Jun 21,2024 _ Inside Scaled

Twenty years since breaking a boundary: SpaceShipOne

In the early morning of a summer day in 2004, a unique aircraft carried a small launch vehicle past a crowd on its way to make history – today marks the twentieth anniversary of SpaceShipOne making the first privately-funded spaceflight.

Spurred by the Ansari X-Prize, a spiritual follow-on to the Orteig Prize with the goal to bring more public interest to space travel, early exploration of design possibilities began as early as 1996 - leading to building lightweight models and throwing them from the Mojave Airport tower to explore reentry configurations and an extensive development program kicking off in earnest in 2001.  It wasn’t until the unveiling on April 25th, 2003 that Scaled announced we had a contender for the X-Prize – SpaceShipOne, White Knight, and all the pieces that would make the program happen were shown off for the first time during the big announcement.

“Burt was always doodling and imagining how he could do space tourism or low-cost space access. When he finally came up with this design to build two brand new space vehicles it was really groundbreaking - I was super fortunate to be involved from the beginning. It was a monumental challenge for us, and ultimately a phenomenal success. In a span of 3 years we not only developed a space vehicle, but a carrier aircraft, a rocket motor, and an avionics system from scratch to accomplish this mission, and did that with a small team of fabricators and engineers and pilots.” – Peter Siebold, Vice President of Flight Ops

SpaceShipOne was a unique design –a three-place, high-altitude space plane, designed for sub-orbital flights to 100 km altitude. The ship converts (via pneumatic-actuated feather) to a stable, high-drag shape for atmospheric entry. This “care-free” configuration allowed a “hands-off” re-entry and greatly reduced aero/thermal loads. SpaceShipOne’s hybrid rocket motor is a non-toxic, liquid nitrous-oxide/rubber-fuel hybrid propulsion system.

SpaceShipOne would first go to the skies in a captive carry underneath the mothership, White Knight, on May 20th, 2003 and over the next year went through a flight test series that would prove out the gliding qualities, the feathering configuration, and finally the characteristics during powered flight until the team felt ready to go for the Karman Line- the edge of space. While Scaled typically keeps flight test operations close, Burt Rutan chose to invite the public to witness the historic event with thousands from around the world arriving to watch what Scaled refers to as flight “15P”.

At 6:45 am on Monday, June 21st, 2004, White Knight took off from the Mojave Airport runway to the cheers of thousands of spectators, carrying SpaceShipOne slung below it. Pilot Brian Binnie and copilot Matt Stinemetze flew White Knight in spirals to reach the target altitude of 47,000 feet as Mike Melvill waited beneath them inside SpaceShipOne and prepared for the release. The spectators kept their focus on the sky, using sunglasses, visors, and hands to keep the sun out of their eyes as the plane climbed high and turned into a white speck in the sky. At 7:50am, Matt Stinemetze released SpaceShipOne from White Knight and shortly after Mike Melvill fired the hybrid rocket motor.

After the ignition, SpaceShipOne unexpectedly rolled to the right and Mike Melvill had to wrestle the controls to correct the course, nearly shutting off the rocket engine early. After switching to the backup control system, Melvill regained control and continued the spaceship’s ascent, during which he heard a loud bang suspected to be caused by the buckling of the composite skin on the left side of the ship’s rocket nozzle. The rocket engine ran for 76 seconds accelerating SpaceShipOne to 2.9 Mach before motor burn out and the ship continued climbing until it reached the altitude of 328,491 feet (62 miles, 100.124 km).

The spacecraft experienced several minutes of weightlessness before it began its descent back to Earth. During the almost 3 ½ minutes of weightlessness, Mike tossed out a handful of M&M’s (for his initials – picked up on a whim the morning of the flight) to watch them float as he raised the tail booms into the feathered position for its descent and enjoyed the view.

“You’re just sitting there, and the view is absolutely staggering – you can see the curvature of the earth, you can see the ocean, you can see way the hell out across the ocean…and it’s just so beautiful.” – Mike Melvill, First Commercial Astronaut.

As the ship began its re-entry into the atmosphere, it missed its reentry target area by 22 miles due to the 5 seconds of uncontrolled flight during the initial rocket burn. Despite this, Melvill reconfigured the vehicle back to glider configuration at 57,000 feet and enjoyed a leisurely descent to Mojave, crossing runway 30 northbound at midfield and making a large right-hand circle to get on final approach for the runway. With one of the chase planes calling altitudes, Melvill landed safely back at Mojave Spaceport, 90 minutes after taking off beneath White Knight. The three chase airplanes during the flight, an Extra, Starship, and Alpha Jet, gave a celebratory flyby with White Knight after SpaceShipOne’s successful landing before landing themselves. SpaceShipOne was towed out to the crowds to meet up with Burt Rutan and Paul Allen, and Melvill hopped out with his arms raised in triumph. Shortly after, he ended up on top of SpaceShipOne waving at the crowd and hoisting a sign “SpaceShipOne; GovernmentZero” that Rutan had seen a spectator waving. After the flight a FAA representative presented Mike Melvill with the first set of civilian commercial astronaut wings.

The success and visibility of SpaceShipOne showed to the world a small team of people was able to send someone to space – this spaceflight kicked off a new era of commercial space because “if that little company in the desert can do that…”

And the little company did it two more times: SpaceShipOne flew to space on September 29, 2004 and October 4, 2004  to meet the requirements and win the Ansari X-Prize: surpassing an altitude of 100km twice within two weeks while carrying the weight equivalent of three people on board and replacing no more than 10% of the non-fuel weight of the craft between flights. After the successful completion of SpaceShipOne’s mission, it was donated to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, where it has been on display in the entrance hall.

The legacy of SpaceShipOne holds strong within Scaled – we remain that “little company in the desert” with small teams working together to bring challenging and complex aircraft to reality. Many of the employees who have come through Scaled Composites’ doors over the last twenty years arrived with stars in their eyes having heard about SpaceShipOne on the news while children or highschoolers and watching Scaled’s journey to the spaceflight as immortalized in the Black Sky documentary – there are many who were even among the spectators in 2004.

“In 2004, I was just about to graduate from engineering school. SpaceShipOne captivated me, I immediately downloaded the WhiteKnight and SpaceshipOne mods for X-Plane, my favorite flight sim at the time, and tried to fly the profile over and over again. Occasionally, I was successful, and I gained even more appreciation of the team that had pulled it off in real life. The act of showing something is possible changes the world, and SpaceShipOne showed the world that space was no longer just for governments. At the end of the century, I think we will look back at SpaceShipOne as the event that kiicked off the 21st century.” – Greg Morris, President

Since SpaceShipOne, Scaled has continued to maintain our average of the first flight of a new aircraft per year since our founding – from UAVs to a flying car, small 2 foot wingspan aircraft to the world’s largest 385 foot wingspan aircraft, high speed jets to sporty payload demonstrators, the Scaled hangars have remained busy and full of intriguing projects in the past twenty years – and the future continues to look just as exciting.

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