SpaceShipOne: The First Private Aircraft in Space

 Don Ramey Logan/Creative Commons

On June 21, 2004, an aircraft called SpaceShipOne was air-launched from the Mojave Desert in California. SpaceShipOne resembled an airplane, but rather than coasting at 35,000 feet as most commercial airplanes do, it kept climbing upward. Finally, it reached a peak altitude slightly beyond the Kármán line—the 100-kilometer-high boundary between the earth’s atmosphere and outer space—and returned to Earth.

With this accomplishment, the experimental rocket-powered SpaceShipOne aircraft and its crew achieved a major milestone: the first-ever successfully manned private spaceflight.  

Breaking NASA's Monopoly

Before SpaceShipOne, space travel was only possible through the collective aspirations of entire nations. After all, it was the former Soviet Union’s space program that put humans in space on April 12, 1961, while the United States’ own National Aeronautics and Space Administration leapfrogged them eight years later by being the first country to put a human on the moon. With monopolistic legal restrictions and an average shuttle mission cost topping $450 million, private enterprise had little incentive to pursue commercial spaceflight.

That all changed around the turn of the 21st century. By then, the U.S. government had reversed significant barriers through legislation such as the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984, which opened up opportunities for private companies to develop and test expendable launch systems.

At the time, the legislation was meant primarily to encourage advancements for transporting satellites. The 1990 Launch Services Purchase Act, which directed NASA to enlist launch services from companies when necessary, also removed a significant hurdle. 

This trend toward deregulation encouraged a slew of entrepreneurs to boost investment in what was shaping up to be a new kind of space race.

In 2000, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos set up Blue Origin, an aerospace startup aimed at developing technologies that would make space travel a feasible reality. Two years later, then-CEO of PayPal Elon Musk launched a competing firm, SpaceX. Not to be outdone, the billionaire founder and CEO of Virgin, Richard Branson, followed suit in 2004 with his own commercial space unit, Virgin Galactic.      

A Top Secret Project

The Tier One project, a once-secret commercial space program, was one of the first private enterprise space exploration projects. Tier One was started in the mid-1990s by leading aerospace engineer Burt Rutan and supported with funding from billionaire and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. In earnest, Rutan started on designs for SpaceShipOne. The aircraft was intended to be capable of carrying three human passengers and powered by a rocket system once it reached an altitude of 15 kilometers. Once in outer space, it would be piloted back down to Earth’s atmosphere and land horizontally on a runway. 

The prototype Rutan was 28 feet long with a five-foot wide fuselage and a wingspan of 16 feet. When fully fueled, it weighed roughly 800 pounds. Powered by a hybrid rocket motor commissioned from satellite firm SpaceDev, propulsion was generated by burning a fuel mixture made up of hydroxy-terminated polybutadiene (tire rubber) and nitrous oxide (laughing gas), which cut down on the possible hazards and costs of storing separately the fuel and the oxidizer used to generate combustion.

To complete the trip from land to outer space and back again, SpaceShipOne transformed into three different figurations, depending on the stage of the journey. One particularly innovative configuration was called "feathering." Once in space, the pilot would prepare for re-entry by folding and positioning the rear of the wings upward, forming a nearly-perpendicular V shape angle with the front part of the wings. The idea was to increase the drag and help stabilize the aircraft as it glided back down, which in turn made it easier for the pilot to steer.

The interior of SpaceShipOne was pressurized so that passengers would have a sea-level breathable atmosphere. Keeping the cabin at a consistent and comfortable pressurized level meant that space suits weren’t necessary. The plane was piloted using a proprietary flight navigation system that utilized GPS and sensors to relay information and a display interface that primed the pilot for each phase of the flight (boost phase, coast, reentry, and gliding).

To launch the aircraft, Rutan custom-designed a carrier plane named White Knight, otherwise known in aviation as the mother ship. The White Knight had long thin wings that stretched to about 82 feet, enabling it to haul SpaceShipOne beneath it in what’s called a parasite configuration. It featured the same cabin as the rocket ship so that pilots could practice and better identify issues that may occur during a manned space flight.

To Outer Space and Retirement

SpaceShipOne made its first powered test flight on December 17, 2003 (which, coincidentally, was the hundredth anniversary of the world's first powered flight, launched by the Wright Brothers). But it wasn’t until the fourth test flight, code-named 15P, that the privately-funded manned aircraft would finally leave Earth's atmosphere.

The SpaceShipOne team achieved other milestones, as well. Prior to launch day, the Mojave Air and Space Port launch site became the first licensed commercial spaceport. A few days after the test flight, pilot Mike Melvill became the first person to obtain a commercial astronaut license.

SpaceShipOne carried out two more test flights, soaring to an altitude as high as 112 kilometers, before being retired. After the aircraft’s final test flight on October 4, 2004, it was showcased at a few airshows and presentations before being carried by the White Knight to Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum, where it is on display for visitors.         

Significant progress has been made since SpaceShipOne’s historic flight.

Private aerospace firms hope to make space travel less costly by perfecting a reusable launch system that's safe and efficient. Aerospace engineers at companies like SpaceX continue to make progress, moving us closer to a future of commercial space flight

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