SpaceShipOne the first private spacecraft completed manned space flight on 21 June 2004. It began as an experimental rocket powered aircraft. SpaceShipOne and accompanying aircraft White Knight were used in successful pursuit of the Ansari X Prize by Mojave Aerospace Ventures. It is also one of the most notable and unique aircraft in aviation history.
The original space competition launched May 1996 as the X Prize. The X Prize Foundation provided the award money and challenge stipulations. The goal was encouragement of low cost spaceflight. The challenge was the creation of a reusable spacecraft, capable of carrying three people, reaching an altitude of 100 km above the surface of the Earth, funded privately, and able to complete two missions within two weeks. A caveat to the stipulations was the eligibility of transporting baggage that represented the weight of two passengers. The Ansari family donated multiple millions of dollars to the award, resulting in the renaming to Ansari X Prize.
Scaled Composites (part of the Mojave Aerospace Ventures partnership) began development in competition with 26 other teams. The design focused on rocket power from an altitude of 15 km to 100 km. An aerodynamically stable configuration was required for atmosphere reentry. Gliding ability was needed along with control to land on an average runway.
To develop SpaceShipOne the first private spacecraft, the wings and twin tail booms were designed for in flight modification. To ensure smooth launch and stable reentry the configuration needed the ability to change. The different configurations allowed for changed rates of drag at specific flight intervals. The first flight of the aircraft was 20 May 2003.
To obtain the correct altitude, White Knight was created. The aircraft eliminated issues surrounding ground launches. White Knight was developed as a high altitude, twin turbojet. The aircraft had the ability to takeoff from a regular runway. SpaceShipOne was meant to attach to the underside of White Knight. White Knight would release SpaceShipOne once an altitude of 50,000 to 60,000 feet was reached. To create a trainer aircraft for future SpaceShipOne pilots, White Knight was designed with the same systems, avionics, and cockpit.
Flight 15P on 21 June 2004 became the first time SpaceShipOne entered space. Michael Melvill was the SpaceShipOne pilot during the first spaceflight. The White Knight aircraft shuttled SpaceShipOne to 50,000 feet, enabling easier flight due to thinner air. Melvill aimed the ship upright and accelerated at twice normal gravity forward. The motor stopped at 150,000 feet. The SpaceShipOne rocket motor propelled the aircraft for 80 seconds.
Micahel Melvill piloted SpaceShipOne to 100 km above the surface of the Earth. The 100 km flight altitude made Melvill an astronaut. SpaceShipOne was in space for a total of three minutes, where Melvill experienced zero g. The view was similar to that of a low Earth orbit satellite. The cabin pressure and protective sealing eliminated the need for a spacesuit.
Melvill activated the wings, adjusted the angle for reentry. The landing configuration created a larger cross section. The larger cross section created additional drag to aid in landing. Once the aircraft reached about 55,000 feet, the in atmosphere operation resumed. The aircraft was then piloted back to the airport. Multiple records were created for Melvill, Mojave Aerospace Ventures, and SpaceShipOne the first private spacecraft.
Mojave Aerospace Ventures chose late September to begin the first of the two consecutive space flights. On 29 September 2004, Mike Melvill returned to pilot SpaceShipOne. The second flight was a success. The consecutive flight was scheduled on 4 October 2004 to coincide with the 47th anniversary of the Sputnik 1 launch. Former Navy pilot Brian Binnie operated SpaceShipOne while Melvill piloted White Knight. The prize was awarded upon landing.
SpaceShipOne the first private spacecraft was retired after completion of the third suborbital space flight. It is now on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. The aircraft is displayed in launch configuration in the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall exhibit.Technological advancements, international events, and travel have all impacted the evolution of flight. See our picks for notable aircraft