With the recent developments in new commercial suborbital spaceplanes, (e.g., XCor’s Lynx, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, Sierra Nevada/SpaceDev’s DreamChaser,) my mind is often turned back toward the premier commercial spaceplane of the late-1990s, which inspired many in my generation toward a career in space science in the first place: the venerable VentureStar.
With the VentureStar came the promise of a new era in spaceflight. -A reduction in launch costs by an order of magnitude, a lifting body-wing design with no expendable parts, (called single-stage-to-orbit, or SSTO,) a bevy of composite materials to reduce weight, automated (pilot-less) flight control, and dual linear aerospike engines.
The project, which began at Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works as the X-33 in 1996, was truly next-generation. For those of us keeping watch in high school and early college, so too was the program’s use of technology for public outreach and engagement – a webcam streamed live images of X-33’s construction.
Due to cost overruns and technical difficulties, NASA scrapped their support of the program in 2001, and Lockheed Martin decided that without assistance their continuing the program alone didn’t make business sense. Thus, with a dedicated launch facility constructed at Edward Air Force Base and a prototype 90% complete, was an entire new generation of space enthusiasts turned to cynics.
For me personally as well as for many that I know, having cancelled the program so many of us were rooting for instilled a sense of skepticism that human exploration could ever really take off while its funding was tied to Congress. This meant that the future of space transportation and exploration would be have to be corporate, (which is ironically what Lockheed Martin was attempting to achieve with VentureStar.)
This is why so many of us see NASA support for Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) as a step not only in the right direction but also in the only direction with the possibility of not having the rug swept out from under its feet when a new administration comes in. Hence, as NewSpace entrepreneurs forge their way into the field, I say their battle-cry should quite aptly be, “Remember VentureStar!”
…and with suborbital commercial success, perhaps we’ll see our SSTO spaceplane yet.