June 21, 2004
MOJAVE, Calif. - A rocket plane soared above Earth's atmosphere Monday in the first privately financed manned spaceflight, then glided back to Earth for an unpowered landing.
SpaceShipOne pilot Mike Melvill was aiming to fly 62 miles above the Earth's surface. The exact altitude reached was not immediately confirmed by radar.
The ship touched down at Mojave Airport to applause and cheers at 8:15 a.m. PDT, about 90 minutes after it was carried aloft slung under the belly of the jet-powered White Knight.
The mission announcer said the mission had been successful.
"Beautiful sight, Mike," mission control said to Melvill as the gliding spaceship slowly circled toward its landing.
Later, standing on the tarmac beside the ship, Melvill said seeing the Earth from outside the atmosphere was "almost a religious experience."
"You can see the curvature of the Earth," he said. "You got a hell of a view from 60, 62 miles."
Melvill said he heard a loud bang during the flight and did not know what it was. But he pointed to a place at the rear of the spacecraft where a part of the structure covering the nozzle had buckled, suggesting it may have been the source of the noise.
White Knight took off at 6:45 a.m. carrying the rocket plane. After an hours' climb the pair reached about 46,000 feet and SpaceShipOne was released.
A moment later Melvill fired his rocket engine.
As SpaceShipOne leaped into the sky, its bright white contrail shot up vertically, at a striking right angle to the horizontal contrails of the White Knight carrier ship and chase planes.
After a brief firing, the rocket motor shut down and the craft coasted to the top of its trajectory, before dropping back into the atmosphere and gliding to its landing.
Both craft were built by innovative aircraft designer Burt Rutan, and the project was funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who would only describe the cost as being in excess of $20 million.
Rutan said the flight was remarkable because SpaceShipOne both reached space and then returned so smoothly.
"It's the first time that a winged vehicle can have a carefree re-entry," Rutan said.
The space shuttles, for example, require extensive computerized control mechanisms to maintain proper attitude and stability during the plunge back into the atmosphere.
SpaceShipOne, however, employs a novel design in which its twin tailbooms and the back half of each wing rotate upwards to create drag for a brief time, much like feathers slow and stabilize the flight of a badminton shuttlecock. The tailbooms and wings then return to normal for the glide back to Earth.
The mechanism worked flawlessly, Rutan said.
"What we thought would be our biggest risk in this event was the supersonic feather, (but) supersonic feather is a nonevent," Rutan said.
SpaceShipOne is the leading contender for the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million award to the first privately financed three-seat spacecraft to reach 62 miles and repeat the feat within two weeks.
The three-seat requirement demonstrates the capacity for paying customers; the quick turnaround between flights demonstrates reusability and reliability.
NASA also is interested, said Michael Lembeck, requirements division director of the space agency's Office of Exploration Systems.
"We need people like Burt Rutan with innovative ideas that will take us to the moon and Mars," he said from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration headquarters. "Folks like Burt bring a different way of doing business."
Melvill, 62, was selected for the flight from among the project's three pilots. During a test flight last month, he flew the rocket plane to an altitude of about 40 miles.
Melvill is a test pilot and vice president-general manager at Rutan's company, Scaled Composites, which built SpaceShipOne and White Knight.
He has set national and world records for altitude and speed in certain classes of aircraft, and has logged more than 6,400 hours of flight time in 111 fixed-wing aircraft and seven helicopters. His test flights range from crop dusters to fighter jet prototypes and racing planes.
Rutan gained wide fame by designing the Voyager aircraft, which flew around the world nonstop and without refueling in 1986. Rutan hoped his latest program shows that spaceflight is not just for governments.