A privately-developed rocket plane launched
into history on June 21 on a mission to become the world’s first
commercial manned space vehicle.
SpaceShipOne rocketed 100 kilometers (62 miles) into sub-orbital
space above the Mojave Civilian Aerospace Test Center, a
commercial airport in the California desert.
Sub-orbital space flight refers to a mission that flies out of
the atmosphere but does not reach the speeds needed to sustain
continuous orbiting of the earth. The view from a sub-orbital
flight is similar to being in orbit, but the cost and risks are
The pilot, 62-year-old Scaled Composites
vice-president Mike Melvill became the first person to
earn astronaut wings in a non-government sponsored vehicle.
“Since Yuri Gagarin and Al Shepard’s epic flights in 1961, all
space missions have been flown only under large, expensive
Government efforts. By contrast, our program involves a few,
dedicated individuals who are focused entirely on making
spaceflight affordable,” said Burt Rutan. “Without the
entrepreneur approach, space access would continue to be out of
reach for ordinary citizens. The SpaceShipOne flights will
change all that and encourage others to usher in a new, low-cost
era in space travel.”
SpaceShipOne was designed by Rutan and his research team at the
California-based aerospace company, Scaled Composites. Rutan
made aviation news in 1986 by developing the Voyager, the only
aircraft to fly non-stop around the world without refueling.
To reach space, a carrier aircraft, the White Knight, lifts
SpaceShipOne from the runway. An hour later, after climbing to
approximately 50,000 feet altitude just east of Mojave, the
White Knight releases the spaceship into a glide. The spaceship
pilot then fires his rocket motor for about 80 seconds, reaching
Mach 3 in a vertical climb. During the pull-up and climb, the
pilot encounters G-forces three to four times the gravity of the
SpaceShipOne then coasts up to its goal height of 100 km (62
miles) before falling back to earth. The pilot experiences a
weightless environment for more than three minutes and, like
orbital space travelers, sees the black sky and the thin blue
atmospheric line on the horizon. The pilot (actually a new
astronaut!) then configures the craft’s wing and tail into a
high-drag configuration. This provides a “care-free” atmospheric
entry by slowing the spaceship in the upper atmosphere and
automatically aligning it along the flight path. Upon re-entry,
the pilot reconfigures the ship back to a normal glider, and
then spends 15 to 20 minutes gliding back to earth, touching
down like an airplane on the same runway from which he took off.
The June flight will be flown solo, but SpaceShipOne is equipped
with three seats and is designed for missions that include pilot
and two passengers.
Unlike any previous manned space mission, the June flight will
allow the public to view, up close, the takeoff and landing as
well as the overhead rocket boost to space. This will be an
historic and unique spectator opportunity.
Based on the success of the June space flight
attempt, SpaceShipOne will later compete for the Ansari X Prize, an
international competition to create a reusable aircraft that can launch
three passengers into sub-orbital space, return them safely home, then
repeat the launch within two weeks with the same vehicle.
Under the command of test pilot Mike Melvill, SpaceShipOne reached a
record breaking altitude of 328,491 feet (approximately 62 miles or 100
km), making Melvill the first civilian to fly a spaceship out of the
atmosphere and the first private pilot to earn astronaut wings.
This flight begins an exciting new era in space travel,” said Paul G.
Allen, sole sponsor in the SpaceShipOne program. “Burt Rutan and his
team at Scaled Composites are part of a new generation of explorers who
are sparking the imagination of a huge number of people worldwide and
ushering in the birth of a new industry of privately funded manned space
A large crowd watched the momentous flight live from the grounds of the
Mojave Airport, joining millions of others around the world who tuned in
by television, radio, and the internet. Dignitaries attending the event
included U.S. Representative Dana Rohrabacher, the Commanding Officer of
Edwards Air Force Base, General Pearson and the China Lake Naval Air
Warfare Center, Admiral Venlet; former astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and Konrad
Dannenberg, one of Werner Von Braun’s lead scientists on this country’s
original space development effort. Hundreds of media representatives
were also on hand to record history in the making.