Pilot Says Private Rocket 'Flew Like a Dream'

September 29, 2004


MOJAVE, Calif., Sept. 29 - A test pilot returned successfully to earth today after a foray into space that was marked by a white-knuckle ascent in which the rocket ship began an unexpected series of rolls as it roared toward the top of its arc.

The white plume behind the rocket ship visibly corkscrewed, and spectators on the ground were gasping and holding their breath as the pilot, Michael W. Melvill, displayed the very highest flying skills to bring the craft back under control.

After he landed he insisted to reporters that the roll was not the fault of the aircraft and that it was probably pilot error. But to many on the ground that seemed like a different kind of spin control on his part.

When Mr. Melvill got to the very top, he said he was able to flip the plane upside down so he could take photographs of the earth and the sky. "It was a spectacular thing to see," he said.

He added: "I just loved every second of it. Maybe I'm crazy."

"The rocket flew like a dream," he said.

"That was a good ride, a really good ride."

"Right up at the top I got a little surprised," he added, likening the spin to a victory roll. He said he had been told to shut off the engine when the roll started, which he said would not have allowed him to make the required 100-kilometer height, but that he held on for the extra seconds.

Mr. Melvill, 63, also said he would probably not be flying the plane next time. "I'm too old to be doing this," he said.

Pressed by reporters, who pointed out that the roll was unplanned, he said, "Well, a victory roll at the top of the climb is important for an air show pilot!"

He went on: "Did I plan the roll? I'd like to say I did, but I didn't."

The rocket ship left the ground at 7:12 this morning attached to its carrier jet and detached about an hour later. It then fired its rocket and went into space, reaching an unofficial height of 337,500, well above the 328,000 feet that 100 kilometers translates into.

It landed here at 8:33 a.m.

Confirmation of the height was expected later today.

In making the flight, Mr. Melvill set the stage to win a $10 million prize and bring the world a step closer to the day that ordinary people - or, for the foreseeable future, ordinary people with piles of money to spare - will be able to see the black sky of space for themselves.

Mr. Melvill, who took the same craft just beyond the 100-kilometer limit set as an accepted but arbitrary boundary for reaching space in June, once again piloted SpaceShipOne, the sleek spacecraft created by the designer Burt Rutan.

Today's flight was the first of two successful launches required to win the Ansari X Prize, an international competition to launch humans into space without government assistance. The competition, which began in 1996, has attracted more than two dozen teams from around the world. It requires contestants to fly three people to an altitude of 100 kilometers and then to repeat the flight with the same craft within two weeks.

Since the competition calls for the flights to carry three people or a pilot and the equivalent weight, the ship was launched with personal items from Mr. Rutan's employees and others involved with the project.

The items, which were carefully weighed and sealed in boxes before the launching, included tools and toys, pictures of children and a watch given to one employee by his grandfather. "I am flying my slide rule that I bought when I entered college in 1961," Mr. Rutan said in a briefing with reporters on Tuesday.

At a briefing with reporters after the flight, Mr. Rutan said he had also placed his mother's ashes aboard the rocket ship. "She flew today," he said, his voice cracking.

No other team has got as far as Mr. Rutan's company, Scaled Composites, with its craft designed by Mr. Rutan, a renowned engineer, and financed by Paul G. Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft.

Mr. Rutan designed a two-plane system that evokes the earlier era of supersonic flight, when the X-15 rocket-powered plane was carried aloft in a B-52 bomber and dropped into a high-speed fall. The carrier craft, called White Knight, takes the squid-shaped rocket to an altitude of 50,000 feet, or about 15 kilometers, and drops it. Mr. Rutan said that the two-plane system was used because it is much safer than launching a rocket from the ground.

Mr. Rutan first revealed the X Prize entry in April 2003 and conducted a series of test flights that showed his two-plane flight system could break the sound barrier and reach heights previously unknown to private craft, culminating in a May 2004 flight that reached 211,400 feet, or about 40 miles.

Then last June, Mr. Melvill took the craft into space for the first time with a troubled flight that surpassed the 100-kilometer mark by a mere 400 feet, far less then the creators of the X Prize had hoped. During the flight, the controls for trim - flaps that adjust wing attitude - stopped responding, and the rocket veered off at an angle, ending up some 22 miles off course. Mr. Melvill fought for control of the tiny rocket, and later said he had feared for his life.

After that flight, Mr. Rutan and his team identified and fixed the problem, and boosted the power of the craft with a new engine designed to provide 20 percent greater thrust. Early this morning, Mr. Rutan's team announced that Mr. Melvill, who said after the last flight that he would not be flying SpaceShipOne again, would again be taking the pilot's seat.

Mr. Rutan said he did not consider this flight and the next to be especially risky, especially when compared to the first supersonic flight last December. That test was the first time Mr. Rutan had taken a craft to supersonic speed, and the flight occurred without previous wind tunnel testing. Instead, the team relied on computer modeling alone, which left a greater degree of uncertainty as to how the craft would perform.

He said the program had taken twice as much time as he had expected, two years instead of one, and praised Mr. Allen for his patience.

The creators of the X Prize modeled it on the competitions that spurred early development of aviation, including the $25,000 Orteig Prize that Charles Lindbergh won in 1927 with his trans-Atlantic solo flight from New York to Paris. The X Prize foundation has announced it will end the competition on Jan. 1 if there is no winner.

The broad goal of the competition was the same as those earlier endeavors: to popularize the new technology and to build interest in its commercial uses. Just as the first fliers set off a flurry of barnstorming - the first flowering of air tourism - the backers of the X Prize hope to see a new era of space tourism.

Then, just as the flights of Lindbergh and others showed the way to practical commercial uses of the air, including mail delivery and rapid travel, supporters of the X Prize hope to see the emergence of low-cost space vehicles that will some day allow new commercial opportunities that might include space-based manufacturing and research facilities that were not possible under NASA-scale budgets.

Just this week Sir Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Airways, announced that he would begin offering space jaunts in 2007 through a new company, Virgin Galactic, and that he would license the technology from Mojave Aerospace Ventures, the company founded by Mr. Allen and Mr. Rutan to sell space technology.

Scaled Composites will build the new aircraft, which will be larger than SpaceShipOne and capable of carrying more passengers, Mr. Rutan said.

In a briefing with reporters after the flight, Mr. Rutan said the craft's tendency to roll has been known for some time, but that it would be difficult to fix the problem with a space craft that is already built. He said the next version of the rocket ship to be built for Mr. Branson's company would eliminate that flaw.

Peter Diamandis, the chief executive of the X Prize Foundation, said the deal with Mr. Branson meant that the real goal of the competition, spurring private space flight, has already been met: "The X Prize succeeded before the flights," he said.

He called it "the beginning of the personal space flight revolution" and compared it to the moment in technology history when personal computers shook up the market for massive mainframe computers made by giants like I.B.M. Once the aerospace companies realize there is a multibillion-dollar market for taking tourists into space, he said, companies like Boeing and Lockheed will join in.

David Moore, an executive with Mr. Allen's company, Vulcan Ventures, said four other companies had approached them about licensing the spacecraft technology that Mr. Rutan developed for them.

The Smithsonian Institution has inquired about adding SpaceShipOne to its collection of historic aircraft at the Air and Space Museum. Mr. Rutan said he would like to see it there in the future, but he added that he had yet to decide how many more times to fly it first. He also noted that he had been in discussion with five "potential customers" in business and government for possible flights.

Still, the uncertainty of the legal and regulatory climate surrounding commercial space flight could keep future space tourists from getting off the ground.

Legislation that would clear the way legally for many aspects of space tourism is stalled in Congress, and Mr. Rutan said he had gone through an arduous process of regulatory approval for his recent flights.

"Does the regulatory environment dissuade investment?" Mr. Rutan said. "It most certainly does."