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2004 - A Great Year for Alternative Space

by Clark S. Lindsey
Jan. 1, 2005
(Updated Jan. 2, 2005)

I believe 2004 will go down as the year that the alt.space movement really got off the ground. The NASA/Big Aerospace/Mega-Cost paradigm of space development has dominated since the beginning of the Space Race in the 1950s. Now this is gradually giving way to an alternative approach involving smaller, entrepreneurial companies that provide innovative technologies and techniques and significantly lower costs. The people involved in these companies are deeply committed to opening space to large scale public involvement and eventual settlement and are not out just to obtain big government contracts.

Below I show a timeline of a sampling of highlights in alt.space during 2004.

Note that I don't mark many of the milestones achieved by the several small rocket companies that made progress during the year. TGV Rockets and Rocketplane Ltd, for example, became established in Oklahoma with large teams and multimillion dollar funding. X PRIZE competitors like Arca Space, Canadian Arrow, da Vinci, and Starchaser didn't come close to winning but did develop and test hardware. Beyond-Earth Enterprises launched student payloads and memorabilia on its sounding rockets. Armadillo Aerospace carried out flight tests of prototype VTOL (Vertical TakeOff and Landing) vehicles but focused mostly on propulsion development. Jeff Bezo's Blue Origin did not reveal any secrets about its rocket project but it apparently continued to make progress.


2004 Alt.Space Timeline


Alt.Space Highlights Other developments

During 2004 the existence of the alt.space approach to space development became increasingly visible in the mainstream media. This article - America's space programme: Pie in the sky - Economist.com - Jan.15.04 - was an early example.

Greg Klerkx's book Lost in Space : The Fall of NASA and the Dream of a New Space Age (Amazon), dealt with the shortcomings of NASA and the promise of the alt.space movement. It received a lot of press attention and he even had a NY Times editorial.

Jan 4 - Spirit and Opportunity rovers drew enormous public interest throughout the year to their exploration of Mars.

Jan.17.04 - Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) - a major new space initiative announced by President Bush. Reorients NASA from a LEO/Shuttle/ISS focus to a long term DeepSpace/Moon/Mars focus. No big increase in funding. Instead, money from the Shuttle program, which will be phased out, and the ISS, after its assembly is finished, will pay for the program.

While not emphasized in the President's speech, lower costs via new approaches to hardware development from the smaller companies will be necessary to achieve the VSE goals within its funding constraints.

Jan. 31 - A public campaign opened to save the Hubble Observatory.


Feb.3 - Kistler Aerospace was awarded a contract by NASA but it was later voided due to a protest from SpaceX.

Feb.21 - DARPA revealed plans to commission the SS1 for flight tests of various technologies. However, Burt Rutan later canceled these and other scientific flights to concentrate on development of the SS2. (Also, further flights of the SS1 were vetoed by Paul Allen so that the ship would go directly to the Smithsonian.)

NASA's Centennial Challenges program is unveiled. Patterned after the X PRIZE, the program would give awards to those who first developed a particular technology of importance to space exploration and development.

March 9 - X PRIZE obtained a major backer when Champs Car World Series became the "presenting sponsor" for the prize.

March 27 - X-43A project succeeded in achieving a few seconds of positive thrust from its scramjet engine during the second flight test for the program.

April 7 - Scaled Composites received the first license for suborbital manned rocket flights from FAA/AST.

April 8 - The SS1 executed a rocket powered flight for the second time.

April 23 - XCOR obtained the second license for manned rocket flights.

April 22-24 - Read about other interesting news from the Space Access'04 meeting in Phoenix.

April 3 - House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics held a hearing on the need for more data "to determine if the moon has enough water and minerals to support significant, ongoing human activity there."

May 3 - Bigelow Aerospace arranged for the launch of a spacecraft in late 2005 on a SpaceX Falcon V.

May 5 - The X PRIZE became the Ansari X PRIZE when the Ansari family signed on as the "title sponsor".

May 13 - SS1 made its third rocket powered flight. Reached 212K ft (64.6km).

May 16 - Ky Michaelson's Civilian Space eXploration Team claimed the title as the first amateur team to send a payload into space. The 21-foot ‘Go Fast’ rocket with a solid fuel motor reached 124km (77miles) according to the team.

May 3 and May 6 - The Aldridge Commission held hearings in the Spring on new ideas and reforms for NASA that would allow it to achieve the VSE goals.


June 16 - Armadillo Aerospace carried out a beautiful vertical launch / vertical powered landing with a 300lb prototype vehicle.

June 18 - FAA/AST granted Mojave Airport the first inland spaceport license.

June 21 - SS1 piloted by Mike Melvill became first privately financed, manned vehicle to reach space.

June 23 - Greg Olsen, expected to be the third space tourist to reach the ISS, had his flight canceled due to health reasons.

June 16 and June 17 - The Aldridge Commission released its final report, which gave a high priority to NASA collaboration with private space developers.

July 12 - The ZERO-G company started to book rides on its parabola flying airplane.

July 20 - At least one poll showed strong public support for the VSE.

Aug.5 - The da Vinci Project got a major sponsorship for its X PRIZE rocket development

Aug.8 - A test flight by Space Transport failed soon after launch. This was not especially interesting in itself (test flights of rocket vehicles in development fail all the time), but the tremendous amount of press coverage it received worldwide was very impressive. Showed how the SS1 flights had greatly raised the visibility of the X PRIZE and its competitors.


Sept.26 - Bigelow Aerospace announced the America's Space Prize contest that will award $50M to a non-governmental organization that develops a manned orbital launcher by 2010.

Also, details were released about Bigelow's inflatable space habitats. First launch of a prototype will occur in 2005. A habitat capable of supporting a crew will be launched in 2008.

Sept. 27 - Richard Branson announced an agreement with Mojave Aerospace Ventures, a joint Burt Rutan/Paul Allen company, to build five vehicles to provide a suborbital space tourism service run by Virgin Galactic beginning in 2008.

Sept. 29 - The first X PRIZE flight by the SS1 was a success, though the rolling near the top caused consternation among observers.

Sept. 16 - NASA issued a request for information from companies interested in supplying transport services.

Sept. 17 - Three of the four companies that won DARPA Phase II Falcon contracts for small launcher development were entrepreneurial companies.


Oct. 4 - The second X PRIZE flight by the SS1 was a complete success and Scaled Composites won the $10M prize.

Oct. 6 - SpaceX carried out tests at Vandenberg with the Falcon I on its mobile launcher platform.

Oct. 19 - Proposals were posted for NASA's future space exploration system from the companies that obtained study contracts. These included smaller companies like t/Space.

Nov. 7 - The X PRIZE was awarded to Scaled Composites at a ceremony in St. Louis.

Nov. 13 - Orbital Recovery, started by Walt Anderson and Dennis Wingo, obtained full funding for development of its space tug. (OR is collaborating with several large European aerospace companies but it still follows the innovative style of a small company.)

Nov. 2 - AvWeek reported that the SS1 was having a positive impact on the RASCAL program.

Nov. 17 - NASA's Exploration Systems office announced awards to 70 proposals that "support the research and technology goals and objectives of the Vision for Space Exploration".

Nov. 23 - NASA got its full budget request and so obtained funds to start the VSE program.


Dec. 8 - The Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act passed the Senate at the very last possible moment. It set the regulatory framework for suborbital space tourism operations in the US.

Dec. 28 - Details began to be released about the SS2 now under development. See also this item.

Dec. 7 - Oracle and Space Adventures teamed up to offer a suborbital trip to some lucky programmer





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