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328,491 Feet

SpaceShipOne sails into the record books as the first private spaceflight

by Michelle Evans


If you read through the science fiction literature previous to the 1960s, it always had some guy in his workshop that solved all the problems and built the spaceship that would take humans into space, go to the Moon, or fly off to Mars. In reality, it was the governments of the two great superpowers of the time that created the rockets which blasted the expensively-trained astronauts and cosmonauts into space. The dream of the backyard innovator slowly dissipated like the cloud left over after a rocket launch.

While we all thought we would eventually be able to buy our own ticket into space, the government monopoly just grew stronger. No one ever envisioned that half a century later this would still be the case.


The paradigm shift that would lead back toward the original dream finally occurred on June 21, 2004. Burt Rutan and his group at Scaled Composites launched the privately-funded SpaceShipOne on a trajectory that took it above 100 kilometers (62 miles), then back to a safe landing on a conventional airport runway.


The person responsible for funding Rutan’s project is Paul Allen, cofounder with Bill Gates of Microsoft. As Burt said the day before the flight, “I met with Paul many years ago. He invited me in for lunch and we talked about a vision. We talked about the fact that this would be an important thing to do, that it could inspire and open up a new industry. What’s happened the last two or three decades isn’t the kind of progress that’s going to help me because I’ve already got this grey hair!”


Scaled Composites is well known for its innovative approach to flying airplanes. Rutan’s company was responsible for the famous Voyager aircraft that flew around the world unrefueled in 1986. In retrospect it almost seems inevitable that Rutan would be the one to open spaceflight to private citizens without having to fork over many millions of dollars to a foreign government.

However, it was anything but an easy project to accomplish. Even with the approximately $20 million of Allen’s money, and the unsurpassed expertise of Rutan, it took a year longer to bring to fruition because of the technical hurdles that had to be overcome.


“I took risks on this program that I didn’t have to take,” Rutan said. “The most noticeable and the most obvious from the outside is that we developed an entirely new type of feathered reentry. Unlike the X-15 or the shuttle, we can plunge directly into the atmosphere and do it safely. The benefits of taking that risk is that we have a spaceship that does not have to be controlled during reentry and that has tremendous safety implications. My point here is that if you don’t take risks you won’t find the breakthroughs that give you the cost and safety benefits in the future.“


The concept Rutan devised involved two vehicles. The mother ship is called White Knight. Above its wings are two jet engines. Slung underneath, and between twin tail booms, is SpaceShipOne. Although bizarre in shape when compared to conventional aircraft, there is a direct kinship to the X-15 research aircraft project of the 1960s, where the sleek black rocketplane was dropped from the wing of a B-52 to fire off into a similar trajectory that SpaceShipOne would follow decades later.


The major difference with the X-15 is that no funding came from anyone but a private citizen with dreams of space. Also, while it took the government program 90 flights to reach 100 kilometers, it took SpaceShipOne just 15 to accomplish this feat. In fact, in the entire 199-flight history of the X-15, it only reached that height on two occasions. The pilot chosen for the SS1 mission, South African-born Mike Melvill, would become an astronaut in a very rarefied club.


Many members of the Orange County Space Society were able to attend this event in Mojave, California. Just a few hours after the announcement was made, all accommodations for the dates were sold out. Thousands more made plans to drive up and park at the public viewing site at the airport. It was an atmosphere of excitement not seen since the landing of the first Space Shuttle in April 1981.


Everyone lined the fence bordering the taxiway, watching the sunrise and waiting for White Knight with SpaceShipOne securely nestled below to roll into view and head for takeoff. To show that this was anything but a government-run event, everything happened within minutes of the nominal timeline. The crowd cheered as the combination came into view. Mike opened a porthole on the right side of his craft and waved at the people.


At 6:46 am, White Knight left the runway, heading for 50,000 feet before dropping the spacecraft. Then SpaceShipOne would be dropped, the engine lit, and Mike would head toward space. Engine light occurred at 07:50:51 PDT. He would touch down at Mojave at 8:14 am. The entire event that would change our future in spaceflight took just one hour and 28 minutes.


Let me allow Mike to describe the flight in his own words.


“We took off from the ground with Brian [Binnie] flying the White Knight, and there was very little for me to do at that point. It’s a pretty lonely time actually. Not too many people talking to you, just sitting there with a lot of thoughts in your head about if everything is going to go smoothly. And then, as we get closer to it, when we get above 44,000 feet, we start going through a checklist. Brian reads it to make sure I have my pressurization set at the right altitude; that all of the systems and backup systems are enabled that would allow me to fly the airplane; and I have to set specific trim settings in pitch, roll, and yaw before I drop off, so I won’t have to fool with that when I light the rocket.


“The rocket motor is lit by enabling two switches. They’re both guarded. The guard on the right-hand switch, which is the firing switch, is safety-wired down. I really hate that because you’ve got to break that, so I broke it early this time. Last time I tried to break it during the firing sequence and that was not the thing to do. So, I broke it early and I was ready to go! When I dropped off, I hit the arm switch, hit the fire switch, then sat back and waited. It takes about a 1.2 seconds before it lights off.


“You’ve instantly got three g’s eyeballs-in, then it immediately goes to four g’s eyeballs-down, which is very disorienting. You feel like you’re going over on your back. Then I follow a predictor that’s on the display that leads me up.


“There were a couple things that were unusual compared to the last flight. The airplane rolled 90 degrees left. I stomped on the rudder pedal and put in some control, and it rolled 90 degrees right. It’s never ever done that before! At that point, I was reaching for the switch to shut it down in case I was going to lose control. But I was able to get back, get leveled up, started trimming the nose up to pick up the proper gamma, the angle of climb, which is nearly to the vertical. Then it was a pretty smooth ride after that.


“Right up at the top, I tried to trim the nose up a little more to get a bit more height, and that’s when I had the anomaly with the trim system.


“After the engine shut down, I started to bring myself to a standstill as far as rates. I managed to switch on the RCS [reaction control system], stopped all the rates, then I took time out to throw my little [M&M] candies in the air and watch them, then I started to assess where I was and started to guide myself back to Mojave.


“I headed back as fast as I could reasonably fly the airplane without hurting anything. I got back to Mojave at close to 40,000 feet and it was very comfortable. The descent after that was great, except that I had no use of the trim system. It may have worked, but I was afraid to touch it, so I just flew with the trim setting that I had at the time. I hit the high key about a thousand feet high, which let me fly a little wider circle on down to land.”


Immediately after the flight, SpaceShipOne was connected to a tow truck, and Mike was taken on his victory lap, reminiscent of Chuck Yeager after his X-1 supersonic flight. He was pulled up to the media site where he jumped out, to be greeted by Rutan and Allen. An impromptu press conference ensued. When someone asked what Mike planned do do after going into space, he said, “I think I’ll back off for a little bit and ride my bike!”


Mike had immediate praise for Rutan and Allen. “I think Burt’s the best there is in his field, by far. There’s nobody even in his shadow. I’ve worked for him for 26 years and I’m very proud to have done that. We’ve had a ball together. Now we have another team member here [indicating Paul Allen]. I’m in awe of this man, that he would bet on us to get this done, with as little knowledge as he had about us. He’s amazing. Do you know anyone else who would have given us the money to do this?”

Paul responded, “Accomplishments just don’t come along like this every day, and it’s exciting to be a part of it.”


Later, Mike would describe his view from space: “The sky was jet black above, and it gets very light blue along the horizon. The Earth is so beautiful. The colors of the Earth, the colors of the high desert, the colors along the coastline, and all that fog over L.A. looked exactly like snow. It was really an awesome sight. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It blew me away, it really did.”