On October 4, 2004, SpaceShipOne—the first privately owned, piloted vehicle to reach space—returned from its third journey to clinch the $10 million Ansari X Prize. The prize, meant to encourage entrepreneurship in space travel, was awarded to creator Burt Rutan and financier Paul Allen after the ship's consecutive journeys into space proved that SpaceShipOne was a reusable spacecraft that could carry passengers beyond the earth's atmosphere.
"When that sunny, blue sky just suddenly turns to black, that was the biggest thrill," pilot Michael Melvill told Smithsonian in 2005. (Melvill flew SpaceShipOne in its qualifying flights on June 21 and September 29, and then Brian Binnie's October 4th flight captured the X Prize.)
When SpaceShipOne first entered space on Melvill's flight in June 2004, NASM curator Valerie Neal resolved to pursue the rocket ship for the museum's collections. In March, 2005, the ship's owners donated SpaceShipOne to the museum. It now hangs in the Milestones of Flight gallery, along with Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis and the 1903 Wright Flyer. I spoke with Neal about the significance of SpaceShipOne and how we might be traveling to space sometime in the not too distant future.
How does SpaceShipOne work?
It’s not launched like a rocket straight from the ground. It’s actually tucked up under another aircraft , almost like a baby kangaroo tucked up under its mother ship. The mother ship takes it up to about 40,000 feet, and then it's dropped off, and then once it drops off, the rocket ignites and it shoots straight up. It takes a lot of speed to punch through the atmosphere, and so you really need a rocket. But if you don’t have to light the rocket on the ground, you don't need as much fuel and you can have a smaller rocket and a smaller spacecraft. So what they do is kind of split the difference, and they take it up under the airplane about as far as that kind of airplane can fly, and then release it and it ignites and goes on up.
How long was the flight?
It was a ballistic trajectory. When you toss a ball up in the air, it will go as high as its momentum will carry it, and then it will arc over and fall back down. So the rocket burns for a couple of minutes and burns up its fuel, and that carries you out of the atmosphere and just into space. There’s about three minutes of weightlessness while you’re coasting without the rocket engine firing, and then as the spacecraft slows down, it arcs over and then you start falling back to Earth. So as it rises to the top of that loop and then starts to fall, the pilot has about 3 minutes of weightlessness. Then SpaceShipOne was a glider all the way back, it didn’t have an engine for return and landing.
It was about a 45 minute flight, from the time SpaceShipOne was released until it landed. It wasn’t a very long flight, just a grand total of three minutes in space, but enough for the pilot to feel weightlessness and to see the curved horizon of the earth. The unique thing about the design of SpaceShipOne is its very interesting wings that pivot up to give the little craft enough stability and maneuverability under the control of the pilot. The analogy Rutan used is that the wings behave like a shuttlecock in badminton. For landing, the spacecraft drops down wheels under the body and a little ski under the nose and lands in the desert.
Obviously, the name SpaceShipOne implies that the vehicle is a space ship. But it also seems to have the qualities of an aircraft. Which is it?
As it happens, SpaceShipOne operates more in the atmosphere than out of the atmosphere, but it is a spaceship. During the end of its flight, it’s an aircraft, but it’s a spacecraft first.
Does SpaceShipOne have the capacity to carry out scientific experiments in space, or is it more aimed toward commercial purposes?
It was itself an experiment. An example of that is they had applied different stripes of paint on the wings to see which paint held up better. They knew the paints would start to evaporate at certain temperatures, so they used those paints as little telltales to see how hot it had really become at different points on the wings. So in that sense, it is a research vehicle. The feathered wing itself was an experiment, a new concept for spaceflight.
Are we going to space anytime soon?
Once it was evident that SpaceShipOne was going to work, Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic airlines came along and said to Burt Rutan, "Okay, I see what you’ve done with this small craft, now I want to fund you to design a bigger version of it that will hold 8 to 10 passengers because I want to start doing commercial service to space." They have built SpaceShipTwo and are in the process of test-flying it now, and sometime next year, Virgin Galactic will hold its inaugural flight, with Richard Branson and some of his friends and family going on a trip into space, just, a little joy ride. And if that takes off, it will be the beginning of airline-like commercial space tourism, different from individuals flying in the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to the International Space Station. Branson will be a true commercial operation with no government involvement. People who can afford the price of a ticket will have two options: Soyuz and Galactic, and in time maybe more.