If you want to know who all these people were who came to SA '05 and what motivated them, I can't tell you. I could speculate, but so could anyone else. So on this page I'll tell you a few things about me and why I came.
I've been a spaceflight enthusiast since I can remember. I was 11 when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon, and I already had the bug by then. I was certainly reading plenty of science fiction, and taking it seriously (to see how seriously, you can glance at this part of my personal site). I've always been sure that there was wonderful potential out there: discoverise to be made, adventures to be survived, technologies to be developed and used, perhaps even profit to be gained, and (but this came later) the chance to build up new lifestyles and new civilisations, to boldly split infinitives that no man had split before.
When I got into my twenties, I noticed that most of this was not happening. Then I noticed that it wasn't even on the way to happening: space stations were coming down as fast as they were being built (which was not very fast) and nobody was going to Mars, or even building a base on the Moon, despite several fine-sounding speeches from politicians and any number of glossy pictures in magazines. In my thirties, I started wondering why this was and what could be done about it. Trained as a mathematician and software developer, I tend to look for "root causes" (with what little traning I have in physics, I know that there is no such thing as a root cause, but never mind), and the root cause I found was that, "It's The Money, Stupid." Getting into space in the first place was so staggeringly expensive that there was almost no chance of doing anything there unless it either was clearly and overwhelmingly profitable, like putting up comsats or spysats, or gave hefty political benefits. The Apollo programme, as I came to understand, was generously funded not because Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon cared about space, but because they wanted to show a sceptical world (not excluding their own people) that Khrushchev's boasts of Soviet economic and technological dominance were hollow. Fortunately for their budgets, but unfortunately for my dreams, this only needed to be shown once, after which the space effort could be allowed to wither. There weer a few nods in the direction of zero-g manufacturing, but no commercial enterprise actually emerged wanting to do it, because there was little chance of profit.
In 1993, I heard about the Space Access Society and immediately joined it. The SAS is not a fan club. I get no glossy magazines or other memorabilia. Just an occasional policy update that I could get without paying, and a discount on the annual Space Access conference that does not cover the cost of membership. I don't even get a tax dedeuction. But I think it's an excellent use of my money. The SAS wants what I want: cheaper access to space, by whatever means will work best. Not surprisingly, there is some diversity of opinon about what will work best. There is considerable agreement about what isn't working.
I don't remember what inspired me to look one level deeper in the chain of causes and ask why space flight was so expensive. I do remember the NASA Space Shuttle, which was advertised as reducing the cost of getting into space by ten and making it routine, but ended up costing twice as much as existing rockets and being dangerous to boot. I also remember reading sci.space.tech and being exposed to the views of people who reckoned they knew how to make it cheaper. These were my first encounters with "alt.space".
It doesn't take genius to see that getting from point A to point B is going to be expensive if you do it in a vehicle whose expected lifetime is one trip. (Traditional rockets are decsended, by way of some ICBMs, from the V-2, which was expected to destroy itself when it arrived at its destination ... I mean, its target.) Any vehicle that non-astronauts use, from a bicycle to an airliner, is designed to last thousands of trips, and requires only modest amounts of maintenance, whose cost is unlikely to approac the vehicle's original cost. The true cost of travelling car or plane is less than ten times the cost of the fuel you put in the tanks. So the first thing you need for cheap access to space is a launcher that works like an airliner: you fly it, land it, refuel it, and fly it again. There were, and are, some people who see another way, namely an expendable vehicle that is so simple in design that it can be mass-produced in a way which airliners cannot, and the cost of throwing away the hardware doesn't matter much. I won't say they are 100% wrong, but I prefer the airliner concept, because of another consideration.
NASA's Shuttle has now killed fourteen people; statistically, it has had catastrophic accidents in about one fiftieth of its launches. Traditional rockets do not do much better than this. As Elon Musk is finding out, and as is also hinted in an excellent little book called, "To Engineer is Human," the best way to be sure something is safe is to do it many times until you have found out by trial and error what doesn't work and how much safety margin you need. Airliners never carry passengers on their first flight. I test-drive a car before I buy it. And so on. But rockets that you throw away in the middle of the trip cannot be test-flown. You cannot even inspect them after the trip to see which parts came close to failing.And as long as they are expensive enough and few enough to be hand-built, you cannot predict the reliability of one rocket from the record of others like it, because they aren't the same, and you aren't even sure if the differences between them are important or not. It is alleged that the Soviet Union had what amount to a production line for its Proton booster, and that considerable numbers of effectively identical mass-produced rockets were flown. I don't know that for certain. I know that I want to go to space in a vehicle that has been up there and back down hundreds of times, or is built by people who have learned the lessons that you learn when you fly one vehicle hundreds of times.
It is sometimes claimed that NASA's experience shows that reusable vehicles are no safer than expendables. To start with, NASA has not flown any one vehicle hundreds of times. No one Shuttle has flown more than, I think, about thirty times. The various Shuttles are also far from identical; even the design of the turbopumps, which are a vitally important (and very difficult) part of the main engines, has been changed. Secondly, to say that the Shuttle is reusable is to distort the meaning of the term. It certainly isn't like an airliner. The shortest interval between flights of the same vehicle that has even been optimistically proposed is two months. Airliners typically turn around in no mor than two hours. Notice a difference? Just as importantly, some rather large pieces of the Shuttle do fall off during flight (I'm referring to the big tank and the solid boosters, not to flakes of insulation). What you get back after a Shuttle flight is some pieces from which you can build a spaceship; the orbiter (the big peiece that you get back) is exhaustively inspected to see what needs to be replaced before the next flight. Recyclable? OK. Reusable? Not really. Reflyable? Not at all.
Right about the same time as I joined SAS, the DC-X started doing its test flights. The DC-X is worth remembering, for several reasons.
Back then, the US government was showing some interest in space-based missile defences. These would have required launching large amounts of hardware into space, which was prohibitively expensive at the time. So they had a real motivation for getting there more cheaply. McDonnell-Douglas proposed a vehicle to be called the Delta Clipper (the name was derived from McDonnell-Douglas' existing Delta launchers), an SSTO VTVL RLV (puzzled? I'm just trying to make you look at the glossary), and offered to build a little Delta Clipper Experimental, or DC-X, to demonstrate that this idea had some chance of working. They built it for a mere 70 million (very cheap compared to anything NASA had done in the past twenty years) and it managed several VTVL flights, including some minor mishaps which it successfully overcame, before funding was cut off. NASA supplied some more funding, and some more flights were done, until someone forgot to re-connect a hydraulic line that powered the landing gear, and the vehicle toppled over and was destroyed.
I see several lessons here. One, actual progress on cheap access to space usually depends on there being enough anticipated demand for someone to commit money; the "build it and they will come" approach has never got far. Two, NASA isn't interested in spending tiny amounts of money on cheap access to space unless shamed into doing so (and if you spend large amounts of money, it isn't cheap, a point which some politicians and major aerospace companies seem to have some difficulty with). Three, it's not necessarily that hard to build a kind of vehicle that has never been built before; you just have to have the courage and find some money somewhere. Four, a test program with only one flight vehicle is inherently fragile; you should build at least two, preferably three.
My viewpoint boils down to this: the Delta Clipper, or something recognisably like it, could have worked and could have given us a cheap way to get into space, using technologies that already exist or can fairly easily be developed without gigabuck-sized research efforts. All it needs is for someone to commit enough money to do the engineering. Oh, and someone else to handle the insurance, and the FAA regulations, and ... but the main hurdle, certainly in the mid-'90s, was money. Studies asserting that there is plenty of demand for launch services at prices of a million a tonne are one thing; customers offering to buy launches are another. And my viewpoint is one thing; the realities of launch vehicle engineering are another. I've written a separate page explaining the engineering as I understand it; there are undoubtedly better sources of engineering information if you look for them.
For a while it seemed likely that there would be more demand for cheap launch, namely constellations of satellites providing global communications (Iridium, Teledesic). These also evaporated as terrestial fibre optics and other alternatives worked well and cheaply. The technology did not advance much, and some launcher companies (including one that I had seriously thought of investing in) disappeared or went broke. Then came the Ansari X-Prize.
The prize and the winning of it by SpaceShipOne were front-page news last year, and I won't bore you by repeating that story here. Suffice it to say that a real demand has been shown to exist and real money can now be found by companies that can convince investors that they have a good product or service to meet this demand. And once again it has been shown that small teams with small amounts of money are getting things done that NASA and its friends overlook.
But sub-orbital tourism isn't the "cheap access to space" that I want. It's the first step on a tall ladder. A rough analogy would be that getting into orbit is to what SpaceShipOne did as crossing the North Atlantic is to crossing the English Channel. Against that, ther eis certainly room to hope that wealthy people who have flown sub-orbital joyrides will start asking whether they can do the real thing (i.e. orbit) for A Few Dollars More. And that someone will answer.