Pilot Says Private Rocket 'Flew Like a Dream'
September 29, 2004
By JOHN SCHWARTZ
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
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
"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
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
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
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."