The 1983 motion picture The Right Stuff shows a classic scene where the Mercury astronauts confront a German engineer (obviously modeled after Wernher von Braun, although never referred to by name). The astronauts have decided to take control and “change the parameters of the experiment.” They insist on changes to the Mercury capsule including the addition of a window, a hatch with explosive bolts, and a stick that will allow the astronaut to take manual control. During the tense confrontation, Alan Shepard (played by Scott Glenn) challenges NASA’s nomenclature: “That is a spacecraft, sir. We do not refer to it as a capsule.”
Such exchanges between astronauts and engineers did take place during the Mercury program, although the staging was much less dramatic and Von Braun was not actually involved. The astronauts insisted on all the design changes that were mentioned in the film and they vehemently objected to calling Mercury a “capsule” – which sounded like something an astronaut might swallow. Spacecraft was the term the astronauts preferred.
With all due respect to Alan Shepard and the others, Mercury had much more in common with an aviation escape capsule than it did an aircraft. Abraham Lincoln asked, “How many legs does a dog have, if you call a tail a leg?” The answer, Lincoln said, is four – calling a tail a leg does not make it a leg. Calling a capsule a spacecraft does not make it a spacecraft.
To be worthy of the term spacecraft, a system needs to provide the same sort of economics and operability as an aircraft. It must be fully reusable and capable of rapid reuse, with minimal refurbishment between flights. It must carry humans and be under their control. (That’s the difference between an aircraft and a UAV.) It doesn’t necessarily need to have wings, land on a runway, or look like an airplane, but it must be capable of controlled landings at a designated landing site. It needs to be designed for high reliability, maintainability, operability, and safety, like an aircraft.
The United States Air Force started to develop such spacecraft in the 1960’s. It began with the suborbital X-15, which was to be followed by the X-20 DynaSoar (launched on an expendable rocket) and, later, by fully reusable orbital launchers. Unfortunately, the development of reusable spacecraft was cut short by Cold War panic. The space race favored the quick and dirty solution of Project Mercury. The result was three generations of space capsules, launched by expendable rockets, followed by the quasi-reusable Space Shuttle which was neither fish nor fowl. This arrested development led to stagnation. In 50 years, the cost and safety of human spaceflight has improved hardly at all.
Until now. The development of true reusable spacecraft has resumed in the 21st Century, this time in the private sector. It is being carried forward today by companies like Scaled Composites and XCOR Aerospace. As in the 1960’s, it’s starting with suborbital spaceflight, where the technological barriers to entry are much lower. The suborbital spacecraft that are being built today will evolve into orbital spacecraft of tomorrow. In the meantime, they will provide low-cost, reliable, rapid access to space for thousands of scientists, engineers, and citizens who have not had access before.
The United States Rocket Academy is proud to be part of this low-cost spaceflight revolution. Here, we present some exclusive photos of the XCOR Lynx, which will be our first ride into space. We don’t expect it will be our last.
We have already begun selecting and training astronaut candidates like Steve Heck and Maureen Adams. We’re also inviting citizen scientists to respond to our Call for Experiments to fly on the ten Lynx flights we have purchased.
This is not a capsule.
This, sir, is a spacecraft!
Above: Mockup of the Lynx cockpit as it would appear on orbit, with simulated instrument displays. Below: Lynx flies over West Texas as it returns from outer space.