The turn-of-the-century burst of aviation activity that surrounded the Wright brothers in 1903 is being replicated today in the realm of aerospace. Fueled in large part by fortunes earned during the Internet boom, several companies are working to develop new breeds of low-cost launch vehicles and spaceships. The new frontier has moved on from fabric wings and bicycle chains to rocket engines and cryogenic fuel tanks.
Elon Musk is a prime example of the new breed: He co-founded two successful Internet companies, Zip2 and PayPal, then created SpaceX, which is building a low-cost launch vehicle called the Falcon.
Musk plans to unveil the first flight-ready Falcon in Washington on Dec. 4 as part of the buildup to the Wright centennial.
Just as the U.S. Army was the first buyer for the Wrights’ airplanes, the Pentagon is SpaceX’s first customer: The Falcon is due to put the TacSat-1 military communications satellite into orbit in January, and also play a role in a military project to develop a rocket-launched hypersonic drone.
Like the Wrights, future innovators in aerospace will be more likely to make progress by optimizing each element of a flight system rather than looking for one huge breakthrough, Musk said.
“People will often look for some kind of silver bullet … but I think that’s a fool’s errand. There really isn’t one, and there rarely ever is, quite frankly,” he told MSNBC.com. “The path to improvement is the sum of many small innovations.”
Today’s experimenters face challenges the Wrights didn’t have to worry about, Musk said.
“There’s a tremendous amount of regulation today, compared with 100 years ago, on all fronts. They didn’t have the environmental regulations, the safety regulations. They didn’t have the liability risk,” he said. “They were free to innovate in a relatively unrestrained way, and that’s not the case today. I’m not necessarily saying what we have today is wrong, but that’s certainly a substantial difference, and it makes the cost of innovation in aerospace a lot greater today than in the past.”
Aircraft designer Burt Rutan, who is developing a suborbital space vehicle called SpaceShipOne, has made the point more forcefully, telling Aviation Week & Space Technology that “government is the reason it’s unaffordable to fly into space.”
In Musk’s view, there are three things government could do to make things easier for the Wright brothers’ aerospace heirs:
Lightening up on launches: “From an environmental standpoint, airplanes have something called a categorical exclusion,” Musk said. “So you don’t need an environmental permit every time you start your airplane, take off and go somewhere. But you do need that for rocket launches.”
It’s taken a year, Musk noted, to get environmental clearance for a single Falcon launch, which creates “about the same pollution as a 747 taking off.”
“You can imagine how impossible it would be if, every time you needed to catch a plane from L.A. to New York, you had to get an environmental permit to do that,” he said. Establishing a categorical exclusion policy for nontoxic rocket launches, modeled after the policy for airplanes, would be “very helpful,” Musk said.
Commercial space traffic control: It would also be helpful to establish a “commercial space traffic control system,” Musk said.
“In the aviation world, you’ve got two different air traffic control systems,” he said “You’ve got a military air traffic control system run by the Air Force, and you’ve got a civil air traffic control system run by the FAA.”
But in space, the only traffic control system is run by the Air Force, Musk said: “There is no civil one. That’s all well and good, but it’s very much oriented toward military systems. It’s not really oriented toward commercial ventures.”
Free range for rockets: Musk’s third recommendation would be to “establish certain criteria for areas where you could do experimentation with rockets, where you’re out of the range of being able to cause any harm to people, so there’s no third-party risk.”
Within such areas, Musk said, rocket development projects could be conducted as their leaders saw fit.
At 32, Musk is as old as Orville Wright was when he took that historic flight. It could well be that Musk and the other thirtysomething millionaires getting involved in aerospace, such as Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos and Armadillo Aerospace’s John Carmack, will reinvigorate a field mightily in need of new blood.
In aviation’s pioneering days, there was the hope that this new wave of exploration would be open to women and minorities in a way that previous breakthroughs were not, said University of Dayton historian Janet Daly Bednarek. Not only did it not happen in the 1930s, Bednarek said, it still isn’t happening enough now.
“African-American males broke the color barrier in World War II, but women did not break the gender barrier until the ’70s. … We need to entice more women and minorities into aviation for the future, because right now aviation is kind of aging, particularly general aviation.”
Statistics indicate that the number of pilots has been on the decline, she noted.
“The old sources like the military are not training as many pilots as they used to, so we have to look to new and sometimes historically unconventional sources for the next generation of pilots, engineers, builders and designers,” Bednarek said.
If this centennial year has brought new inspiration for the next generation, it has also brought new setbacks: February’s catastrophic breakup of the shuttle Columbia and the loss of its seven-astronaut crew grounded NASA’s human spaceflight program — and forced a reconsideration of the reasons for sending humans to the final frontier.
More than 40 years ago, President Kennedy established lofty space goals, “not because they were easy, but because they were hard.” Today, President Bush and his White House aides are reportedly taking another big-picture look at America’s goals in space — and NBC News space analyst James Oberg said they should look to the past for inspiration.
“People totally miss the predominant mood of the ’60s that fueled the space race. And that was fear — just naked fear of not doing well in terms of national survival,” Oberg said. “Frankly, I think people today aren’t afraid enough.”
With the potential threats posed by near-Earth asteroids, solar outbursts and climate variation, “there are plenty of things in the universe that affect our daily lives that we should be afraid of,” Oberg said.
“It’s just a matter of waiting until we get some kind of cosmic 9/11 that will make everyone say ‘why didn’t we see this before,’ and then we’ll have enough money to afford these programs,” he said.
“It’s not a hobby. It’s not a luxury. Curiosity and exploration are inherited traits, because those that weren’t curious and didn’t explore have no descendants.”