On June 21, 2004, SpaceShipOne crossed the
FAI-defined boundary between air and space, reaching an altitude in
excess of 100 kilometers (328,084 feet).
On September 29, 2004 SpaceShipOne flew to 337,500 feet in the first of
two flights to win the X-Prize.
Composites web page for X-Prize flight , with links to videos of
On October 4, 2004 SpaceShipOne flew to 367,442 feet (69.6 miles),
winning the X-Prize and breaking the X-15's 42-year-old altitude record
of 354,200 feet.
Composites web page for X-Prize flight 2, with links to videos of
flight, photos, and other features)
13, 2004, SpaceShipOne reached an apogee of 211,400 feet, or 40 miles
(about 65,000 meters) on its third powered flight. It became the first
aircraft to have reached such an altitude since the last X-15
was retired in 1968.
SpaceShipOne is has now recorded 3 flights over 100,000 kilometers
(328,084 feet, or about 62
miles), claiming theX-Prize and breaking the X-15's unofficial altitude
record of 354,200
feet. The X-15's official FAI altitude record of 314,750 feet in a
class for winged aircraft still stands, since the FAI considers this an
atmospheric flight and places space flights (over 100,000 kilometers)
in a different class.
In this author's opinion SpaceShipOne is the most remarkable of all of
Burt Rutan's engineering and design achievements in
aviation, extending now to space. Rutan and the staff of Scaled
have developed this vehicle with highly innovative
technology, going well beyond the usual practice of building
incrementally on the prior state of the art.
in feather configuration, near apogee on flight 14P, about 211,000 feet
Photo courtesy of Scaled Composites
on the Scaled Composites web site
are a few of the many ways that SpaceShipOne is succeeding by
with "conventional wisdom"...
- Its rocket engine burns
rubber and laughing gas!
This is not a joke, it's truly inspired engineering.
The hybrid rocket motor uses solid propellant, hydroxy-terminated
polybutadiene -- HTPB for short -- a form of rubber. Its oxidizer is
nitrous ozide, which self-pressurizes and does not need the complezity
of a turbopump to feed the rocket engine. Both the fuel and the
oxidizer are separately quite safe. In contrast, the X-15's anhydrous
ammonia and liquid oxygen (LOX) were quite dangerous, as was the
peroxide that powered its turbopumps, APUs, and BCS thrusters.
(APU is auxilliary power unit, BCS is ballistic control system -- small
rocket thrusters for attitude control in space)..
- Variable geometry
permits reentry at a relatively low speed, around Mach 2.
The airframe's high-drag "feather" configuration allows reentry at a
than the X-15, and a much
lower speed than the Space Shuttle. This eliminates the extreme
temperatures experienced in
X-15 and Shuttle reentries. Feather configuration also eliminates
X-15's need for precise piloting on climbs and reentries to avoid
or overstressing the airframe.
- Mike Melville, test
pilot for several of SpaceShipOne's milestone flights, is 62 years old.
If he were an airline pilot he would have been required by law to
retire two years ago.
- SpaceShipOne and its
carrier aircraft, White Knight, are a private civilian venture.
The X-15 and other flight research programs were conducted mainly by
NASA and the Air Force. SpaceShipOne is
funded primarily if not wholly by Paul Allen, cofounder of Microsoft.
- SpaceShipOne was developed
very quickly, and very inexpensively in comparison with
government programs for manned flight at high altitude and in
Burt Rutan and Scaled Composites have accomplished far more than the
flights now in progress, they are pioneers such as this country has not
seen for nearly half a century. They are continuing to demonstrate the
spirit and the ability to innovate and to develop technologies that
would never be considered by an industry, a government, and a
public which has become technologically conservative.
Industry conservatism is not just a question of being
risk-averse in the interest of safety -- SpaceShipOne demonstrates
technology that significantly
reduces risk to the lives of its pilot, passengers, and support
crew. It also significantly reduces financial risk to its
sponsors. Most importantly, it renews a sense that our ability to be
space-age pioneers is limited mainly by our imagination.
"Conventional wisdom" is that we are
safest if we build on what has gone before by cautious evolution. Rutan
and Scaled Composites have shown that we can learn from what has gone
before while focussing on imaginative innovation. Creativity is the key
enabling factor when combined with
sound engineering and science. It's partly an issue of human knowledge
and largely an issue of human spirit.
My personal respect and admiration for the X-15 program was for very
reasons. The X-15 was a pioneering research program of even greater
magnitude, undertaken when we had only more basic knowledge of many
areas -- hypersonic aerodynamics, structures for very hot airframes
flying at high dynamic pressures, human factors and life support for
space environments, and much more. This was a product of the "golden
years" of progress in aviation and space technolog, which I would
identify as the 1940s through the 1960s, but especially the 1950s.
After that, the trend was toward technological and economic
conservatism at the expense of innovation and discovery. I can
add the same comment about computing, based on my own professional
background, but would suggest that computing's
golden age of exploration and innovation lagged that of aviation by
about a decade.
I've heard similar comments from many people who were at the
heart of "golden age" work -- from a conversation with Scott
lecture by Neil Armstrong, videotaped comments by Pete Knight, and so
on. Beyond those who became famous as test pilots, I've heard similar
comments from many others who saw that period first-hand in places such
NASA Dryden and the U.S. Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air
To Burt Rutan and Scaled Composites,
I offer my personal congratulations and sincere appreciation. I hope
our country and the world will learn from your successes, to better
understand where we can go and what we can accomplish through creative