Monday, October 05, 2009

Fifth Anniversary for SpaceShipOne

Yesterday, October 4, was a birthday of sorts. It was the fifth anniversary of the winning of the $10 million Ansari X Prize, when SpaceShipOne was officially declared the first privately built and piloted vehicle to reach space, and to do it reliably and repetitively. You might also consider it the birthday of private commercial space travel.

Landing of SpaceShipOne on October 4, 2004 following it's second Ansari X Prize flight. Image broadcast by the live coverage of NASA TV. Image Credit: NASA

SpaceShipOne was designed by Burt Rutan and financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Lifted to an extremely high altitude above California’s Mohave Desert by the equally impressive and innovative “White Knight” carrier ship, SpaceShipOne was then dropped. It then fired its own engines to reach its maximum altitude, achieve a weightless state for 3 minutes, and then re-enter the atmosphere and land as a powerless glider, back on the runway where it began.

SpaceShipOne flew several tests as a glider and under powered flight, but only the last three flights actually exceeded an altitude of 100 kilometers (62.14 miles), the officially accepted boundary for space. The first was piloted by Mike Melvill and flown June 21, 2004. Melvill’s flight actually reached 100.1 kilometers.

Once the June 21 flight was accomplished, Rutan and Allen announced that they were ready to demonstrate their ability to reach space on two back-to-back flights with a quick turnaround time, as the Ansari X Prize required. The first of these two flights was on September 29 and also piloted by Melvill. This flight reached an altitude of 102.9 kilometers. The second flight was on October 4 and was piloted by Brian Binnie, one of those who had piloted the earlier test flights of SpaceShipOne. Binnie’s, flight reach an altitude of 112.0 kilometers—actually exceeding by 4.1 kilometers the maximum altitude set by U.S. Air Force pilot Joe Walker in North American’s X-15 experimental aircraft.

Today, SpaceShipOne is now on display the National Mall Building of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. The craft hangs in a place of honor between Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis and Chuck Yeager’s Bell X-1.

Even now, tests are underway on SpaceShipTwo, which will serve as the foundation for a fleet of suborbital space tourism vehicles to be owned and operated Sir Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic company.

To learn more about SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo, check out these sites:

Scaled Composites – Tier One, Private Manned Space Program

Scaled Composites

Virgin Galactic


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