At first glance, SpaceShipOne seems out of place in the National Air and Space Museum’s Milestones of Flight gallery. Hanging from the same ceiling as Bell Aircraft’s beefy little X-1 and North American’s hulking black X-15, SpaceShipOne looks almost like a toy, with blue and white stars sprinkled across the underside of the fuselage. Many of the artifacts in Milestones bear U.S. Air Force and NASA markings; SpaceShipOne, however, advertises itself as “A Paul G. Allen Project.” On June 21, 2004, this “project,” bankrolled by Microsoft co-founder Allen and designed by Burt Rutan, became the first privately built and piloted vehicle to reach space.
One reward for SpaceShipOne’s achievement was an invitation by Museum curators to Allen, asking him to donate the spacecraft. Last October 5, Allen came to town to officially hand over the vehicle during a noon ceremony attended by dozens of reporters and thousands of Museum visitors. Burt Rutan was also present, and during remarks by Allen, Rutan turned several times and looked fondly at SpaceShipOne, which was hanging behind the stage on which he stood. Earlier in the day, during a closed session with reporters, Rutan had confided: “It’s a phenomenally warm feeling that goes through me when I see our ship in Milestones of Flight.”
Rutan has every reason to be proud: By sending a person into suborbital space, he and the small team of designers at his Mojave, California-based company, Scaled Composites, have accomplished what only the governments of three nations—Russia, China, and the United States—have done. During the 24-minute flight last June 21, test pilot Mike Melvill took SpaceShipOne to an altitude of just past 62 miles. On September 29 and October 4, SpaceShipOne again ascended into space, and these two flights earned it the $10 million Ansari X-Prize.
When Allen first thought of getting into the space business, everyone told him he should talk to Rutan. “So I went down to Mojave, and Burt started scribbling rapidly on napkins,” said Allen. Impressed by Rutan’s vision, Allen ended up contributing $25 million of his own to cover the cost of developing SpaceShipOne. Rutan has had a prolific career in aircraft design (four of his airplanes are also in the Museum’s collection), but the idea of designing a reusable manned spacecraft had him worried about “wasting Mr. Allen’s money.” The project took about a year longer than Rutan had anticipated, and foremost among his concerns was safety. Rutan was at Edwards Air Force Base in Mojave in 1967 when Air Force test pilot Michael Adams was killed during his seventh test flight of the X-15. During the ascent to space, the X-15 experienced an electrical problem that left Adams unable to control the vehicle. The ensuing crash made clear to Rutan just how dangerous spaceflight could be.
Allen too was worried; his involvement in SpaceShipOne was the first time he had invested in a project that put human life at risk. “Your heart is in your throat,” he recalled of being in the Scaled Composites control room during the first flight. The craft flew as expected and had no trouble reentering the atmosphere. Typical of many Rutan designs, SpaceShipOne is an all-composite vehicle, including its landing gear. Besides making the craft a relatively light 6,380 pounds, the use of composites eliminates the need for interfaces with metal parts, which Rutan says can cause problems.
After winning the X-Prize, Rutan had planned on continuing test flights in SpaceShipOne, and since the craft is a three-seater, he wanted to ride into space as a passenger; he also wanted to give Allen the opportunity to do so. “But the invitation from the Smithsonian prevented that,” said Rutan. And SpaceShipOne had served its purpose. “We realized that we had learned all that we needed to on the technological issues,” said Rutan. “So let’s move on to a commercial system. Start flying the public. Let them see that beautiful black sky.
“We are indeed in development on a large commercial system,” said Rutan, but he would not reveal any flight-testing schedules. He did say that SpaceShipOne’s successor, SpaceShipTwo, will have at least eight seats and that the craft will make plenty of test flights on its way to certification for ticket-paying passenger flights, giving Rutan, his test pilot brother Dick, Paul Allen, and journalists plenty of opportunities to fly into space. “A guy from CNN has been bugging me real hard,” said Rutan, smiling.
SpaceShipTwo, which is beings designed by Scaled Composites, will combine the experiences of a SpaceShipOne hop and a supersonic Concorde flight, taking its riders out over the Pacific, said Rutan. If the new craft is certified as a commercial vehicle, it will be manufactured, along with launch aircraft and support equipment, by the Spaceship Company, a joint venture between Rutan and British entrepreneur Richard Branson. Suborbital flights will initially be affordable only to the very rich, but Rutan predicted that ticket prices would be “low cost” after the first five or 10 years of operation. “I won’t be involved at all in the spacelines, just designing the aircraft,” he said. If Rutan’s past career is any indication, SpaceShipOne won’t be his last Museum piece.