SpaceShipOne takes wild suborbital flight
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: September 29, 2004
MOJAVE, Calif. - SpaceShipOne pilot Mike Melvill, struggling to regain control after the futuristic-looking craft went into an unexpected roll, shut down the spaceplane's engine 11 seconds early today in the first of two flights aimed at capturing the coveted X Prize.
But Melvill, 63, kept the engine on long enough to ensure the spaceplane coasted well above 100 kilometers, or 62.1 miles, which the craft must do two twice in two weeks to win the $10 million prize for building and launching the first commercially developed manned spacecraft.
"It was great!" the unflappable Melvill exclaimed from the runway after gliding back to Earth. "That was an exciting thing for me to do!"
A decision on when to launch SpaceShipOne on its next flight, the one needed to win the X Prize, is expected by the end of the day Thursday. Launch had been scheduled for Monday, but engineers want to review data from today's voyage before committing to another launch.
Today's dramatic flight began at 10:11 a.m. EDT when SpaceShipOne's carrier jet, White Knight, took off from the Mojave airport. Both craft were built by legendary aerospace designer Burt Rutan, whose company, Scaled Composites, operates out of Mojave.
After reaching an altitude of roughly 50,000 feet, SpaceShipOne was released from White Knight at 11:10 a.m. Six seconds later, Melvill ignited the spaceplane's rocket motor and SpaceShipOne began climbing toward space.
"I came off the hooks, started the engine, the engine started up just like clockwork, started pulling back on the stick and trimming a little bit and the airplane just went straight up, I mean I couldn't believe how straight it was going," Melvill said at a news conference.
He originally planned to let the engine fire for 87 or 88 seconds, long enough to reach an altitude of 345,000 feet, or 64.5 miles. But 50 seconds after ignition, the craft suddenly began rapidly rolling about its vertical axis, completing one revolution every two seconds or so.
"Uh oh. Uh oh. It does not appear to be a scripted maneuver," said a webcast commentator, obviously alarmed at the appearance of the roll.
"Come on, Mike," another commentator urged softly.
Flight director Doug Shane recommended engine shutdown and Melvill did just that a few seconds later, turning off the motor 76 seconds after ignition, about 11 seconds earlier than planned.
After engine cutoff, SpaceShipOne continued to climb on a ballistic trajectory, the spin slowly damping out as Melvill pumped the left rudder pedal and then, out of the atmosphere, fired maneuvering thrusters to bring the unwanted motion to a halt. He then "feathered" the main wing, rotating the wing sharply upward in a Rutan innovation designed to increase drag and set up a so-called "care free" re-entry.
By that point, Melvill had the craft well in hand and after a 23-minute glide back to Mojave, the veteran test pilot completed a smooth touchdown. SpaceShipOne appeared none the worse for the wear. A panel of X Prize judges tentatively ruled SpaceShipOne reached a maximum altitude of 337,500 feet, or 63.9 miles.
"I just can't describe what it looks like up there," Melvill said on the runway. "This time, I managed to get it upside down at the top so I can really look down. And I had a little bit of a roll rate going, but I took a few pictures with a still camera out of the windows. So we've got the black sky, the horizon and the ground. It was a spectacular thing to see. You really cannot describe what it looked like, It was very exciting. I just loved every second of it. Maybe I'm crazy."
In a test flight, Melvill piloted SpaceShipOne to an altitude of just above 100 kilometers, the somewhat-arbitrary but generally recognized boundary between the discernible atmosphere and space, on June 21. During that flight, the pilot encountered severe wind shear, over corrected and ultimately overloaded the craft's trim control system. As a result, SpaceShipOne veered off course and fell short of the planned altitude, exceeding the 100 kilometer target by one tenth of 1 percent.
"Last time I was all over the sky, and most of that was my own fault," Melvill said today. "I hate to say that, but I actually made a mistake. I got into it on the yaw trim system and I got into a PIO (pilot-induced oscillation) and all of that rolling that you might have seen on the last flight was entirely me and not the vehicle.
"This time, you didn't see any of that because I figured out the problem and fixed it. So it made a very nice, straight trajectory to the top. And then at the top, we got a little bit of a rolling motion going.
Prompting a round of laughter, Melvill said "I think it looks good to the crowd if you can roll at the top of the climb!"
"I think we did about 20 turns in roll and there were some pretty high rates there but again, Burt's designed a system that allowed me to stop the rates," he said. "I turned on the reaction control system and I stopped the rates and brought it to a complete standstill in space. I even had time to pick up a still camera and take some pictures out of the window and prepare the airplane for the descent."
Rutan said SpaceShipOne is particularly susceptible to rolls and has been from the beginning.
"The airplane, since its early testing, we've been living with a known deficiency," he said. "It's difficult to fix once you have an airplane flying. It's easy to fix on the second airplane and we have very good fixes for excess dihedral effects on our next spaceship."
He said Melvill's ability to easily overcome the roll proved the spacecraft is more robust and, by design, forgiving than any other manned spacecraft.
"When you end up with a high roll rate and you didn't plan to do it on a manned spacecraft, that's normally a very, very big deal," he said. "I mean, that would be an accident if it happened on the space shuttle or the X-15. No question, we would be looking for small pieces now.
"The point I want to make that's extremely important is our concept, our approach, our design and our demonstrated flight testing has shown what we designed into it. And that is, we have an extremely robust system.
"Any system that will ever go out there and fly space tourists needs to be a hundred times or more safer than any manned spacecraft that has ever flown," he said. "And particularly as we march through and test this ship and as we learn from it and as we apply those lessons to the very big demands that we have in front of us ... we are extremely confident that we are going to be able to produce the first space tourism commercial spaceliner that will start out service with reliability significantly better than the first airlines had when they started decades ago. I really believe we are going to do that."
To win the Ansari X Prize, SpaceShipOne must make two flights in two weeks carrying the weight of three passengers to demonstrate a commercially viable turnaround time. Rutan had hoped to make a second attempt Monday, but a final decision will not be announced until Thursday, after a more thorough analysis of telemetry.
In both cases, only a pilot will be on board. The total required weight - 270 kilograms, or 595 pounds - will be made up of the pilot and personal items selected by the staff at Scaled Composites and the X Prize foundation, including Rutan's college slide rule, a teddy bear that will be auctioned off for charity and seedlings.
"We are not flying things that will end up on eBay and be sold or dealt with in any commercial nature at all," Rutan said during an informal briefing Tuesday. "There's only a couple of things that are charity related, the rest are things the person who flies it has signed an agreement with us that he will not sell it, that it is for him and his family."
At the post-flight news conference, Rutan revealed his mother's ashes were on board SpaceShipOne "and I was very very proud to have carried her," Melvill said.
The pilot for the second flight has not yet been announced, in keeping with Rutan's general policy of avoiding comment unless necessary. And as always, the next flight will depend on a clean bill of health from today's launching.
"I don't think I'll be flying the next flight," Melvill joked. "I'm too old to be doing this."
But Rutan praised Melvill's performance and the pilot later reflected, "I don't think I made a mistake."
"Bear in mind, we haven't been able to look closely at the data," he said. "We took a real quick look at it and none of us are positive what caused that. It's possible I stepped on a rudder when I shouldn't have. You get older, you can do things like that. We'll have to look and see what that was. There was at no time any worry for me, i knew the rates could be handled and I was veryy glad to see that I passed the altitude and I waited a little bit longer just to get a little altitude in hand and then I shut it down 11 seconds early.
"Part of it is the speed. I mean, you're going at a tremendous speed and if you put any kind of a roll input into it, it's going to ramp up very fast. But the roll rate was very controllable. I stopped the roll rate just using the normal controls of the airplane."
Following the test flight problem in June, Rutan's team stepped up training procedures and simulator runs. When another pilot in training for today's flight developed health problems, Melvill was called in two weeks ago. As with his first flight, he was wearing his lucky horseshoe, a piece of jewelry he designed and presented to his girlfriend when she was 16 years old. The two were married when she was 17 and have been together now for 48 years. Today, he also carried their wedding ring.
"We've done a hell of a lot of work on the simulations, the pilot training on dealing with the wind shear problem and we're all very confident that we can pull this off ... and that we can turn it around quickly," Rutan said Tuesday. "Anything can happen, though. There's all kind of surprises that can happen."
Even so, "we believe our system is extremely robust to the normal types of failures with rockets that cause real big problems. And that is, you know, the things that make the big fireballs," Rutan said. "We are extremely robust for that sort of thing. I'm not talking about a factor of two, I'm talking more like a factor of a hundred. We believe we are probably a factor of a hundred more safe for the types of failures that can cause an accident on atmospheric re-entry."
The Ansari X Prize, funded through Jan. 1 by private donations and corporate sponsorships, was created to "jump-start the space tourism industry through competition among the most talented entrepreneurs and rocket experts in the world," according to a foundation fact sheet.
Major sponsors include the Ansari family, the Champ Car World Series, 7-Up, M&Ms, First USA and other organizations.
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen financed Scaled Composite's entry in the X Prize, providing some $20 million. On Monday, Richard Branson, owner of the Virgin Group, announced plans to license SpaceShipOne technology from Allen's Mojave Aerospace Ventures.
Virgin Galactic plans to open next year and begin launching commercial rocket flights for private citizens in 2007. Tickets are expected to run around $200,000 initially, although Rutan said Tuesday he expects the price to drop dramatically as more companies enter the commercial spaceflight arena.
"We have finally, after 40 years of waiting, the beginning of the personal spaceflight revolution," said Peter Diamandis, chairman and founder of the X Prize Foundation. "Just the same way that we had the personal computer revolution coming out of (Apple computer co-founders Steve) Jobs and (Steve) Wozniak, we really do have the personal spaceflight revolution.
"I've been asked so many times what difference does this make. Spaceflight has been around for 40 years. Why is it different now? Well, it's different now because these are finally spaceships that you can personally own and tickets you can personally buy just the way the Apple computer was different because it was a computer you could own."
Rutan agreed, saying he believed "the aerospace primes" - Boeing, Lockheed Martin and other major contractors - "will be building low-cost human carrying spaceships, they just don't know that yet."
"I think it's very, very similar to IBM in 1975 before Jobs and Wozniak went to work," Rutan said. "IBM didn't know that they'd be building $700 computers. But they did, they had to. And I think we are likely going to see the same thing happen with rocketry."
Current Delta, Atlas and Titan rockets build by Boeing and Lockheed Martin are similar, Rutan said, to "those big old dinosaur mainframes that IBM was making a few of and saying there's not much market here and why would a person want a computer? I really think that that is going to happen with striking parallel."