Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

The Cheapest Rocket

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, June 22, 2004 --  

As his little spaceship rocketed out of the atmosphere above the Mojave Desert yesterday, inventor Burt Rutan scored new entry in the long list of aerospace firsts. His was not the first manned ship to reach space. The rocket's flight duration was not the longest. The ship did not carry the most people, travel the furthest, or even carry anything unusual.

But Rutan's space flight was something far more important -- it was the cheapest. Forty years after the Soviet, American, and more recently the Chinese governments spent many billions of tax dollars sending men into space, a team of American investors has achieved the feat for only a tiny fraction of the cost. While flying the American Space Shuttle costs about $500 million per trip1, and flying the Russian Soyuz costs about $15 million per launch2, Rutan claims he can fly his Space Ship One for only $500,000.

This staggering difference in cost is nothing short of revolutionary to manned space flight. A half-century of government domination of the manned space travel has failed to produce the 1950s schoolboy vision of space trips for the common man. After less than a decade of work, private industry is on the verge of exactly that. If Rutan has his way, space tourists will be able to buy a $10,000 ticket on his ship within the next decade.3

Supporters of NASA's enormously bloated bureaucracy are quick to point out everything that Space Ship One cannot accomplish. It can not go fast enough to orbit the earth. It cannot lift cargo or people to the International Space Station. It cannot allow space walks, a large crew, or dock with other spacecraft. This is all exactly true, and exactly to the point. Like any fiscally responsible private businessman, Rutan cut out all of these incredibly expensive capabilities, and instead focused on the bare minimum requirements to put a man in space.

The American government's Space Shuttle, by contrast, is so complex and expensive that it has cannibalized NASA's budgets, been grounded by fatal system failures, and has been rightfully slated for retirement by the Bush Administration. The use of such a craft for scientific missions is completely indefensible. All the supposedly great capabilities of the shuttle are much better provided by other unmanned, robotic spacecraft. Using robots is far more economical than using people because lifting each pound of weight into space is an expensive proposition. Robots can be built lighter than people, require no heavy life-support systems, and most importantly, require no giant re-entry vehicle to bring them back to earth.

Because of these advantages, supporters of the aging Hubble Telescope have convinced NASA to use a robotic servicing mission to extend the life of the orbiting telescope instead of the manned shuttle servicing mission planned before the Columbia disaster. This robotic servicing mission would be the perfect complement to yesterday's first private manned space flight. It would strongly illustrate all that scientific and technical activities in space can be best performed by cost-effective robots. Human space travel, by contrast, is a very romantic pursuit that greatly touches those who experience it, but provides almost no practical benefit to society. Instead of the government wasting billions of dollars putting astronauts into space for no reason other than an expensive joy ride, the astronauts should be paying private companies for the experience.

Perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, a group of 26 astronauts and Texas Senator Kay Baily Hutchinson sent a petition to President Bush last month to "implore" him not to repair the Hubble Telescope with a robot instead of a human piloted shuttle.4 Though their case was not convincing, their desperation was on full display. Instead of getting fat government paychecks and free joy rides on the shuttle, these astronauts may one day have to pay for a ticket on Burt Rutan's tourist rocket. So be it. With billions of tax dollars wasted each year on NASA's manned space programs, this change is long overdue.

Related Web Columns:

A Bloated Approach

The Real Reason to End the Shuttle Program, May 13, 2003

An Acceptable Risk

The Oxymoron of Safe Space Travel, February 4, 2003

An Astronomical Failure, October 31, 2000

The $50 Million Carnival Ride, October 6, 1998


1. See A Bloated Approach, May 13, 2003

2. Ibid.

3. Washington Post, Starship Private Enterprise, June 22, 2004

4., Letter from Sen. Hutchinson to President Bush, May 28, 2004