SpaceShipOne Burns Rubber, Laughing Gas—More Fun Facts

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
October 12, 2004

SpaceShipOne, the first privately built manned spacecraft, has traveled to space twice in a week to claim the ten-million-dollar (U.S.) Ansari X Prize. The feat may launch a new era of private space travel. Below, facts behind the unprecedented effort:

• A turbojet aircraft named White Knight ferried SpaceShipOne to some 45,000 feet (13,700 meters). There, the spacecraft disengaged and fired its rockets—soon reaching top speeds of 2,500 miles an hour (4,000 kilometers an hour).

White Knight and SpaceShipOne launched and landed at California's Mojave Airport, which is now technically a spaceport.

• After reaching an altitude of 367,442 feet (69.6 miles/112 kilometers), well within the zone of suborbital space, SpaceShipOne returned to the ground in about 90 minutes.

SpaceShipOne's hybrid engine burns a mixture of rubber and laughing gas, or nitrous oxide.

• The spacecraft's test pilots do not wear spacesuits. The craft's space-worthy cockpit is housed within a larger, similarly protective shell. The redundancy protects against an individual failure destroying the ship and maintains shirt-sleeve-temperature comfort for pilots.

• G-forces in the cockpit of SpaceShipOne peak during reentry to the Earth's atmosphere. Pilots experience a peak of over 5 g's (five times the force of Earth's gravity) for less than ten seconds—a level equivalent to some amusement park rides.

• Though controlling the craft requires skill and attentiveness, test pilots Mike Melvill and Brian Binnie still found time to eat candy, float a miniature SpaceShipOne in the weightless cockpit, and snap pictures of Earth from space.

• To claim the Ansari X Prize, SpaceShipOne had to travel with one pilot plus two passengers or something equally the weight of two passengers. Rather than passengers, the ship hauled personal effects of team members—including the ashes of SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan's late mother Irene.

SpaceShipOne's distinctive smattering of windows was designed to give the pilot a view of the horizon throughout the entire course of the flight. The portholes were kept small to save weight. They are round because of that shape's greater structural strength. Each window is double-paned to ensure cabin security in the event of a crack or break.

• British tycoon and adventurer Richard Branson announced plans to license SpaceShipOne technology. His new enterprise, Virgin Galactic, aims to offer commercial flights to space tourists as early as 2007. Ticket price: U.S. $200,000.

• Carrier aircraft White Knight features a cockpit and systems identical to those of SpaceShipOne, allowing for in-flight pilot training of procedures like boost, approach, and landing. The turbojet can also carry payloads of up to 8,000 pounds (3,600 kilograms) and climb to 53,000 feet (16,000 meters).

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