Halfway There: SpaceShipOne Hits Space Again

Image credit: Scaled Composites
There was a short delay and then SpaceShipOne took off at 1411 UTC (7:11am PDT) cradled under the White Knight carrier aircraft. It carried SpaceShipOne to an altitude of nearly 14 km (46,000 ft) and then released it.

Pilot Mike Melvill ignited the rocket, pointed the spacecraft directly up and accelerated to Mach 3, reaching the edge of space just a few minutes later – 100 km (62.5 miles).

The flight didn’t go as smoothly as designer Burt Rutan had predicted, however. Shortly after igniting its hybrid rocket engine and heading up into space, SpaceShipOne went into a harrowing corkscrew roll, spinning more than 20 barrel rolls. Melvill cut the spacecraft’s engine 11 seconds before it would have turned off automatically and was able to get control again. Melvill noted, “we would have gone much higher.”

In order to win the $10 million X-Prize, competitors need to complete the trip to space twice in two weeks carrying the pilot and the weight of two passengers. Instead of carrying dead weight, SpaceShipOne was filled with personal objects from the employees of the companies that built it.

Their next flight is expected to happen on October 4 – the 47th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik.

After the flight, Burt Rutan presented financier Paul Allen with tiny pine trees that had been carried into space. Rutan’s company has invested more than $20 million into SpaceShipOne, and recently inked a deal with Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic to develop a larger version of the prototype that could carry 5 paying passengers into space; it could start flying within a few years.

Written by Fraser Cain