First Flight of SpaceShipOne into Space

On June 21, 2004, I joined twenty seven thousand other people to watch the launch of SpaceShipOne, the first private-venture craft to attempt to leave the earth's atmosphere and enter space, defined as an altitude of 100 kilometers (62 miles).   I and the other afflicted technophiles gathered in the pitch blackness of Mojave airport in California sometime after 3 AM, to await the 6:30 AM takeoff.   As you can see from this photo, our particular religious devotion has its own special rituals and posturing.   Various luminaries such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Governator of California, John Travolta (a long-time fan of aeronautics) and former astronaut Buzz Aldrin were also on hand - but you can be sure they weren't slumming it with the rest of us!

the crowd watching SpaceShipOne

The object of our devotion duly appeared, the rocket-powered SpaceShipOne slung below the twin-jet White Knight carrier aircraft.   Both were specially designed by Burt Rutan and his Scaled Composites company.   Rutan is absolutely no stranger to weird and wonderful aircraft - his most famous effort to date is Voyager, which flew around the world in 1986 without refuelling.

Look closely in this shot and you'll see the pilot of SpaceShipOne waving his hand through one of the portholes.   He's 63 year old Michael Melvill, a veteran test pilot.

White Knight and SpaceShipOne taxying for takeoff

These two aircraft are really like no other planes you're ever likely to see, unless of course it's something else that Rutan has cooked up!

White Knight and SpaceShipOne taxying for takeoff

Before the White Knight and StarShipOne took off, a couple of chase planes got into the air, including this executive transport manufactured by Beech Aircraft.   If you're thinking that it looks seriously weird, that's because it was designed by none other than - Burt Rutan!   He worked on the Beech Starship in the early 1980s when Beech approached Scaled Composites to do some work under contract.   Although very innovative, the Starship never took off (if you'll pardon the pun) and only 50 or 60 were ever built.

Starship chase plane taking off

But back to the main event - here's White Knight and StarShipOne on their takeoff run.

White Knight and StarShipOne taking off

In this photo you can clearly see the twin tail booms of White Knight, and the twin tails of SpaceShipOne.

White Knight and StarShipOne in their initial climb

The White Knight drops SpaceShipOne when they reached an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15 kilometers), and it takes 30 or 40 minutes for them to reach this altitude.   Along the way they levelled out for some time while they checked all of the onboard systems.

White Knight and SpaceShipOne from below

Here's the StarShip chase plane doing its thing as they continue climbing.

White Knight, SpaceShipOne and the StarShip chase plane

As they spiralled higher above the desert, it became harder to even see where they were; eventually, though, they got high enough for contrails to start forming.   Finally, around 7:50AM and 47,000 feet (14,250 meters) the White Knight released SpaceShipOne, which glided for about 10 seconds then lit its rocket engine.

White Knight and StarShipOne high up
SpaceShipOne fires its rocket

The Air Force were doing the official altitude measurements using their equipment at Edwards Air Force Base, some miles east of Mojave.   This made it necessary for the launch to be made in that area, which caused a serious problem for the crowd who came to view the spectacle - at release time, the crowd had to look directly towards the sun, and the two aircraft were directly below the sun, which meant that they would pass in front of the sun and make viewing and photography impossible.

However, 100 kilometers is an awful long way up, so shortly into its 80-second burn, SpaceShipOne climbed above the angle of the sun into clear blue sky.

We didn't realize it at the time, but there were a couple of serious malfunctions as the craft accelerated to more than Mach 2.9 (2150 mph or 3460 km/h).   About 7 seconds after ignition, a 60 knot (70 mph or 110 km/h) wind shear caused an unintended 90 degree rotation, which the pilot corrected.   Just 10 seconds after starting its climb it reached Mach 1, and the rocket continued burning for another 66 seconds before automatically shutting down.   Late during this powered phase, one of the motors which control the trim adjustment malfunctioned and although Melvill quickly swapped to a backup system the ship wasn't quite at the right angle as it climbed.   The combined anomalies put it 20 miles off course and ultimately cost about 30,000 feet of altitude.   This very nearly resulted in the failure of the test to reach its initial goal of 100 kilometers, in fact SpaceShipOne ended up getting to an altitude of 100,124 meters - only one tenth of one percent above its target altitude, and quite a long way short of the intended altitude of 108,000 meters.. 

SpaceShipOne was at 180,000 feet when the last nitrous oxide oxidizer on board was applied to the 600 pounds of rubber-like fuel, but it continued coasting and eventually reached 328,491 feet.   The pilot was weightless for three and a half minutes and used this time to float some M & M candies around the cabin, all in the name of Science, of course.

There might have been problems, but the outcome could have been a whole lot worse than this; the pilot even said afterwards that he had contemplated aborting the flight and bailing out, a very risky procedure in itself.

SpaceShipOne climbing under its own power

Live transmissions of radio communications between the ground controllers and SpaceShipOne were supposed to be broadcast throughout the flight, but in the end this didn't materialize, perhaps because of the problems on the way up, and everyone on the ground was left wondering what was happening.   As the descent began there was another serious problem, a loud bang which the pilot Michael Melvill later said left him "pretty scared".   The crowd heard a bang, too - in fact two bangs, which were the sonic booms caused as SpaceShipOne re-entered the atmosphere, eventually experiencing 5Gs of force and accelerating again to Mach 2.9.   Then we started to see a tiny dot glinting in the sun high above us, and then coming lower with several chase planes around it to record the event.

SpaceShipOne with chase planes

Having burned all of its fuel, SpaceShipOne was now just a glider, but a pretty good one, doing a couple of circuits before quickly bleeding off speed to land on the same runway it had taken off from an hour or so earlier.   If you look at the next three closeups of StarShipOne landing, you can see the damage which caused the pilot such concern as he descended; underneath the rocket nozzle there's a kinked section of the outer skin.   This was the first time this larger nozzle was used, so it looks like it's back to the drawing board for a while!

click here to open a new page with this photo in computer wallpaper format

It's interesting to see that it doesn't have a front wheel, only a skid.   This is done to conserve weight, which is also the reason why the rear wheels are so tiny.   There's a very fine line between engineering this sort of thing so that it's "just good enough" rather than "not quite good enough"; on its first powered flight, the left landing gear collapsed during the landing and SpaceShipOne ended up veering off the runway into the dirt, though fortunately not much damage was done.

If you look closely you can see the phrase "A Paul G Allen project" on the tail boom.   Paul Allen is the co-founder with Bill Gates of Microsoft, and he's sunk over $20 million into this project.   The initial goal is to win the $10 million "Ansari X Prize", which will be awarded to the first privately-funded group which launches a pilot and two passengers (or the equivalent in ballast) into space, and then repeats the feat within two weeks.   In the longer term, though, Rutan and Allen hope to start a space tourism industry, which will pay its own way and perhaps lead to further private ventures in space.

Having all of that money backing him up has allowed Rutan to do very thorough testing before he finally goes for the X Prize.   For instance, today's flight into space is actually the fifteenth flight that SpaceShipOne has made, most of them as a glider, but others under its own power (it broke the speed of sound during its first powered flight, while climbing at a forty-five degree angle).

There are many different companies vying for the X Prize and several of them are using Scaled Composites as a sub-contractor.   I was lucky enough to see some other early experimentation with rocket propulsion when Burt's brother Dick flew a rocket powered Long-EZ kitset aircraft designed by Burt at the Oshkosh airshow in 2002.

SpaceShipOne landing

SpaceShipOne's large tails pivot out during the descent from the top of its flight, in order to produce drag and so angle the craft correctly for re-entry.   At the top of its trajectory there isn't enough atmosphere to use normal aircraft flight surfaces to control the attitude of the craft, so cold gas jets are used to push it one way or the other.

SpaceShipOne landing

A well-deserved victory pass by the StarShip chase plane; from this angle you can see how truly unusual it is.

victory pass by the StarShip chase plane (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

Not to be outdone, the White Knight also does a victory pass.

White Knight victory pass  (click here to open a new page with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

A truly remarkable aircraft!

White Knight banking

Coming in to land with that bizarre quadricycle landing gear and crazy portholes, which must give much less visibility than regular windshields.

White Knight landing