A bustling airport in an otherwise desolate landscape served as the backdrop for the unveiling of what’s been hailed as the world’s first private space venture. On April 18, Burt Rutan, owner and founder of Scaled Composites, an aviation and space consulting company located in Mojave, Calif., officially took the wraps off of a two-year-old program that has the goal of launching three people into space aboard an affordable and reusable platform.
“Space travel in its current form is primitive,” Rutan said during a press conference in the main hangar of the Scaled Composites facility, where more than 400 press and aviation personalities gathered, including retired NASA spacecraft designer Max Faget and former astronaut Buzz Aldrin. “We have retreated from former capabilities. When Buzz was on the moon, he probably thought that we’d be on Mars by now. But in the past 42 years of space travel, there have been only 241 manned spaceflights, including the Russians, for a total of 431 people in space.”
Rutan said that government-funded space programs have been hampered by needing to politically justify the huge cost, leading to a risk-adverse environment where few concepts have been tried. His solution for an affordable space venture is to borrow from an old concept: namely the X-15 rocket research program.
Like the X-15, Rutan’s spacecraft, SpaceShipOne, will be launched from an altitude of 50,000 feet, from which a hybrid rocket engine will propel the craft to an altitude of
100 km, or approximately 62 miles. SpaceShipOne will then glide to a designated landing spot, using a high-drag configuration to slow its descent during reentry, minimizing heat generation.
During the press conference, Rutan unveiled not only the spacecraft, SpaceShipOne, but also its fully functional high-altitude transport, White Knight; mission control ground station; flight simulator; mobile nitrous oxide delivery system (MONODS); and rocket engine test stand.
As the designer of such unconventional aircraft as the VariEZE composite kit of the 1970s, the around-the-world-on-a-single-tank-of-fuel Voyager of the 1980s, and the asymmetrical Boomerang of the 1990s, it is not surprising that Rutan’s SpaceShipOne and White Knight are anything but conventional in design. Both share a carbon-fiber composite structure, pressure vessel cockpits with environmental control systems (ECS) that enable a shirt-sleeve environment, customized avionics suite with GPS inertial navigation system and numerous round windows for visibility. White Knight’s 82-foot wingspan and twin General Electric J-85-5 turbofan engines allow it to carry a payload of up to 8,000 pounds with an altitude capability of 53,000 feet.
In contrast, SpaceShipOne has very little wing surface. During subsonic flight, elevons will control pitch and roll, while rudders on the twin tails provide yaw control. In supersonic flight, horizontal stabilizers and lower rudders provide flight control. And in space, redundant cold-gas thrusters at the wingtips and in the top, bottom and sides of the fuselage provide directional control.
“SpaceShipOne has redundant electrical systems that allow the pilot to automatically switch between control systems,” said Rutan. “The pilot does not have to think about when to use each one.”
SpaceShipOne will be hand-flown along its designated route based on information from the flight navigation unit, which displays trajectory guidance, system health and status, a detailed moving map and any warning messages. The navigation unit provides navigation and guidance data to the cockpit display and to the mission control ground station via an RF telemetry downlink.
Unlike conventional spacecraft that must enter the Earth’s atmosphere within three to five degrees of a specific angle, SpaceShipOne will be able to enter the atmosphere at nearly any angle and glide to a designated landing spot within 35 nautical miles of its initial launch point.
The design requires the entire tail section of Rutan’s spacecraft, called the “feather,” to swing upward via pneumatic controls just before reentry. This high-drag configuration will reduce the craft’s velocity from Mach 3 to just 150 kias and greatly reduce friction and aerodynamic loads.
SpaceShipOne will be powered by a liquid nitrous oxide and rubber-fuel hybrid propulsion system. Rutan refused to give any performance specifications on SpaceShipOne or its hybrid rocket engine, in part because two companies–Environmental Aeroscience Corp (EAC) of Miami and SpaceDev of San Diego–are still in competition over the SpaceShipOne engine contract. There will be no provisions to throttle the rocket engine, but the avionics suite has a dedicated propulsion display to allow the pilot and/or ground station to monitor critical motor parameters.
Thirty-five Hours at FL530
Four Scaled Composites pilots are currently in training to fly SpaceShipOne using a variety of in-flight and computer-based simulators. According to Doug Shane, Scaled Composites chief test pilot who joined the company in 1982 and has flown four first flights of new Rutan designs, the crew has trained in several different aircraft, including a Beechcraft Dutchess, Extra 300 and the White Knight to simulate various SpaceShipOne flight configurations.
“The White Knight is the ultimate SpaceShipOne simulator,” said Shane. “It has the same cockpit, cabin and systems as SpaceShipOne, as well as the correct lift and drag characteristics. We’ve already spent 35 hours at altitudes around 53,000 feet preparing for the first gliding flights in SpaceShipOne.”
Rutan’s inspiration for this research project came from two sources: the desire to be the first non-governmental program into space and the $10 million X-Prize. He credits Dr. Peter Diamandias, founder of the X-Prize, for the specific inspiration of the project’s requirements. Announced in the mid-1990s, the X-Prize will go to the first privately funded space program to launch three humans to an altitude of 100 km by 2004 with a reusable vehicle that can be relaunched with a turnaround time of two weeks or less. Currently 22 entrants have announced their intentions to seek the X-Prize, not counting Rutan, who says that he will not make the formal application until after SpaceShipOne makes its first space flight.
Though Rutan is not interested in building a space tourism business, he does see implications of his program on the budding space tourism industry and hopes that he inspires other low-cost space companies to continue the journey. “If in 20 to 30 years there is affordable space access and what we are doing here today contributed to that, then we have succeeded. That’s so much more important than making money.”