June 20, 2004
MOJAVE, Calif. - Aviation enthusiasts began gathering Sunday in the high desert in hopes of seeing the first flight into space by a privately developed, manned rocket.
Thousands of people were expected to be watching early Monday when an exotic jet-engined airplane named White Knight was set to take off from Mojave Airport carrying the rocket-propelled SpaceShipOne.
If SpaceShipOne is successful, designer Burt Rutan and his Scaled Composites development company will use the craft to make a run at the $10 million Ansari X Prize, a formal competition intended to spur commercial development of spaceflight.
White Knight, carrying the rocket plane slung under its belly, was to scheduled for a 6:30 a.m. PDT takeoff, followed by a climb to 50,000 feet, where it would release SpaceShipOne about 7:30 a.m.
SpaceShipOne's pilot, flying solo, would then ignite the rocket and pull up into an 80-second powered climb. After the rocket motor shuts down, the craft is to coast up to a target altitude of 62 miles above the Earth, then re-enter the atmosphere and glide for 15 to 20 minutes to a landing back at Mojave.
Wind or clouds could force a postponement.
At a press conference Sunday at Mojave Airport, Rutan and program financier Paul G. Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft Corp., named the pilot for Monday's flight: Mike Melvill, 62, a veteran civilian test pilot and a vice president/general manager for Scaled Composites.
Melvill, who holds records for altitude and speed in various classes of aircraft, piloted the rocket plane on a test flight last month in which it soared 40 miles high.
Rutan's team is one of more than 20 around the world aiming at the X Prize.
To win, a privately financed spacecraft capable of carrying three people must climb to 62 miles and land safely, then repeat the feat within two weeks.
The three-seat requirement demonstrates the capacity for paying customers, and the quick turnaround between flights demonstrates reusability and reliability.
While Monday's flight will not be an X Prize attempt, officials of the X Prize Foundation will be watching closely.
"This will be the first time that any piloted private spaceship ever goes into space, so it's of pivotal importance to the X-Prize Foundation, and it certainly puts Scaled Composite's team front and center in the public's view as a front-runner," Gregg E. Maryniak, executive director of the foundation, said from Washington, D.C.
NASA also is interested, said Michael Lembeck, requirements division director of the space agency's Office of Exploration Systems.
"We need people like Burt Rutan with innovative ideas that will take us to the moon and Mars," he said from NASA headquarters. "Folks like Burt bring a different way of doing business."
Rutan became a household name in 1986 when his lightweight Voyager aircraft made the first nonstop flight around the world without refueling. His projects include the popular homebuilt VariEze light aircraft, new business planes, remotely piloted craft for defense and science, the 1988 America's Cup wing sail, a crew-return vehicle for the international space station and an upcoming jet-powered plane for another world flight attempt.