Woo-hoo! They made it - there and back again. Kudos to Paul Allen, Burt Rutan, and especially to pilot Mike Melvill, whose butt was on the line. And, of course, though this flight itself goes into the record books, it's also the warmup for an attempt on the X Prize. (Though some intervening flight tests could result, depending on the evalutions of a stuck control and cracked fairing whose significance is still undisclosed.)
For the first time in many a long year, it feels like we're on a path to space that might be sustainable for the long run. The mainstream press and the space bloggers are rightfully banging on about the potential for a 'space tourist' revenue stream that will make this all more than a very costly form of ego-boo for billionaires. For instance, Dale Amon has some worthy reflections. So perhaps I'll fill in by pointing out a few other straws in the wind that might indicate other potential revenue flows for both SpaceShipOne-like architectures, and other low-cost suborbital / LEO attempts:
Over at DARPA's Tactical Technology Office, there are a variety of relevant programs. RASCAL intends to use a space plane based on modified fighter jet engines, which will carry a conventional rocket second stage capable of launching small satellites to LEO. Orbital Express is an effort to design constellations of such small satellites that could substitute for today's megabirds. And here are some new propulsion systems scaled to the appropriate size. Another launcher program, FALCON is intended to fly suborbital payloads to anywhere in the world from the continental US. Think of it as an extremely long range JDAM.
The point isn't that any of these programs are going to match 1-1 with the X-Prize vehicles, but they do indicate a latent demand for much the same payload / energy configurations being pioneered there. And a little digging around will find some of the same private companies involved in engine and airframe development.
And though my faith in NASA is pretty small - as both a space buff and investor - they are at least nominally committed to moving in a way that will create further demand rather than competition for private space. Excerpting from T. L. James' useful summary of the Aldridge Report:
The Commission recommends NASA recognize and implement a far larger presence of private industry in space operations with the specific goal of allowing private industry to assume the primary role of providing services to NASA, and most immediately in accessing low-Earth orbit....
The Commission recommends NASA aggressively use its contractual authority to reach broadly into the commercial and nonprofit communities to bring the best ideas, technologies, and management tools into the accomplishment of exploration goals.
The Commission recommends that Congress increase the potential for commercial opportunities related to the national space exploration vision by providing incentives for entrepreneurial investment in space, by creating significant monetary prizes for the accomplishment of space missions and/or technology developments and by assuring appropriate property rights for those who seek to develop space resources and infrastructure.
And, indeed, within hours of the flight, a NASA spokesperson publicly backed the notion of prizes. That alone won't get investors jazzed - plans like Scaled Composites' aren't based on one time revenue shots - but they are a nice kicker, and prove a focus of public attention.
So the game is afoot, and the learning curve begins. For those of us who grew up with Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, this may be a reliving of our childhood. For those growing up today, they may have more of a hope that this time it will stick to the wall.