Space Ship One

Space Ship One

Yarrish, Gerry

If events play out as planned, a privately developed rocket plane will be launched into history on June 21 to become the world’s first commercial, manned space vehicle. Headed by aviation legend Burt Rutan and financed by Paul G. Alien, founder and chairman of Vulcan Productions, the program will be the first attempt by a nongovernment-assisted flight to leave earth’s atmosphere.

SpaceShipOne will hurtle 62 miles into suborbital space above the Mojave Civilian Aerospace Test Center, a commercial airport in the California desert. (Suborbital space flight refers to a mission that leaves the atmosphere but does not reach the speed necessary for continuous earth orbit.) If the flight is successful, it will signify a new era in which the frontiers of space are finally opened to average citizens.

The plan for the June 21 flight was decided on after a successful May 13, 2004, test flight, in which pilot Mike Melvill reached an altitude of 211,400 feet (approximately 40 miles)-the highest altitude ever reached by a nongovernment aerospace program.

The mission pilot, who has not yet been chosen for the upcoming June space flight, will become the first person to earn astronaut wings in a non-government-sponsored vehicle and the first private pilot to fly a spaceship out of the atmosphere.

Designed by Rutan and his research team at the California-based Scaled Composites, SpaceShipOne will be lifted from the runway by a carrier aircraft called the White Knight. After climbing to 50,000 feet, the White Knight will release the spacecraft, whose pilot will then fire the main rocket motor for about 80 seconds, reaching Mach 3 in its vertical climb. SpaceShipOne will then coast up to its goal altitude of 100km (62 miles) before returning to Earth. The pilot will be able to configure the spacecraft’s wing and tail sections into a high-drag, “feather” mode. This will produce an atmospheric reentry much slower than that produced by conventional spacecraft and with less heat buildup. The pilot will then reconfigure the control surfaces back into normal glide mode, spend 15 or 20 minutes gliding the craft back to Earth, and then touch down like an ordinary aircraft on the same runway from which it took off.

The June flight will be flown solo, but SpaceShipOne has three seats: it’s designed to carry a pilot and two passengers. After the june space-flight attempt, SpaceShipOne will compete for the $10 million Ansari X-Prize Challenge, an international competition to create a reusable aircraft that can launch three passengers into suborbital space, return them safely home and then repeat the launch within two weeks using the same vehicle.

The public will be allowed to view the takeoff and landing as well as the overhead rocket boost into space. The Discovery Channel and Vulcan Productions are filming “Rutan’s Race for Space,” a special telecast that will document the entire process of this historic effort for broadcast later this year.

Copyright Air Age Publishing Sep 2004

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