The current state of suborbital spaceflight technology conceived by Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are the result of past concurrent, adjacent possibilities. In 2010, Steven Johnson wrote an essay for The Wall Street Journal titled, “The Genius of the Tinkerer.” In that essay, Johnson defined the Adjacent Possible:
The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself…[that]…captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation. The strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations.
History is replete with examples of the adjacent possible. I like to define the period between the 1880s and the 1920s in America as the Age of Invention. Wireless communication, radio broadcasting, the electric light and electrical power distribution, motion pictures, powered flight, and, of course, the design and mass production of motor vehicles. In many cases, these society-altering inventions were a result of the adjacent possible.
More recently, I would point to NASA’s Apollo program to land astronauts on the Moon and explore its mysterious surface as one of the greatest examples of the adjacent possible in the latter 20th century.
America and the Apollo program
America’s Project Apollo and the Mercury and Gemini programs that preceded it are perhaps the greatest feats of engineering, system management, technological achievement and astounding exploration of the 20th century. It was only through many parallel and concurrent developments that the United States succeeded in achieving the goal of landing astronauts on the Moon, and returning them safely to Earth, as President John F. Kennedy has been quoted.
First, an impressive assembly of engineering and scientific minds seemed to coalesce at precisely the right time to engineer and manage the design, operation and management of the Mercury Gemini and Apollo programs. The names of these men and women are far too numerous to list here, but they number in the thousands. Each one of them was vital to the success of these three manned spacecraft programs.
In addition, there was the evolution the digital computer technology that was crucial in the development of everything from launch vehicle and spacecraft design to the computational radar system for rendezvous, docking and landing on the Moon. Coupled with this was the advancement of deep space communication vital for each mission’s success.
The will of President John Kennedy was matched by the support of the Congress which held the keys to the vault for funding these three programs almost regardless of the cost. The final outcome of all these Adjacent Possibles was the success of the Apollo program, six successful lunar landing missions, and the international prestige that came to the United States as the unchallenged superpower in manned space exploration. The seeds of American commercial suborbital and orbital spaceflight were sown during the 1960s.
Burt Rutan, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos seized adjacent possibilities
In the late 1990s, experimental aircraft designer Burt Rutan and his company Scaled Composites began a project that eventually evolved into a suborbital spacecraft. The impetus for its development was the Ansari X-Prize of $10 million. Microsoft executive Paul Allen funded the development of jet-engine carrier aircraft name WhiteKnightOne and its payload, the suborbital spacecraft SpaceShipOne. The first glide flights took place in 2003, followed by powered flights of SpaceShipOne.
On June 21, 2004, commercial human spaceflight history was made. Test pilot Mike Melville succeeded in piloting SpaceShipOne beyond the 100 km threshold of space, before returning to Earth and landing on the same runway. This was the first commercial and privately funded spacecraft to ever achieve this. The following October, the second flight took place, also passed the 100 km threshold, and Rutan, Allen and Scaled Composites won the $10 million Ansari X-prize.
Allen and Rutan then formed Mojave Aerospace Ventures to make a commercially-viable aircraft and spacecraft to be capable of regular, scheduled suborbital flights with paying passengers. It was here Richard Branson stepped in with the first contract to proceed with the contract. Branson formed Virgin Galactic to conduct these suborbital flights. It has taken Branson and Virgin Galactic well over a decade to perfect the spacecraft and make it safe for commercial flights. VG hopes to finally begin flights with paying spaceflight participants in 2018.
One of the competitors for the Ansari X-Prize was Blue Origin. This company was founded in 2000 by Jeff Bezos, who also founded Amazon.com. Blue Origin took a much more secretive approach to its design development of its first launch vehicle, capsule, and rocket engine. Bezos, like Branson, took the long-term view of developing this new technology. For more than a decade, few knew what Blue Origin was up to.
Finally, in November 2015, Blue Origin launched its New Shepard booster with its capsule to an altitude of nearly 330,000 feet. This was just over 100 km, the internationally recognized boundary of space. The booster landed under its own power and capsule parachuted to a landing near the launch site. Thereafter, Blue Origin became much more public in its progress and made videos almost immediately available for viewing. The company has announced it will launch its first test astronauts before the end of 2017. Spaceflight participants should begin flying into suborbital space sometime in 2018.
The Adjacent Possible for Suborbital Spaceflight
With the realization of suborbital spaceflight for hundreds and then thousands of spaceflight participants, what adjacent possibilities will derive from that? The newspace industry website, NewSpaceGlobal, states it has read studies that many hundreds of new companies will be formed and become viable during the next decade, into the 2020s. A significant number of them will be a result of the new personal spaceflight industry pioneered by Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin,
However, launching a new company to tap into this travel experience would be prohibitive in terms of finances and in time. To develop a new launch vehicle, capsule or spacecraft and make them reliable and reusable would take a decade at least and incur expenses in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The barriers to entry for this market are immense.
Sir Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos were and are the pioneers of suborbital personal spaceflight. As the early adopters and visionaries, they and their companies will by synonymous with commercial personal spaceflight. Blue Origin has even more ambitious plans to move forward with commercial orbital personal spaceflight in the 2020s. We may see the return of XCOR, but that spacecraft, which has yet to fly a single development flight, can carry only one spaceflight participant.
If America’s first two suborbital astronauts, Alan B. Shepard and Virgil “Gus” Grissom were alive today, they would be smiling in approval of the efforts of Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin.
Anthony Young ©Personal Spaceflight Advisors LLC direct email: email@example.com