Passenger-Carrying Spaceship Makes Desert Debut
By Leonard David
Senior Space Writer
posted: 07:35 pm ET
18 April 2003
story first posted 1 p.m., EDT, April 18, 2003
MOJAVE, Calif. -- What has been billed as the "First Private Manned Space Program" and a new, never-seen spaceship, was unveiled today by noted design wizard Burt Rutan and his company, Scaled Composites, Inc.
Aggressive work on a passenger-carrying sub-orbital craft has been active and hidden from public view for two years.
Labeled as the SpaceShipOne Project, the unveiling took place here about 80 miles north of Los Angeles before a large crowd of journalists and invited guests.
Labeled as the SpaceShipOne Project, Scaled Composites, Inc. has worked aggressively on a passenger-carrying sub-orbital craft for two years. CREDIT: Scaled Composites
Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne (foreground, top picture) and its drop-ship the White Knight (background, top picture). The bottom image shows SpaceShipOne and the White Knight together. CREDIT: Scaled Composites
Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites group based its private manned space project on an earlier aircraft design: Proteus CREDIT: Scaled Composites
SpaceShipOne officials are reviewing use of hybrid rocket propulsion system provided by SpaceDev of Poway, California. Hybrid propulsion uses Nitrous Oxide -- also dubbed Laughing Gas -- and HTPB (tire rubber). CREDIT: SpaceDev
Robotic Planes Complete Fly-by Testing
Collision Alert: Radar System May Open Skies for Unmanned Vehicles
X-Prize Competitor Unveils Manned Space Capsule
After Columbia - Space Tourism Supporters Vow to Carry On
Space Adventures Teams with XCOR Aerospace To Develop Sub-Orbital Vehicle
Scaled Composites Website
The X PRIZE Official Website
The company plans to use the craft to compete for the X Prize, a $10 million cash prize that will be awarded to the first team
that successfully launches three people to an altitude of 62.5 miles (100 kilometers) returns the safely to Earth and then repeat that feat with the same vehicle within two weeks
In a lengthy briefing for the media, Rutan declined to answer a number of questions about technical specifications of the spacecraft, including its weight. SpaceShipOne will be air launched from a twin turbojet research aircraft with an 82-foot wingspan that was developed by Scaled Composites. The first flight of that aircraft, called the White Knight, took place on Aug. 1, 2002.
Rutan said he could not estimate when he could make the first launch attempt. He did say that before going for the X Prize qualifying altitude there will several flight tests that begin with gradual expansion of the flight envelope, captive carry and drop tests.
Over the last few years, considerable effort has been secretly underway at the company's desert site. Experts at Scaled Composites are confident they've designed a system that supports suborbital flight - drawing from earlier aircraft design work, particularly the high-altitude Proteus vehicle.
From behind closed hangar doors their stealthy product was rolled out today.
"The event is not about dreams, predictions or mockups," Rutan explained in a pre-debut statement. "We will show actual flight hardware: an aircraft for high-altitude airborne launch, a flight-ready manned spaceship, a new, ground-tested rocket propulsion system and much more. This is not just the development of another research aircraft, but a complete manned space program with all its support elements," he said.
Rutan makes it clear that the unveiling is not a marketing event.
"We are not seeking funding and are not selling anything. We are in the middle of an important research program…to see if manned space access can be done by other than the expensive government programs," Rutan explained.
Rutan said that after today, plans call for his group to go "back into hiding," to complete the flight tests and conduct the space flights.
Point and shoot
While details of the project are being revealed today, in past years some aspects of the direction Rutan and his fellow rocketeers were headed were openly discussed.
Using a derivative of Proteus, space-launch operations are made possible. By changing out aircraft sections and configuring the vehicle to carry large external payloads, both suborbital and orbital booster operations could be carried out.
As example, in October of 2000, the Proteus set several world records for performance in its weight class, one being flight up to 62,786 feet toting a 2,200-pound (1,000-kilogram) payload.
Vehicles launched from Proteus could take advantage of a "point and shoot" capability. This requires the carrier aircraft to be positioned to a select attitude -- including vertical for suborbital sounding rockets and astronaut flights -- before booster separation and ignition.
According to earlier thinking, this approach would allow lofting a three-person single-stage fully reusable spaceship up to 112 miles (180 kilometers), giving those onboard some five minutes of microgravity. In addition, two-stage expendable boosters could be lobbed skyward from the aircraft, placing micro-satellite payloads of up to 80 pounds (36 kilograms) into low Earth orbit.
Initially, operating cost goals for the Proteus system, including booster, were pegged at less than less than $50,000 per seat for astronauts and $500,000 per launch for micro-satellites.
Hybrid rocket propulsion
Scaled Composites has been working with SpaceDev of Poway, California to evaluate use of a hybrid rocket propulsion system for the SpaceShipOne program.
Jim Benson, founding chairman and chief executive of SpaceDev, told SPACE.com that hybrid rocket propulsion is a safe and low-cost capability. Work on an advanced hybrid rocket motor has resulted in successful test firings, he said.
Benson said the company's motor design is thought to be the largest of its type in the world. It uses clean and inexpensive propellants, namely Nitrous Oxide (Laughing Gas) and HTPB (tire rubber).
For sub-orbital manned vehicles, Benson said, hybrid is ideal, not only for reaching the desired altitude, but due to propulsion system safety features. They far outweigh the higher performance of dangerous liquid or solid rocket motors, he said, which, unlike hybrids, can explode.
Hybrid rockets are non-explosive, and their responsiveness, affordability and simplicity of operation make them ideal for high-reliability manned or unmanned, orbital or sub-orbital applications, Benson said.
Eyes on the prize
One clear ambition of Rutan is to snag the X Prize purse of $10 million. The competition is patterned from the more than 100 aviation prizes offered in the early 20th Century. Those purses kick-started today's $300 billion-dollar commercial air transport industry.
The most significant of these prizes was the Orteig Prize, won by Charles Lindbergh for his 1927 flight from New York to Paris.
The goal of the St. Louis, Missouri-based X Prize Foundation is to make space travel frequent and affordable for the general public.
Rutan would not disclose the cost of the project, but said it would exceed the $10 million award for the winner of the X-Prize.
Rutan said the development program began three and half years ago. With a few exceptions, he added, all of the SpaceShip 1 hardware unveiled at the rollout has been tested for use in space. One exception is the rocket's actual flight nozzle.
Based on an earlier statement, Rutan has clearly been keeping his eyes on the prize, not for monetary reasons, but for its power to inspire.
"It would not be an understatement to say that the X Prize has already had an effect on me. I have never been as creative as I have been in the past few months," Rutan explains on the X Prize web site.
"The X Prize competition, more than anything else on this Earth, has the ability to help make private spaceflight and space tourism a reality. By creating the X Prize, the St. Louis leaders have taken an important page from aviation history and created an opportunity for a modern day Orteig to step forward and open the door to a whole new industry," Rutan said.
Bruce Smith reporting from Mojave, Calif., contributed to this report.