September 29, 2004 10:36 AM PDT

SpaceShipOne: A giant leap for high-tech vets?

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Commercial space travel to take flight?

September 27, 2004
MOJAVE, Calif.--A venture backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen got a jump Wednesday on rivals eyeing a $10 million prize for the first privately funded junkets into space and back.

A specialized plane carrying a suborbital spacecraft took off shortly before 7:15 a.m. PDT in an attempt to complete the first phase in the race to privatize space travel. The airplane, dubbed the White Knight, carried Mojave Aerospace Ventures' SpaceShipOne on its belly to about 14 kilometers in altitude, where the space vehicle broke off and soared to a height of more than 100 kilometers--generally considered the boundary of outer space.

SpaceShipOne touched down on a runway after a flight that lasted about 90 minutes.

"That was fun," pilot Michael Melvill said to a crowd of spectators here after he emerged from the vehicle. "The engine ran like a dream, the airplane ran like a dream."

The unofficial altitude reached was 330,000 feet, or 62.5 miles (100.5 kilometers). Melvill said he cut the rubber and nitrous oxide fueled rocket engine about 11 seconds early. Had he pushed through to the end of the scheduled burn, SpaceShipOne might have hit 350,000 to 360,000 feet, Melvill told reporters after the flight.

The official altitude will be determined later, using radar and on-board equipment.

Observers on the ground shared a tense moment as Melvill neared the top of his trajectory, when the craft went into an unrehearsed roll that Melvill later jokingly called a "victory roll." The cause of the roll was not immediately known.

Privatized space ventures have garnered considerable interest among wealthy high-tech veterans. Among them are Amazon co-founder Jeff Bezos, who quietly formed his own space company called Blue Origin, but has remained silent about its plans. Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, has plans to invest $100 million of his own money to build rockets to carry satellites into space and eventually shepherd humans into orbit.

Earlier this week, Sir Richard Branson, the British entrepreneur, announced plans to use the SpaceShipOne design for his own space tourism company, Virgin Galactic.

Melvill, SpaceShipOne's pilot, became the first private astronaut to reach space during the team's initial trial in June. The project is funded by Allen and legendary aircraft designer Burt Rutan.

Rutan is known for many accomplishments in the field of aeronautical engineering. Among them is his design of the aircraft Voyager, the first plane to fly around the Earth without refueling.

With the flight's completion, SpaceShipOne will take one step toward winning the Ansari X Prize, a competition that will award $10 million for the first team that completes its requirements for space orbit. To win, a privately funded team must build a craft that can reach at least 100 kilometers--or a little more than 60 miles--in altitude with a payload of three humans and then successfully land. The team must repeat the effort within two weeks to seal the win.

The group is expected to make its second run Oct. 4.

The Ansari X prize promises to be just the first of ambitious privately funded space races. Such competitions have a strong tradition in aeronautics, helping instigate such breakthroughs as Charles Lindbergh's celebrated nonstop flight from Paris to New York in 1927. Entrepreneur Raymond Orteig put up $25,000 for that feat, ushering in the era of transoceanic flight.

On Monday, billionaire Robert Bigelow, chief of Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace, announced in Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine a new spaceflight competition, dubbed America's Space Prize. Bigelow said $50 million will go to the team that first builds a craft capable of carrying up to seven people to an orbital outpost by the end of the decade.

Bigelow Aerospace is developing inflatable space habitats, with an eye to making more-affordable space modules that can support humans.

The purpose of the competition is to jump-start the privatized space industry with the eventual goal of sending tourists into space. While Mojave Aerospace is the first team to make a run at the prize, two dozen other teams from seven countries are building their own designs.

Designs in the Ansari X competition come in all shapes and sizes, most of them rockets or horizontal launch craft. One design from Israel uses a gigantic hot-air balloon to launch its spacecraft.

SpaceShipOne uses a horizontal design, launching from the belly of the White Knight airplane. NASA's space shuttles, by comparison, ride piggyback on a vertically launched rocket before detaching to head outside the atmosphere.

SpaceShipOne has a wingspan of 16 feet and uses one rocket engine to reach its destination altitude. Once it completes its arc, its wings fold up for the descent. At about 24 miles in altitude, the wings return to their original shape for a final glide back to Earth.


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SpaceShipOne Appears to Be Not So Special as the X-15 of 45 Years Ago
I guess that a lot of young people do not realize that the NASA and the US Air Force accomplished starting in 1959 all of the feats that SpaceShipOne has so far.

The X Plane project from 1959 to 1968 flew X-15s to 108 kilometers, using piggyback methods exactly the same as SpaceShipOne.

Isn't it the case that these people are collecting a lot of credit for originality that is deserved by the really original people who risked their lives and were truly inventive over 40 years ago?

Maybe someone can enlightenmen me on this?
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Re: X-15 vs SpaceShipOne
Dear Louis,

To put my comments in context: I'm a registered mechanical engineer with extensive graduate work, over 25 yr's experience, and a pilot.

I would submit that this flight differs substanually from the X-flights conducted by the USAF, NASA and NACA during the '50's & 60's.

First, it is a strong understatement to say that this was done with a small fraction of the funding (and none of it governmental).

Second, notice that the test pilot was not a formally trained pilot. He hadn't even a taste of the formal training that I recieved while a naval aviation cadet. Also notice that he probably wouldn't even have qualified on the physical to get into flight training -- even if they waived the maximum age requirement. There was no ejection seat, no high performance flight suit, and only a thin skin of plastic separating the pilot from vacuum and intense heat/cold. It had to be much simpler than the X-15 for this human/machine combination to work.

Third, the materials used were not aluminum, stainless steel, berylium, titanium or other exotic materials, they were fiber-plastics -- very similar to those used in hobby planes and boats that you or I might obtain and use.

Fourth, the fuel was not the traditional high-energy propellants that the "pros" customarily use in order to lift their heavy-weight machines; it was nitrous oxide (what dentists used to use as anesthesia and known as "laughing gas") and rubber (with a specific impulse rating that commands but snickers and giggles from those with the big budgets.)

Fifth, the aerodynamics of re-entry was completely out-of-the-box, not previously tried nor even previously considered (to the best of my knowledge)... but completely and uniquely appropriate for this technique: they turned the craft into a high-drag, supersonic shuttle-**** and back again DURING UNPOWERED reentry. Not even the first first in-flight, configurable winged plane, the multi-million dollar F-117, could match that.

Sixth, instead of using an existant B-52 modified only to carry the space vehicle as an external bomb, this small team had to design their own lift vehicle on limited funds and in months compared to years.

Technically, the X-15 flights were not nearly the excursions into the unknown as the X-2?? or X-1?? flight that successfully broke the sound barrier was. Of all of the flights, governmental or private, that one was the most dangerous, least predicatble, most technically challenging and had by any measure, the largest impact upon flight.

Granted, that the X-15 achieved about 30% higher altitude over the course of its multi-year program, but this is a small extension of altitude in airless, frictionless space. The challenge to this craft would be to lose the potential energy represented by that altitude or to beef the "feather" up to dissipate the extra converted kinetic energy on the way down. To me that seems to be a smaller challenge than those met in the first five items that I listed.

I would be interested in any additional thoughts that you might add to this discussion, as well as any exceptions to the above points. Thank you for an interesting talking point.

Very Truly Yours, Al
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Stiil an achievement
Considering that "private Entreprise" was able to put this vehicle into "near orbit" in a very limited time and with most certainly lesser funds than the Federally Planned flights, is an achievement in itself. I am sure that American taxpayers are rejoicing. Regards from Canada and Bravo to the public sector.
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