Spaceliner? That's thinking outside the atmosphere

[Cross-posted and edited from a Kentucky Space blog post] Earlier this week, the world's first spaceliner, the VSS Enterprise, took another step along the way toward commercial service when it achieved its first piloted free flight in Mojave CA, dropping from its gossamer mothercraft - WhiteKnightTwo - at an altitude of 45,000 feet and returning successfully to the Mojave airport for an unpowered landing.

The Virgin Galactic ship is a direct descendant of SpaceShipOne, the 2004 X-PRIZE winning private spacecraft developed by Burt Rutan - a 2006 IdeaFestival speaker, by the way - and his company Scaled Composites to demonstrate that non-government, crewed, repeatable flight to space and back was possible.

Watch SpaceShipOne reach space here.

Taking a completely different approach to mitigating the scorching speeds encountered by every other re-entry vehicle, Rutan's breakthrough idea essentially folded SpaceShipOne (and its progeny Enterprise) into giant shuttlecocks (right side image) for the return to Earth, which enabled the ship to stably descend to the lower reaches of the atmosphere where it could redeploy its rear flying surfaces and glide to a landing.

In 2006, an acerbic Rutan described the then-planned NASA return to the moon as an "archaeological" exercise because it would train engineers, who "were not familiar with the achievements of the Apollo era," to build technologies that were already known to work. It was a jab at the lack of can-do spirit of an earlier time: to solve specific problems associated with taking people to the moon and back, the Apollo program invented many completely new technologies - like the microprocessor - that have since, some forty years later, found their way into everyday consumer products.

And getting NASA back into the inspiration business might be an apt description of the new U.S. direction in space policy signed into law on Columbus Day, which leans on businesses such as SpaceX to supply commercial lift. In addition to finalizing the exit of the agency from the business of trucking people and supplies to low Earth orbit, NASA now has its sights officially set on new destinations: crewed missions to asteroids and later, Mars.

It just took a little outside-the-atmosphere thinking.


Image: Geoff Oliver Bugbee