Mojave, Calif., is a unique place. As they drive north on State Highway 14, approaching the small burg of approximately 3,700 people, visitors first notice the hundreds of blades turning in windmill farms on hillsides to the west of town. Across the highway, dozens of jetliner tails sprout from the desert floor, idling in storage in the arid desert air at Mojave Airport. Mojave is also the place where aeronautical engineer and designer Burt Rutan has made aviation history several times over.
Founder of experimental design firm Scaled Composites and designer of the round-the-world-on-one-tank Voyager, Rutan late last month celebrated a new accomplishment–the first privately funded manned suborbital space flight, with the successful launch of his SpaceShipOne hybrid rocket-propelled craft on Monday, June 21. Flown by 63-year-old test pilot Mike Melvill, SpaceShipOne reached an unofficial altitude of 328,491 feet, just over 62 miles, beating the 100 km goal by a mere 491 ft.
“This was not nominal flight,” Rutan said in a post-flight press conference. “We didn’t go to the altitude we indicated we would go to yesterday [approximately 360,000 feet] because we had an anomaly with flight controls, and that caused us not to reenter in our five-mile box. Although we reentered 22 miles away from that box, we could have gone twice that far and still glided back to Mojave. So it was no big deal in terms of safety, but it was not a smooth flight in terms of trajectory.” There was also the matter of the dented fairing around the rocket exhaust, the cause of which was still under investigation at press time. What was known was that at some point during the flight, the fairing acquired some visible buckling.
A characteristically odd-looking aircraft called the White Knight carries SpaceShipOne to an altitude of approximately 40,000 feet to position for an airborne launch.
SpaceShipOne then fires its nitrous oxide (N2O) and solid-rubber-fueled hybrid rocket motor for approximately 70 seconds after release to achieve suborbital altitudes.
According to preliminary data, the anomaly was actually a problem with one of two actuators used to set pitch, roll and yaw trim before the rocket is engaged.
“We had some issues in the early stages of the boost, which meant that we weren’t flying as efficiently, but we still got there,” Rutan said.
White Knight, piloted by Scaled Composites engineer and program business manager Brian Binnie, rolled out of its hangar carrying SpaceShipOne at approximately 6:45 a.m. PST, following the taxi of three chase airplanes–an Extra 300 for low-altitude chase, Beech Starship for mid to high altitudes and a Dornier Alpha Jet for high-altitude work. According to Rutan, the early takeoff time allowed for a larger launch window by taking advantage of the wind’s tendency to calm for a few hours after sunrise. The strategy worked, for although the wind was howling at more than 50 knots overnight, by 6 a.m. stations surrounding Mojave were reporting as little as four knots.
Taking off just before 7 a.m., White Knight and its 6,000-pound payload followed the Starship into the air, joined up with the chaseplanes and slowly worked its way up to 43,000 feet over the course of the next hour. Shortly after 8 a.m., the White Knight released SpaceShipOne, after which Melvill engaged the rocket motor and began his near-vertical climb, reaching speeds in excess of Mach 3, or 3,300 feet per second.
“It takes approximately 1.2 seconds to light [the rocket engine] off,” said Melvill.
“You’ve instantly got…a combination of 4g down and 3g straight back, which is very disorienting. You feel like you’re falling over on your back.”
Melvill reported that right after the rocket motor began its burn, the ship rolled 90 degrees to the right and then 90 degrees to the left in response to his control inputs.
“We’ve seen this kind of rolloff before,” Melvill said. “However, last time it was only 30 degrees.” Melvill doesn’t discount that he could have made a control input error that caused the rollover. “There’s a lot going on, and it all happens in a short period of time,” he said. “You get the feeling that if you did anything wrong, you could really hurt yourself.”
It was also about that time that the anomaly occurred. “The anomaly was a control problem with the trims,” said Melvill. “When you get above supersonic, you can no longer move the stick. I have to fly using pitch, roll and yaw trim, and I had a roll trim problem. We had a backup for that system. I went to the backup, and the backup saved the day.”
Other astronauts have had their gimmicks, carrying coins, patches and even Ponderosa Pine seeds into space. “When I got to apogee,” recounted the newest astronaut, “I stopped flying the airplane, and then I reached in my pocket and took out some candy-coated chocolates of all different colors. I let them go in front of my face and they just spun around like little sparkling things. I was so blown away I couldn’t even fly the airplane. I got another handful and threw those out as well.”
Partway through the flight’s approximately 3.5 minutes of weightlessness, Melvill began piloting SpaceShipOne, now a glider, back to Mojave and through the atmosphere. Rutan’s solution for dealing with reentry is to raise the spaceship’s tail “feather” to a high-drag configuration that slows the aircraft and minimizes the friction from high-speed contact with atmospheric particles.
“Up in mission control, there were about three occasions during the flight when we felt [elation]–the successful operation of the carefree-reentry [the feather], the feather coming down and opening the envelope much higher than we have done before,” Rutan said.
Landing without use of trim, Melvill flew SpaceShipOne to a picture-perfect landing in front of a crowd estimated at tens of thousands (one guess had the crowd size at more than 100,000). One sign held by a spectator read, “SpaceShipOne; Government Zero.”
“I had to stay sharp while flying, but once I hit the ground it was a very emotional thing,” Melvill said. “I was so glad to get it back down and make a decent landing that didn’t break anything. The [trim] problem that had occurred was also there while I landed so I couldn’t afford to touch the trim system on the landing.”
Rutan, Melvill and others repeatedly emphasized that the project could not have gone forward without funding in excess of $20 million from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who was on hand to witness the historic launch. “It’s a real exciting day for all private space initiatives,” Allen said after the flight. “It was certainly exciting sitting in the mission control room, watching all the data come in, but when that feather snapped back into place and I knew we were headed for a safe landing, it was really rewarding to see that. I’d describe it as incredible elation mixed with relief.”
As part of the post-flight ceremonies, a representative from the Guinness Book of World Records bestowed upon Allen, Rutan and their companies the official distinction of “first privately funded space flight.” The associate administrator of the FAA’s commercial space transportation division, Patty Gray Smith, also presented Melvill with the FAA’s first commercial astronaut wings.
“This flight of SpaceShipOne is a historic moment,” Smith said. The FAA associate administrator confirmed that Rutan’s SpaceShipOne was the “first time a manned reusable launch vehicle on an FAA-licensed launch has reached 100 km.”
Although historic, the June 21 mission did not count as one of two flights required for winning the $10 million Ansari X-Prize. According to the rules, X-Prize officials need 60 days’ notice before the first of the two required flights. If the June 21 flight had gone flawlessly, Rutan would have notified X-Prize president Peter Diamandis of his intent to attempt the X-Prize qualifying flights. Now, however, Rutan says he and his team must correct the trim actuator anomaly before attempting another flight, thus pushing out the X-Prize attempt to an undetermined date. When he does make his attempt at the prize, Rutan plans to send SpaceShipOne into space twice in one week, instead of the twice in 14 days stipulated by the X-Prize rules.