It was an improbable-looking harbinger of a new age in space.
Tiny, white, at the east end of the Mojave Airport runway, it looked fragile and miniscule next to the support truck, and surrounded by busy ground crew, readying it for its upcoming public debut. Finally, they moved away, leaving the pilot, Dick Rutan, in the cockpit. The Long-EZ chase plane approached it from the rear at a couple hundred feet, and we could see the sudden shimmering of heat in the cool desert air over the craft as two toggle switches were flicked in the cramped cockpit, and twin engines of the XCOR Aerospace EZ-Rocket were lit.
It took it no time at all to start heading west into the gusting wind, its long wings wobbling tentatively as it was buffeted by the ever-shifting forces of the invisible medium in which it was about to take flight. About the time it was almost level with us, a few seconds after we first heard the roar of its engines, Rutan rotated the nose, and it almost leaped off the runway. The sound was similar to that of a jet, of which there are many in Mojave, and loud, though not as loud as, say, a fighter on afterburners.
It started to climb, more rapidly than I’ve ever seen any Long-EZ ascend–the chase plane couldn’t keep up with it. It made a slow turn to the left, still climbing at a seemingly-impossible, ever-steeper angle as the propellant load rapidly decreased and its acceleration increased, until it finally leveled out at what appeared to be several thousand feet, and the chase plane eventually caught up with it, albeit at a lower altitude.
There were some scattered clouds at altitude, and we occasionally lost the planes in them. But they were scattered only, and we eventually reacquired the object of our momentary devotion. As it headed back west over our heads, we could hear the engines start to sputter as they became starved for oxygen, and then a sudden eerie silence as the rocket engines were shut down, and the altitude was too great to hear the faithful pistons of the chase plane.
The two planes made slow, beautiful circles over the airport, gently spiraling down over a period of several minutes until, finally, as they approached the east end of the runway, they dropped gear, made a final sharp left bank, lined up and gently touched down, buffeted once more by the capricious gusting winds. The Long-EZ braked and taxied back over to the viewing area, and the EZ-Rocket slowed to a stop at the end of the runway, to be towed back to the waiting crowd.
OK, I know. You’re asking, why is this a big deal? We are (literally) in a war to save western civilization. Millions are starving in the world. Millions (often the same millions) live in depradation and slavery. An airplane just crashed in Queens, and we don’t know why. So just why am I wasting bandwidth talking about a home-built airplane that has a couple little (400-lbf thrust each) lox-alcohol rocket engines installed where the pusher prop used to be?
To ask that question is, to me, akin to asking, what was the big deal about the fact that a couple bicycle mechanics in Dayton, Ohio put a crude gasoline engine and propeller on a big kite, and managed to controllably get it off the ground, for a shorter distance than the wing span of a Boeing 747, almost a hundred years ago?
First of all, I think that space is important, for lots of reasons, but primarily for its potential for future human freedom. But I’m not going to argue that here–I’ll just assume that people who read this weblog agree.
As I pointed out in my recent disquisition on the wrong-headed Economist editorial of a couple of weeks ago, what is keeping us from getting into space in the way that many of us want is its unaffordability to any but governments. And what is keeping it unaffordable is the fact that only governments do it, and they don’t do very much of it, and when you don’t do very much of something, the unit costs get very high.
While we need technology development, we don’t need it in the way that NASA likes to think (with billion-dollar failures like X-33, to develop unobtainium, and fancy new propulsion systems). The only technology that we need is to integrate what we have in hand into actual vehicles, and learn how it works, and what doesn’t work, and fly it, day in and day out, and accumulate hours on engines and airframes, just the way we do with airplanes.
XCOR Aerospace is doing just that.
And, I should add, our need for technology development is nowhere as intense as our need for market development, and sensible FAA regulations, and a rational (as opposed to the “Right Stuff”) approach to space operations. What XCOR Aerospace (and other companies–I don’t mean to slight anyone, but I am writing about the XCOR rollout here) is doing will contribute to that also, in a way that NASA is not, and cannot.
While EZ-Rocket doesn’t fly high, or fast–unlike NASA’s reusable rocket programs–it actually flies. And in fact, though it doesn’t fly particularly high, or fast, it is a testament to the neglect of this field that, had XCOR bothered to call the appropriate French certification agency to have them witness today’s flight, they would have simultaneously awarded it the new world’s records for height, speed, and time to climb for a rocket plane.
It not only flies, but it can, given small amounts of money (equivalent to just a fraction of the overruns on programs like X-34 and X-33), fly every day, or twice a day, for mere hundreds of dollars per flight. And the experience developed from it can lead to bigger, faster rocket planes, that can also fly every day, or twice or thrice a day, and teach us how to fly rocket planes, and by selling experiment time, or even (heaven forfend!) rides to wealthy people who want a thrill, make a little money while doing it. We may have rocket racing competitions, sponsored by ESPN, or the Xtreme Sports Channel, or Pratt & Whitney.
And the records will get faster, and higher, and the revenues will grow, until we are offering rides to orbit, and people (with fortunes less than Bill Gates and Larry Ellison) are buying. And then some crazy fool will develop a space suit, and haul up enough parts to build a space hotel, and we’ll offer week-long stays, instead of barn-storming joy rides. And someone else will actually rent space in the hotel and perhaps do some research, or figure out how to build something bigger, like a Mars mission vehicle, that can be afforded by the Planetary Society, or the Mars Society, or even the (renamed?) National Geographic Society.
Why isn’t NASA doing this? They are institutionally incapable of it. NASA gets its funding, unfortunately, not to get us into space, but to maintain the jobs base in places like Houston, and Huntsville, and Cocoa Beach, and Huntington Beach. And even if NASA wanted to do something like this, and the Congress agreed to fund it, they still couldn’t–there are too many government procurement regulations, and budget cycles, and fragile ricebowls to be protected. NASA can’t do this because…well, because, as Hayek and others have pointed out, socialism doesn’t work. Capitalism does.
There are two fundamental drivers to progress–greed and fear. Because we initiated our space activities in the middle of a struggle between fundamentally-incompatible ideologies, almost four-and-a-half decades ago, the focus was on the fear. We made some progress, but ultimately, and in a most politically-incorrect (but traditionally American) manner, we must now harness greed. XCOR has figured this out, and their efforts, as well as those who emulate their philosophy, will ultimately open up the space frontier for all.