With the retirement of the U.S. space shuttle program, many pundits are calling on private enterprise to take up the slack in manned spaceflight. Chief among the cited commercial space projects in these media pieces is Virgin Galactic, the space tourist venture run by iconoclastic billionaire Richard Branson and based upon the first private manned spacecraft ever built: SpaceShipOne.
There's just one problem with comparing SpaceShipOne and its Virgin Galactic descendants with the shuttle — SpaceShipOne doesn't really go into outer space.
SpaceShipOne is a suborbital craft. It can never leave the Earth's atmosphere, can never achieve orbit, and is utterly incapable of performing any complex space research tasks during flight. It is a "space" craft in the sense that it can achieve a 100-kilometer altitude, which is the technical edge of space — and SpaceShipOne can achieve high altitude freefall in a way that mimics orbital microgravity — but that's literally just scratching the surface of the outer black. The same goes for the SpaceShipTwo fleet that Virgin Galactic is ramping up as we speak.
In generous historical terms, the VSS Enterprise (SpaceShipTwo) is more the heir to the Freedom 7 Mercury mission — the one that put the first American into space — than it is kin to shuttles Atlantis, Endeavour, or Discovery. More bluntly, SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo are high-altitude luxury versions of the Vomit Comet.
Despite the rather substantive overbilling, it is not strictly accurate to say SpaceShipOne has never left Earth's atmosphere. Technically — and with SpaceShipOne, every accomplishment is technical — at least part of SpaceShipOne has achieved interplanetary flight.
WHAT PART OF SPACESHIPONE HAS ACHIEVED INTERPLANETARY FLIGHT?
Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can also follow him on his personal blog.