- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 10, 2012


America’s adventuresome spirit is not dead yet. President Obama, the naysayer in chief, may have grounded NASA’s government-issued astronauts, but space entrepreneurs are making plans to tank up and take off on their own.

Last month, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen announced he is investing $200 million of his own fortune in a startup space venture, Stratolaunch Systems. The new company plans to design and build a space vehicle suitable for launching commercial payloads such as low-Earth-orbit satellites and, eventually, manned missions. Joining the software kingpin in the initiative to develop the next generation of space-travel vehicle is aerospace engineering pioneer Burt Rutan, who created the first aircraft to fly around the world without refueling. Mr. Allen and Mr. Rutan worked together earlier on SpaceShipOne, an airplane-rocket hybrid that first flew to the edge of space in September 2004.

Stratolaunch Systems aims to “bring airport-like operations to the launch of commercial and government payloads. … The air-launch-to-orbit system will mean lower costs, greater safety, and more flexibility and responsiveness than is possible today with ground-based systems,” according to a company statement.

The innovative duo intend to save money by integrating reliable existing gear with freshly designed components. Engines and landing gear from Boeing 747s, which first took to the skies in 1970, may be installed on a new composite fuselage and boosted by a rocket engine. The hope is to have the first operational cargo vehicle within five years.

Stratolaunch joins other space entrepreneurs attempting to reach for the heavens without first reaching deeply into the public purse. Last year, Great Britain’s Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic “spaceline” christened a shiny new launch vehicle and spaceport for passenger travel in the New Mexico desert. Wealthy passengers already have put down $200,000 for a seat on the Branson space plane, which is expected to boost them to the edge of space starting later this year.

Meanwhile, thanks to Mr. Obama’s disinterest, NASA has been left behind to watch from the ground as the future of manned space flight unfolds. In 2010, the president terminated the Constellation program, the successor to the now-mothballed space shuttle. The world’s erstwhile premier space agency has been reduced to touting an online video of its Orion capsule, built for an unfunded mission to Mars 20 years from now. In another clip, astronaut Daniel C. Burbank gamely trolls for new space-program recruits. However, without a working ride, prospective space jockeys won’t be going anywhere soon.

Even though Washington’s center of gravity is occupied by mismanagers who disdain the nation’s pioneer heritage, Americans following in the footsteps of our adventurous forebears are still inspired by the irrepressible urge to explore the great beyond. It is up to the Allens and Rutans of this era to showcase what American ingenuity and the free market can accomplish.

The Washington Times

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