The Three Romantic Ages of Spaceflight

by Paul Gilster on September 29, 2004

The continuing success of SpaceShipOne — and other ventures suggestive of future commercial space activities like Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Robert Bigelow’s Bigelow Aerospace — bring me back to Freeman Dyson. It was in 1979, in his book Disturbing the Universe, that Dyson wrote about what he called the three ‘romantic ages’ of spaceflight.

The first, beginning in 1927, was inaugurated by the Verein für Raumschiffahrt, Germany’s Society for Space Travel, which met in Breslau that year. The VfR would include such luminaries as a young Wernher von Braun, and would make an enthusiastic contribution to early rocketry before its talents were hijacked by the German military.

Dyson’s second age was the era of Orion, Ted Taylor’s nuclear spaceship. Working on an outrageous but theoretically plausible design that involved enormous shock absorbers cushioning nuclear blasts behind the vehicle, Orion’s slogan was ‘Saturn by 1970.’ When in 1959 the decision was made not to use nuclear propulsion in the civilian space program, the Orion project was turned over to the Air Force; it was terminated in 1965. The second romantic age had ended.

Chemical rockets were now ascendant. Think Apollo: the ultimate triumph of single-mission, high-cost vehicles that achieved great things, but were ill-suited for continuing development. Listen to Dyson on this era:

“Already in 1958 we could see that von Braun’s moon ships, the ships that were to be used for the Apollo voyages to the moon ten years later, would cost too much and do too little. In many ways the Apollo ships were like the V-2 rockets. Both were brainchildren of Wernher von Braun. Both were magnificent technological achievements. Both were far too expensive for the limited job they were designed to do. The Apollo ships were superbly successful in taking men for short trips to the moon, and they looked beautiful on television. But as soon as mankind became tired of this particular spectacle, the Apollo ships became as obsolete as the V-2. There was nothing else they could do.” (Disturbing the Universe, p. 110).

When will the third romantic age of spaceflight begin? Dyson again:

“The third romantic age will see little model sailboats spreading their wings to the sun in space, as free and graceful as the little radio-controlled gliders which dance among the birds in the sea breeze over the cliffs near the General Atomic Laboratories every Sunday afternoon. It will see test stands as amateurish as those of Berlin and Point Loma, where a new generation of young people will try out a new generation of wild ideas.” (Ibid., p. 116).

It was at Point Loma that Orion had its test site, on a penninsula that sticks out into the Pacific west of San Diego; here on November 12, 1959 the project’s most successful test flight took place, using a model its team called the Hot Rod. Surely we must now include Mojave among the places that fit the Dyson model.

Is SpaceShipOne a symbol of the beginning of the third romantic age of spaceflight? The betting here is yes. In a paradoxical way, SpaceShipOne and the X Prize itself take us back to a more exciting time for spaceflight, even as they take us forward to a future we had almost seemed to have lost. To Burt Rutan, Mike Melvill and team: well done!

Recommended reading: Freeman Dyson’s Disturbing the Universe (New York: Harper & Row, 1979; now available in HarperCollins’ paperback edition of 2001) — cover to cover.