Private Spacecraft Roars to Space and Back

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
September 29, 2004
SpaceShipOne, the first privately built, manned vehicle to reach space, roared to space and back again this morning from a launch site in California's Mojave desert.

The spacecraft made an unscripted roll near the peak of its flight, prompting concern. But upon touchdown, pilot Mike Melvill reported, "The plane flies like a dream."

SpaceShipOne now leads the contenders competing for the ten-million-dollar (U.S.) Ansari X Prize. The award is offered by the private X Prize Foundation to whoever builds the first privately built manned vehicle to travel to the edge of space and back twice within two weeks.

Independent verification from radar tracking systems and an onboard data recorder must now confirm that SpaceShipOne, indeed, reached the altitude of space 62 miles/100 kilometers above Earth.

SpaceShipOne was built by Mojave Aerospace Ventures, an enterprise backed by aircraft designer Burt Rutan and billionaire Paul Allen. Rutan designed Voyager, the plane that completed the first nonstop, around-the-world flight without refueling in 1986. Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft, is a funder of the SpaceShipOne effort.

On June 21 the spacecraft became the first private, manned vehicle to venture beyond Earth's atmosphere.

Pilot Mike Melvill reached the record-breaking altitude of 328,491 feet (62 miles/100 kilometers) and became the first astronaut to reach space via a private enterprise.

"Our success proves without question that manned spaceflight does not require mammoth government expenditures," Rutan said after his 90-minute flight. "It can be done by a small company operating with limited resources and a few dozen dedicated employees."

The main body of SpaceShipOne is roughly the size of an SUV. The craft is launched from a piloted turbojet aircraft called the White Knight.

The freighter aircraft first climbs to 50,000 feet (15,240 meters), an altitude above nearly 85 percent of Earth's atmosphere. There, SpaceShipOne fires its rockets, climbing higher at speeds reaching 2,500 miles an hour (4,000 kilometers an hour).

After reaching an altitude of 62 miles/100 kilometers—the X Prize target altitude—SpaceShipOne coasts back down into Earth's atmosphere.

After reentry, the ship becomes a conventional glider with an 16-foot (5-meter) wingspan. The craft drifts for some 17 minutes as it descends from 80,000 feet (24,380 meters) to the runway at California's Mojave Airport.

During today's manned flight, the spacecraft did not carry any additional human passengers. But it did carry an equivalent amount of extra weight in the form of personal items collected from those involved in the project.

If ship passes inspection, SpaceShipOne pilot Melvill will soon attempt a second qualifying flight. The launch is tentatively scheduled for October 4—the anniversary of the Soviet Union's Sputnik I satellite. The Sputnik launch triggered the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Space Tourism

In addition to today's successful test flight, SpaceShipOne has already spawned a lofty commercial venture.

Earlier this week, British tycoon and adventurer Richard Branson announced the formation of Virgin Galactic. The enterprise will license technology from Mojave Aerospace Ventures, the creators of SpaceShipOne.

Branson said Virgin Galactic will begin building its first spacecraft, the V.S.S. Enterprise, next year. Branson hopes his fledgling enterprise will take paying passengers to space as early as 2007.

Customers who could afford the U.S. $200,000 price tag would fly on a commercial derivative of SpaceShipOne capable of carrying a pilot and five passengers.

The two-hour tourist flight that is envisioned would be similar to the 1961 suborbital space flight made by Alan Shepherd, the first U.S. astronaut in space, onboard the Freedom 7. Passengers would experience weightlessness and the blackness of space, while enjoying a view of the curvature of Earth, Branson said.

The entrepeneur said he hopes to sign up 3,000 "astronauts" within the venture's first five years. Customers would have to pass three days of required training and be "reasonably fit."

Significant regulatory hurdles must be surmounted before Virgin Galactic becomes a reality, however.

"This is exactly the results we hoped this ten-million-dollar purse would create," said X Prize Foundation chairman and founder Peter Diamandis. "I wish Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic the best of luck."

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