was one of several experts in the emerging commercial space market to testify before lawmakers. Congress is attempting to define what role the government should or shouldn’t play in supporting entrepreneurial space progress.

The potential of space tourism was made all the more real by last year’s successful suborbital flights by SpaceShipOne, the world’s first privately built and human-piloted spaceship.

Work is under way to build an affordable and safe vehicle to make personal spaceflight a reality, said Rutan, the chief designer of SpaceShipOne. Rutan, who heads Mojave, Calif.-based Scaled Composites, envisions competing spaceline operators vying for space travelers' dollars.

“The airline experience has shown us that it is not just technology that provides safety but the maturity that comes from a high level of flight activity,” Rutan said.

However, Rutan criticized the Federal Aviation Administration and its office of the associate administrator for commercial space transportation, known as the AST. He said “the AST process, focusing only on the non-involved public, just about ruined my program.”

Streamlining procedures
AST’s stated mission is to ensure protection of the public, property and the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States during a commercial launch or re-entry activity, and to encourage, facilitate and promote U.S. commercial space transportation.

“It resulted in cost overruns,” Rutan said. “It increased the risk for my test pilots. It did not reduce the risk to the non-involved public. It destroyed our safety policy of ‘always question the product, never defend it.’”

The regulatory process imposed by AST, Rutan continued, “was grossly misapplied for our research tests — and worse yet, is likely to be misapplied for the regulation of future commercial spaceliners.”

Rutan said that the FAA is already in short supply of people to maintain its regulatory vigil over the airline industry. There’s need for streamlining the certification of new commercial spaceships, he said, with the designer ready to work with FAA/AST on tackling these and other regulatory, safety and certification issues.

“This problem must be solved quickly to support an industry that needs a proper research environment to allow innovation,” Rutan said.

Once a commercial spaceliner is realized, Rutan said, it will likely fly as many as 500 astronauts the first year. And by the fifth year, that number would rise to 3,000 people per year. By the 12th year of operations, at least 50,000 to 100,000 individuals “will have enjoyed the black-sky view of suborbital flight,” he said.

Viable business
Last September, Sir Richard Branson announced that his newly formed Virgin Galactic would buy a fleet of spacecraft based on SpaceShipOne’s design to carry tourists into suborbital space. The technology is owned by software mogul Paul Allen and is called Mojave Aerospace Ventures.

“We’ve not taken lightly the idea of entering the personal spaceflight market,” Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic and group corporate affairs and brand development director for Virgin Management Ltd., said during the hearing.

“We believe that within five years we can create a viable business,” he said, an enterprise that would lead to eventual reduction of Earth-to-space ticket costs from an initial fee of $200,000 a seat.

Whitehorn said Virgin Galactic would like to order at least five SpaceShipTwo vehicles and start operations before the end of the decade. “We would like to be going through a testing process by the end of 2007 … and commercial operation by 2008, if that was possible,” he testified.

There’s a big difference between purchasing an aircraft from airline manufacturers and buying a suborbital spaceship, Whitehorn suggested: “We are in uncharted territory here … at the experimental cutting edge of a new industry.”

Whitehorn said that, since announcing their suborbital passenger plans, Virgin Galactic has received 29,000 applications. He emphasized that they were not moving forward on the space travel business exclusively “as a rich billionaire’s toy adventure.”

“The pioneer astronauts will help fund the process of making personal spaceflight something that people … can enjoy and afford in the future,” Whitehorn said. “We believe that, eventually, we could get it down to $25,000 or $30,000 after a number of years, per flight, per person.”

Large cabins, big windows
Rutan would not provide specific details on his spaceliner design. “We’re only at the preliminary stage of technology development,” he noted.

On the other hand, the aerospace designer offered a sneak peek at what a ticket-in-hand space passenger might see. “The very first generation of commercial suborbital spaceships will be experience-optimized,” Rutan added.

There will be large cabins and big windows, Rutan explained, all for the benefit of the free-floating passenger so he or she can experience four to five minutes of weightless time. “We are working very hard on assuring that this will be extremely attractive to the public, extremely affordable, and it will be at least as safe as the early airlines,” he said.

Rutan said he intends to franchise his spaceliner design. In doing so, an operator would also have to follow specific rules for maintaining and flying the vehicle safely. Between five and 10 years into operation, he expects to see three to four operators competing with each other from various launch sites — all able to tap into “an enormous, enormous market.”

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