SpaceShipOne Burns Rubber, Laughing Gas—More Fun Facts

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• Had SpaceShipOne designers employed a more dangerous ground launch system, the required extra fuel would have doubled the weight of the spacecraft.

• In space the ship's wings are folded up into a "shuttlecock" position, which creates drag to reduce stress during reentry. The shape also automatically orients SpaceShipOne into a belly-down position. The pilot uses a pneumatic system to reconfigure the wings into glider mode, which enables the ship to cruise up to 60 miles (100 kilometers) before landing.

• The spacecraft's engine has features of both solid and liquid rocket motors. While hybrid engines are nothing new, SpaceShipOne's system is unique. The engine fires when the fuel—hydroxy-terminated polybutadiene (HTPB or rubber)—is subjected to a heat source and mixed with an oxidizer. SpaceShipOne uses nitrous oxide (laughing gas) as an oxidizer. Hybrid configurations are unlikely to start accidentally.

• There is no single rocket throttle in SpaceShipOne. The pilot "lights the candle" with two switches—one to arm the rocket and another to fire it.

• Designer Burt Rutan developed the concept for SpaceShipOne in 1996. Full development did not begin until May 2001. Just over three years later, and after only three powered flights, the craft became the first private manned aircraft to reach space in June 2004.

• Rutan also developed Voyager, the first plane to fly nonstop around the world without refueling, a feat completed in 1986.

• Rutan's company, Scaled Composites, teamed with billionaire Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen to form Mojave Aerospace Ventures to develop SpaceShipOne.

• Total costs of the project have yet to be disclosed. But reported estimates hover in the range of 25 million dollars (U.S.). Such a budget could be considered shoestring compared to the expenditures of government space programs.

• Brian Binnie piloted SpaceShipOne's third, X Prize-winning flight. Binnie is a U.S. Navy-trained test pilot with 21 years of experience and over 4,600 hours of flight time in 59 different aircraft. He was also at the controls when SpaceShipOne broke the sound barrier in December 2003. That flight ended in the brush edging the Mojave Airport's landing strip, where a hard touchdown damaged the spaceship's landing gear. Designer Burt Rutan was quick to point out that the fault was in craft design rather than pilot error.

• Michael Melvill enjoyed a wild ride on SpaceShipOne's first qualifying X Prize flight. The craft went into a series of 29 unplanned rolls at the peak of its flight path.

Melvill became the first private pilot to earn his astronaut wings when he flew SpaceShipOne's maiden space voyage on June 21, 2004. He has 19 years of experience test piloting everything from bush planes and crop dusters to fighter jets—logging some 6,950 hours.

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