Eight years ago on June 21, 2004, history was made 100km over a small desert airport in New Mexico. Mike Melville flew the first privately-funded spaceflight in Space Ship One, a craft created by visionary aerospace designer Burt Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites. Not only did this achievement put Scaled Composites in the lead on wining the Ansari X-Prize, but it also showed for the first time that multi-billion dollar spacecraft and government involvement weren’t the only way for mankind to reach the boundaries of space.
Rutan says the idea that created Space Ship One dates back to 1996, but full development of the spacecraft started in, appropriately enough, 2001. With a generous investment from philanthropist and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Scaled Composites started work on the air launched vehicle consisting of the hybrid rocket powered glider Space Ship One and it’s launch plane White Knight One. The idea for the air launched plane is not new, the X-1 series of planes which famous test pilot Chuck Yeager flew were dropped from the belly of a modified B-29 bomber. Where Space Ship One broke new ground was in its feathering atmospheric re-entry design, where a swiveling wing structure uses air resistance to slow down and steady the craft for an unpowered runway landing.
The flight itself, wasn’t exactly flawless. Upon re-entry Melville experienced a flight control problem at supersonic speed that caused the craft to veer 20 miles outside of its re-entry zone before he managed to get it back on target. The problem was fixed before the final two flights in October and September that cinched Scaled Composites win of the $10 million Ansari X-Prize, a contest created to fast track development and innovation of a cheaper more reliable form of space travel. After landing from its maiden spaceflight, Space Ship One was greeted with a roaring crowd and a now famous sign that read “Space Ship One, Government Zero” which Mike Melville held aloft while standing on the historic craft. To honor his achievement , a small piece of carbon fiber material from Space Ship One was placed aboard NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft that will reach Pluto in 2015.
Since that time, Scaled Composites has entered into a deal with Richard Branson to make bigger versions of it’s spacecraft for Virgin Galactic, a space tourism company that will offer space flights on the larger craft to anyone with $200,000. Development still continues on Space Ship Two, which will commence powered test flights later this year. Virgin Galactic intends to start commercial flights as early as 2013.
If you are interested in seeing a behind the scenes look at the development and flight of Space Ship One, I highly recommend the Discovery Channel documentary Black Sky.