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An Enterprise will fly in space – but not yet, and not this one…

TA DAH!!!

And so, finally, after months of waiting and teasing, on Monday, with much pomp and ceremony, and with flashing lights galore, “Spaceship 2″, the ‘world’s first commercial passenger-carrying spacecraft’, was revealed to the world…

The billioniare behind the program, Virgin boss Richard Branson, could hardly contain himself he was so excited, and as he stood there, in front of his super-sleek spaceship, beaming for the crowds of photographers, reporters and space enthusiasts, it was clear this is something he really believes in, passionately, and isn’t just doing it for the money, the exposure or the glory. He’s helped create a beautiful spacecraft, that’s for sure. With its swept back wings and bullet-shaped fuselage, carried into space by “Eve”, SS2 looks every inch the 21st century private spaceplane, and predictably the media have gone into absolute fawning meltdown over it, giddily declaring that “The Age of private spaceflight is here!” and “Soon flights into space will be available for everyone!”

Sorry to be a party-pooper, but, um, that’s not actually the case, is it?

I mean, no disrespect to the ship, or the team behind it; I’m sure it will really shake things up a bit. But the very bottom line is that, as I understand it, SS2 will NOT go “into space”. Now, before anyone writes a comment pointing out that “space technically begins xx km up, so technically speaking SS2 WILL go into space”, let’s be honest, shall we? SS2 is a sub-orbital craft. It will go up TO THE EDGE of space, give its mega-rich, fare-paying passengers a few precious moments of zero gravity, and a chance to see the blue and white Earth curving and spread out below them inbetween spattering barfs into their complimentary “Virgin Galactic” sick bags, then it, and them, will come down again. It will not go into orbit. It will not have to re-enter. That will have to wait for a later model, perhaps SS3 or even SS4. So – at the risk of being blasphemous here – I personally have a bit of a hard time thinking of SS2 as a “spacecraft”.

And I’m sorry, but the arrival of SS2 absolutely does NOT “open up space travel to normal people”. Come on, be serious. It opens up sub-orbital trips to the edge of space to mega-rich people who have £120,000 to throw away. That’s not you, or me; that’s not the people who enjoy a week’s holiday in Spain or Greece every summer; that’s not the family that treats itself to a two week break in Florida. SS2 is for millionaires – pop stars, movie celebrities, businessmen, etc. One day the price will come down, that is absolutely certain, but for the forseeable future “space” will still be reserved for either a) professional astronauts or rich people flying to the space station, or b) rich people who don’t mind forking out more money than I’d earn in half a dozen years just for 5 minutes of floating about.

So I’m sorry, but I’m going to wait until the first private spacecraft actually goes into orbit, and comes down safely again, until I’m ready to accept that a Bright New Age has begun. That age is on the horizon, certainly, but it’s not here yet.

But taking off my Mr Grumpy hat, when I saw the pictures of the grand unveiling I was quite excited about one aspect of the SS2 story for an hour or so – its name. “Richard Branson has chosen his spacecraft’s name well,” I thought. And when you think about it, what other name could he have chosen..?

Ah… there you go… see?

Enterprise“.

Now, to many people “out there” that’s just a name, just a word. But if you’re like me, just saying – just thinking – that word makes you shiver just a little bit. Because “Enterprise” IS ‘space’ for many, many people, perhaps two whole generations of people, thanks to a certain rather famous science fiction series from Ye Olden Days…

Ever since I was a young kid, watching STAR TREK on the small, cranky, you-often-have-to-slap-it-on-the-top-to-make-it-work black and white portable telly I had in my bedroom, I’ve been in love with the USS Enterprise. And I don’t use that word lightly. I LOVE that ship. I must be one of the few people in the world who wasn’t bored during the five minute long sequence in STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE when Kirk’s shuttle drifts around the newly-refitted Enterprise in its drydock, high above the Earth. I loved every drawn-out, self-indulgent, over the top, space geek porn moment of it. I was there, in that shuttle, peering over Kirk’s shoulder, wanting to push him out of the way, drinking in every moment, savouring the sight of the spotlights bouncing off the great starship’s hull, loving it, just loving it…

And I’ve loved every version of the Enterprise that’s appeared on-screen since (well, with the obvious exception of the Excelsior class version; god, that’s an ugly spaceship design, isn’t it? What were they thinking? That monstrosity even makes an Orion capsule look graceful – actually, no, it doesn’t, I take that back, sorry! ;-) )

The “re-imagined” Enterprise-on-steroids featured in the new movie has been criticised brutally by some fans as being too far removed from the original(s), design-wise, and for being just too big. Trek fans who take this very seriously have – somehow – measured the size of the new ship and reckon it’s about the same size as one of those wedge-shaped Imperial Star Destroyers from Star Wars, i.e. much, much bigger than the “original” Enterprise seen in the TV series and early films, which is a huge enough crime against Trek to warrant execution for Producer JJ Abrams. Personally, I’m not that bothered. Externally the new Enterprise is just gorgeous – even if it is a lot bigger – and it is true to the heart, spirit and soul of the original spaceship. It has the same sleek lines, the same powerful-looking engines, the same graceful saucer section. It’s a design classic, like Concorde, a Rolls Royce, or Ugg boots on a tall blonde. It just works. It just Looks Right.

(Actually, I do have a problem with the new Enterprise, Mr Abrams, if you’re reading this. My problem is with the ship’s interior – its bloody awful. The engineering decks are all huge tanks, gantries and metal railings and ladders that make it look more like the inside of a brewery than the heart of a starship. And those Scotty-scooting water pipes? Where did you get those from, Willy Wonka’s factory?! Please. I hope you change it for the sequel, I really do. I won’t even need an explanation why it changed between films, just get rid of all the pipes and tubes that make it look like a huge version of “Mousetrap” and I’ll be happy…!)

How much do I love the Enterprise? Ok. Confession time: yesterday whilst shopping in Blackpool (which was shut, by the way, as it’s the end of the holiday season and every shop along the seafront was either closed or boarded up. Not a stick of rock, box of fudge or bag of cinder toffee to be found anywhere, very poor!) yesterday, I found something that I just had to have. It was duly bought for me by my ever-supportive and understanding partner, and I’ll be given it for Christmas. What is it? This…

Yep, a model of the USS Enterprise from the new movie. Ok, when I say “model” I suppose I really mean “toy”, because it’s plastic, has flashing lights, and when you press a button dialogue from the movie comes out of a little speaker, but I don’t care! I saw it sitting there on a shelf – discounted to a third of its original price – and knew I had to have it, because … well, because I’ve always wanted a model of the Enterprise, and I’ve never had one, just like I never had one of the classic Airfix Saturn V rocket kits, becauase they were too expensive (pauses for “Awwwww!” from readers). I did have an Airfix kit of the “Eagle” lunar lander, but that fell off a shelf and broke. I had a plastic model kit of a space shuttle orbiter too, but that broke as well, and wasn’t really that good anyway. But haha, now I have my Enterprise!

Seriously, why is this spaceship and its appearances on screen such a big deal to me, and to so many other people? Isn’t it just a stupid spaceship – and a make-believe one at that?

Well, the thing is, to me – and I say this in the full knowledge that some of you reading this will laugh at me, but I don’t care – the Enterprise represents spaceflight just as much as an Apollo lunar module or space shuttle orbiter does. It stands for the spirit of exploration, and speaks to me, and many people like me, of the beauty of just Going Out There. Look at this picture:

Isn’t that the kind of spaceship that Mankind deserves to travel to the stars in? Isn’t that the kind of spacecraft that should carry into space members of the same species responsible for the Pyramids, the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal? It isn’t “functional-looking”, it isn’t “practical”, I know, but it’s… beautiful, it’s worthy of us.

And this is why I am so anti-Orion. Yes, I know that compared to the space shuttle it is a safer design, it’s more versatile, it’s more practical, yada yada yada, but it’s a hideous, snub-nosed, pug-ugly looking thing, and if I was an astronaut, putting my ass on the line, I’d much rather fly into space, and (hopefully) come home again, in something that at least looks sleek and graceful and attractive, instead of something that looks like a recycled Apollo capsule. I know that’s not a popular or common view, but it’s mine, and it’s heartfelt, and I won’t change. After a generation of runway landings and walking down steps, astronauts deserve better than to return to Earth strapped into a metal can and dumped into the ocean. It’s just wrong.

Anyway, back to my original point: I was initially delighted to see the name “Enterprise” on the side of SS2 when it was unveiled, and thought “Finally! An Enterprise in space – !” Then I remembered, SS2 isn’t going INTO space, is it?

And I thought “Oh crap… this is the first space shuttle, all over again…” :-(

History lesson for all you young ‘uns. Back in the late 1970s, when the Moon landings were a memory and NASA was preparing to fly the first space shuttle missions, there was a massive campaign by Star Trek fans to get the first space shuttle named “Enterprise”, in honour of their beloved starship. And yaay! Their campaign succeeded! “Enterprise” was duly rolled out with great fanfare, gleaming white in the sun, and Gene Roddenberry and members of the Star Trek cast came along, in their best wide-collared suits and flares, to see the shuttle and celebrate, along with many of the series’ fans…

But it was a massive own-goal, because the first shuttle built was destined to never actually fly in space – it was a test vehicle, designed to be carried aloft by a modified 747 jet and then let go, to glide down to a runway landing after its short flight, the idea being to see how well it handled, aerodynamically, as it flew through the air after re-entering the atmosphere…

The so-called “Approach and landing tests” were great successes, but, sadly, Star Trek fans never got to hear astronauts talking to Earth from an orbiting “Enterprise”. And that’ll be true with SS2, too. The spaceplane won’t truly go into space, won’t actually orbit the Earth, so the dream of having an “Enterprise” actually In Space is going to remain that for a while longer, which I’m quite sad about.

The shuttle “Enterprise” now stands in a gallery inside the famous Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. I hope to go and see it myself one day, walk alongside it, and take photographs like this…

In the Smithsonian’s Washington “Mall” site is the Smithsonian’s shop, and what has pride of place within the shop..? This wonderful, beautiful model…

So ha! It’s not just me, is it? Alongside the world’s largest collection of famous aircraft and spacecraft there stands a model of a fictional spaceship that has, for almost four decades, captured the imaginations and hearts of millions and millions of people around the world. If I ever get to the Smithsonian I’ll probably spend almost as long looking at that model as I will gazing wide-eyed at the real spacacraft on display there… :-)

I know we’re a long, long way from building a real Enterprise. We’re a good century, at least, away from being able to go up to the fence of a starship construction yard and see this view…

But one day we will build an Enterprise, I truly believe that. Probably not a starship; our first starships will be functional, practical and ugly – no need for them to be anything else as they cross the gulf between the stars, after all – but more likely a life size model, designed as a tourist attraction for guests at some orbital hotel to ooh and aaah over from the hotel’s observation deck. But that’s okay, it will still serve its purpose, it will still call out to us and inspire us just by being there.

That’s why I’ll be proud to have that model of the starship Enterprise standing on my bookshelves after breakfast on Christmas day, even if it is just a toy, really.

It’s a shame that SS2 “Enterprise” won’t fly into space. But one day a real spaceship bearing that name – perhaps built by Richard Branson, perhaps built by one of his competitors, perhaps even built by NASA – will leap away from ground, slide into orbit around the Earth, and millions of people around the world will grin from ear to ear as they hear the spacecraft’s name spoken by its astronauts and ground controllers, then go outside, into their gardens, look up and see a spark of light skating across the starry sky, and know that, at last, after all the waiting, an Enterprise is finally in space.

Where it belongs.

————————————————————————–

NOTE: For a very well-informed and constructive examination of the ways in which SS2 could eventually make space travel for private citizens more affordable and easier, I urge you to read the Comment by my good friend Dan Brennan at the end of this post. Dan has a much greater understanding of the economic side of this, and I’m grateful to him to showing me the other side of the coin. Thanks Dan! :-)

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9 Responses

  1. Stu I have to comment on this point you made:

    ….And I’m sorry, but the arrival of SS2 absolutely does NOT “open up space travel to normal people”. Come on, be serious. It opens up space travel to mega-rich people who have £120,000 to throw away. That’s not you, or me; that’s not the people who enjoy a week’s holiday in Spain or Greece every summer; that’s not the family that treats itself to a two week break in Florida ….

    I remember the first commercially viable handheld electronic calculators. My father brought home a Texas Instruments model from his office for all of us to marvel at (before returning it of course). He told me to be careful because it cost around $200 ($799 adjusted for today). Nice toy it just added subtracted multiplied and divided. No memory and no square root. Who would pay $800 for that, I guess just a handful of the very wealthy.

    The point it is that there was in fact a market for a certain amount of people to pay that much for a device with those features. More importantly there was a larger handful of people who might be willing to pay $600. So the electronics industry under competitive pressures started finding ways to squeeze production costs and add in more features and you know where that went.

    The real excitement of any new commercial product or enterprise is not the product itself. No it is the new MARKET that is being created.

    Just a few hundred feet from Scaled Composites there is another company known as XCOR. Its founder Jeff Greason is working on his own space plane. But invariably these projects take a lot of money and investors are shy about unproven technologies. Moreover Greason has told me personally with a straight face that he is confident that he has a working model and price structure that will keep his costs lower than those being offered by Virgin Galactic. Once Branson launches his first ship full of Hollywood film stars and Japanese business tycoons he will have launched a new competitive marketplace.

    Greason and others like him will see more investors once the potential is clear. His lower prices in turn will cause Branson to find cost savings to be able to compete. And don’t think it’s just going to be about price. Each company is going to do their darnedest to offer a flight that goes slightly higher and farther and that lasts longer than the competitor. I predict that you WILL see commercial orbital flight in your lifetime, in fact you may ride on one.

    I know that if I win the big lottery I’m going, and I’m not going alone. I’m going to take someone I know who’s excitement and wonder will meet or exceed my own. And you’re one of a handful of people I know who fit that profile. Or more likely in twenty years I won’t need to win the lottery.

    So hang on there Stu. You are in for an amazing decade where free market competition will take us all to the edge of space and maybe a toe into it. Those people who bought the first hand held calculators for $200 in 1974 were not fools. They were pioneers. The next generation who paid $5000 for a home personal computer in 1984 were the next generation of pioneers, and you know where we are in that regard today. That computer revolution made the world smaller, where you and I living over five thousand miles apart might never have met, are friends as though we were neighbors chatting over the fence.

    Commercial spaceflight will make the world smaller still, and it’s going to happen a lot faster than you can imagine.

  2. Thanks Dan! I actually agree with all your points. I was making the point that, contrary to what the popular press are saying, this spacecraft on its own will not “open the door”, but it’s definitely a start. I have no doubt that this is just the beginning of something, and that prices will come down, for everyone, but SS2 is not going to be taking people like me up there. But yep, once competitors see that SS2 works, and is safe and reliable, then we’ll see things kicking off. And I can’t wait.

    (VERY honoured to be on your list, by the way! :-))) )

  3. If SS2 isn’t a spacecraft, then nor were the first couple of Mercury spacecraft :)

    And I’m afraid that whilst I’m fond of the Shuttle, every time I watch it launch, I wonder “Wow – imagine what you could do with the up-mass of those wings. You could fly a cube-sat for every university in the world for the weight and volume they’re taking up.”

    It’s pretty….but it’s not a great way to get into space. Not any more. Sometimes the ends (getting into space regularly, safely and cheaply) justify the means (landing in a can, in the ocean)

    I’m fairly confident that I will be able to pay for a flight, myself (although if you’re giving them away Dan… ;) ) on something not too different to SS2 or Lynx, before I retire.

    And I’ll be taking that same camera that’s already been to the edge of space twice – the little Canon powershot that flew to 32km above Cambridge :)

  4. Stu, I completely relate re the fact that no “real” Enterprise to date has been an orbital manned vehicle or better. What’s interesting, though, is that we may be witnessing the birth of a tradition. I frankly wouldn’t be a bit surprised if this goes on for the next few centuries as manned spaceflight evolves.

    As we all know too well, the original Star Trek was incredibly influential on popular culture worldwide, (which if you think about it is a REALLY staggering fact all by itself for an obscure three-season TV show; something fundamental was tapped). Lots of inspiration from there that still resonates: cell phones, self-opening doors, the design of maritime ship bridges…and the naming of names for spacecraft.

    It’s quite possible that the name of the first actual starship itself , when & if we ever build one, might translate as “Enterprise”…from whatever language it’ll be written in.

  5. Your blog came up in my research and I’m impressed by what you have published on this subject. I am presently widening my inquiry and thus cannot contribute further, nonetheless, I have bookmarked your web site and will be returning to keep up with any upcoming updates. Simply love it and gives thanks for granting my remark.

  6. A point about the Shuttle Enterprise: It was originally supposed to be refitted for full spaceflight after the ALT flights, but cost reasons ended that plan, when it was found that the Structural Test Article 099 could be refitted for flight not only cheaper, but the resulting OV 099 would be lighter than a refitted Enterprise, so OV 099 would be able to lift more payload on each flight.
    OV 099, of course, became Challenger. Then, after Challenger was lost, consideration was again given to refitting Enterprise, and again, it was clear that an even lighter and more efficient Shuttle could be build starting with the Structural Spares components. That vehicle became OV-105, Endeavour.
    See the Enterprise’s own Facebook page:

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/Space-Shuttle-Enterprise/103384476360457

  7. Stu, I completely relate re the fact that no “real” Enterprise to date has been an orbital manned vehicle or better. What’s interesting, though, is that we may be witnessing the birth of a tradition. I frankly wouldn’t be a bit surprised if this goes on for the next few centuries as manned spaceflight evolves.
    tr

  8. I agree to the exuberant announcement of ‘space flight’ being somewhat non-orbital but nevertheless it IS a breakthrough in private funding versus governmental bureaucracy involvement. The SPACE X folks have gone ahead, designed and built a successful remote supply shuttle to the ISS, and are working on a version to carry astronauts…good thing too, as the USSR seems to be getting more bitchy by the week.

    I was invited to redesign the original ENTERPRISE by Gene; met him and Eddie Milken at Paramount and declined when he insisted on me working ‘in house.’ I had and still have my own corporation with multiple clients and could have serviced the account from my studio like I did for many other sci-fi movies such as STAR TREK:TMP (post production design of the V’GER entity), BLADERUNNER, TRON, 2O1O, ALIENS, SHORT CIRCUIT, JOHNNY MNEMONIC, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE III and the most recent cinema adventure, NEILL BL0MKAMPT’S ELYSIUM, due out in August. The resulting ENTERPRISE redesign (with the oval top part that detached…) was finally done by another designer.

    I worked with J.J on MISSION III, designing the mask maker prop. Space, the final fronteir really is a frontier…the final part is off into an infinite future…of imagination, of technical achievement and if the aliens help us some more, sooner than most people think.

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