Global Trade March/April 2012 : Page 88

GROUND CONTROL TO MAJOR STU “We continue to pay Vladimir Putin for rides on antique Russian rockets rather than support American innovation.” Binnie recalls. “All hell breaks loose. But while the bull rider has to only hang on for eight seconds, the rough ride to space takes 80.” That’s the sort of talk you didn’t hear so much at NASA during the button-down management days of the space shuttle. It’s a sentiment straight out of the glory days of American rocket power; something Gordo Cooper might have enthused in The Right Stuff . The $25 million price tag on Rutan’s remarkable vehicle was financed by Microsoft cofounder, Paul Allen. Although Allen’s total outlay exceeded the prize value, Binnie sees the investment as worthwhile and the prize as an “irresistible carrot that drew the world’s attention to Mojave, including bringing back Sir Richard Branson.” Branson, head of the UK-based Virgin Group of companies, is to New Space what the Rolling Stones are to rock & roll—not necessarily its inventor, that is, but the man who brings the sex appeal, and therefore the international media attention and the money. He’d been out to Mojave before X-Prize—to see the Rotary Rocket project—and had already contracted with Rutan to build his Global Flyer, the first plane to fly non-stop and solo around the world. When Branson returned for the X-Prize flights in 2004, he brought with him the vision of a new industry. He revealed it with real theatrical flair: Following SpaceShipOne’s dramatic landing on the tarmac at Mojave, Branson announced the creation of Virgin Galactic. Since then, he and his investors have poured more than $250 million into facilities and staff all directed at a single point. beFore THe beGINNING: a NeW-SPaCe PreQUel If you remember the American space program, you may recall that it featured a rocket race that was itself a centerpiece (maybe the centerpiece) of the Cold War. You remember that the U.S. government threw its best and brightest into a science-based war of attrition with the Soviets, beginning with startling Soviet advances like the first Sputnik satellite and Laika, the canine cosmonaut that chilled the spines of all Americans. The U.S. responded with German scientist Werner von Braun’s work on massive rockets that boosted white-clad and helmeted men into space and back in capsules the size of a Chevy Suburban—Mercury, Gemini, Apollo capsules with something less than the computing power of an old-school calculator. While American officials talked up the peaceful uses of space, the collapse of the Soviet Union left America’s government-run monopoly without a competitor and without a publicly compelling mission. Still holding all the technological advantages in the world, it atrophied. There was a brief, odd mention of a Mars mission during the George W. Bush administration but, with the final shuttle flight last year, the moribund U.S. manned program entered the cryo freeze. Today, standing at Mojave with Witt, it’s possible to be hopeful about the demise of our government space program. Today we understand that the burial of the government space program cleared the way for a new business 88 Global Trade MARCH•APRIL 2012

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