Burt Rutan has some reflections on the history of aviation with relevance to space travel:
In 1908 only ten people had flown airplanes. Then… Wilbur Wright flew his airplane in Europe… By 1912 many thousands of pilots were flying hundreds of airplane types in 39 countries. One organization alone (the Aero Club of France) had certified 2,000 pilots and recorded 10,000 passengers. By 1912 the European airplane industry had grown to 45 million dollars (nearly a billion dollars today) and three shops each had delivered more than 500 aircraft.
Compare that to 541 humans, at last count, who have flown in space: a feat that took more than 50 years to accomplish.
It is often said that the rapid growth of aviation was due to World War I. Note, however, that the activity Rutan mentions took place before World War I. It was mostly the result of sport aviation. People wanted airplanes because they wanted to fly.
In the United States, William Boeing attended the first Air Meet in Los Angeles, where he hoped to buy a ride in an airplane. When no pilot would provide one, he returned home and started a small aircraft shop to build one plane, for himself. This was before the US entry into World War I. At last report, the Boeing Company is still active in the aircraft industry.
There’s no doubt that aviation benefitted from military investment during the two World Wars, and from the Kelly Air Mail Act and the development of commercial airlines. But that is not the whole story.
At the same time, we must acknowledge that the space industry has benefitted from significant government investment during the Cold War. Accounting for inflation, total US government investment in space programs, both military and NASA, exceeds one trillion dollars. Apollo alone cost as much as one year of US combat operations in the European theater during World War II.
Apollo did not free any captive nations, however. And 50 years after the start of the “Space Age,” spaceflight has not reached the point aviation reached during the first decade of the Air Age.
In some ways, we’ve made negative progress. At the height of the Space Shuttle program, in the 1980′s, NASA flew up to 35 astronauts per year. Today, it flies six. The cost of human spaceflight has not decreased significantly in 50 years, nor has safety improved significantly.
Again, quoting Burt Rutan:
35 of the world’s first 1000 pilots died in accidents and 139 fatalities were recorded in 31 countries during 1911….My conclusion: space travel, rather than being mature, is in fact primitive, much like the airplanes of 1911.
The United States government, in general, is not interested in addressing this problem. Indeed, it does not even recognized it as a problem. Instead of moving forward, Congress has made a willful decision to return to the Apollo era of space capsules, using the excuse that “it’s the one approach that we know works.”
We are Americans. We can do better. We should not retreat to the past. We must summon the future.
In the next decade, we can see 10,000 people flying in space, equaling the first decade of aviation. That is the goal which challenges us. If we achieve it, the next decade will be known as the start of the True Space Age.
This will not be accomplished by flights to the Moon, or even Earth orbit (although we will see those, also). Companies like SpaceX are taking steps to reduce the cost of access to orbit, and we expect further progress in the future. Suborbital flights will always be an order of magnitude cheaper than orbital flights, however, with foreseeable technology. So, it is the suborbital market that will see the fastest boom in traffic.
Suborbital is also where we will prove out the technologies for future orbital vehicles. The aircraft industry didn’t start out building planes with trans-Pacific range. We must learn to walk before we run.
Some people will counter that suborbital is not “real” spaceflight. It doesn’t have the delta-v required to reach orbit, let alone Alpha Centauri! That’s the same argument mainframe computerists used about microcomputers and airship aficionados used about the first airplanes. It’s not surprising that we hear it again and again. Most people do not understand incremental development and exponential growth. As Steve Jobs once said, if someone isn’t laughing at you, you aren’t trying hard enough.
Congress has decided, in its infinite wisdom, that it’s a good use of taxpayer dollars to make human spaceflight more expensive and less common. We cannot depend on the elites in DC. The future is in our hands.
Edward Wright is chairman of the United States Rocket Academy and project manager of Citizens in Space. You can find more articles by Mr. Wright at the Citizens in Space web site. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Space Safety Magazine or its sponsors.
Image caption: The Wright Military Flyer arrives at Fort Myer, Virginia aboard a wagon in 1908 (Credits: US Department of Defense).