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.

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