Rotor & Wing International

Watch for Disruption

About 20 yr ago, I worked in Cocoa Beach, Florida, writing mainly about U.S. space missions.

About 20 yr ago, I worked in Cocoa Beach, Florida, writing mainly about U.S. space missions.

That was a tough time for U.S. spaceflight. America had set aside the Apollo Moon missions’ glory, shifting to a utilitarian plan of low-Earth-orbit space shuttle flights. To justify the new, reusable “flying truck” costs, the government deemed all satellites would fly from the shuttle and ended purchases of other rocket launches. The 1986 Challenger disaster scuttled that plan and left the U.S. reliant on re-purposed ICBMs to launch satellites.

The U.S. record was not stellar. Shuttle launches suffered prolonged delays. Satellite boosters had chronic problems. One heavy-lift Titan IV sat on a launch pad more than a year. During a 1996 visit, a top U.S. Air Force space commander declined to discuss this. “I’m not going to pick on Titan tonight,” said Gen. Charles Horner, architect of the 1991 air war during Desert Storm and then head of USAF’s Space Command. “That’s like beating a tethered goat.”

I asked Horner whether an Orteig-like prize might help end the U.S.’s inglorious space mess. In 1919, Raymond Orteig, a French hotelier in New York, had offered $25,000 for the first nonstop flight from that city to Paris. The first try, in 1926 in a Igor Sikorsky-designed trimotor airplane, failed. In 1927, four more attempts stalled or failed before Lindbergh landed at Le Bourget May 21 to claim the prize.

Just as Horner was pitying the Titan IV, Greek-American entrepreneur Peter Diamandis set up a prize for a nongovernment outfit to send a reusable manned spacecraft into space twice within two weeks. Two Iranian-American entrepreneurs, Anousheh and Amir Ansari, put up $10 million. From around the world, 26 groups vied for the prize. Burt Rutan’s Mojave Aerospace Ventures claimed it in 2004 with its SpaceShipOne. Today, satellite operators and NASA rely on new private U.S. companies to orbit spacecraft and supplies.

The Orteig Prize transformed aviation, as the X Prize did spaceflight. Vertical flight may be on the cusp of such transformation.

Entrepreneurs are bankrolling new personal vertical-lift aircraft; some look nothing like helicopters. Google co-founder Larry Page has his $38-billion-plus net worth behind Zee.Aero to work “at the intersection of aerodynamics, advanced manufacturing and electric propulsion” and develop “a revolutionary new form of transportation.”

Mark Moore is the chief technologist for “on-demand mobility” at NASA’s Langley Research Center. (He spoke at last month’s Rotorcraft Technology Summit). A career advocate of fixed-wing vertical flight, he said Silicon Valley “deep pockets” like Page are committed to transforming vertical flight. “These guys are crazy ambitious,” he said, “and willing to fail early and often.”

The hard-bitten are justifiably skeptical. Yet these ventures come as rotorcraft sees more applied research into autonomy, hybrid propulsion and flight controls. Considering the pairing of those factors with flush financing, such ventures merit watching. R&WI