Winging It: Black Sky

On October 4, the first privately-owned, manned craft reached space.

Its goal is eventually to put thousands of people into space.

The craft was christened SpaceShipOne, designed by Burt Rutan’s company called Scaled Composites. The flight was timed partially to coincide with the 47th anniversary of the Soviet launch of Sputnik.

burt rutan
Designer of SpaceShipOne, Burt Rutan. Credit:

Eight years ago the Ansari X-Prize was founded to recreate the great aviation challenge prizes of the 1920’s, but with a goal of twice in 14 days reaching the internationally recognized boundary of space, 100 kilometers or 62 miles. The Ansari X-Prize was started in 1996 and modeled after the Orteg Prize that Charles Lindbergh won in 1927 when he flew solo across the Atlantic Ocean.

On September 29, Mike Melvill entered this tradition of aviation history. When on his first X-Prize leg he reached altitude, the SpaceShipOne pilot took a look back at Earth out his window and said: "You wouldn’t believe the view. Holy mackerel!"

During its two-phase ascent, SpaceShipOne was carried to 47,000 feet for about one hour while attached to a wider-body airplane, then rocketed itself to over 300,000 feet and finally, to space. Melvill became the first civilian to fly a spaceship out of the atmosphere and the first private pilot to earn astronaut wings. In addition to meeting the altitude requirement to win the X-Prize, the second pilot, Brian Binnie, also broke the August 22, 1963 record by Joseph A. Walker, who flew the X-15 to an unofficial world altitude record of 354,200 feet.

Nitrous-rubber motor thruster as viewed from videotape on the cusp of space. Credit: Scaled Composites

In the weeks after claiming his X-Prize, Rutan gave a public presentation in an airplane hangar, at Moontown, Alabama. His comments echoed a desire to apply biological principles of ‘natural selection’ to aerospace design. His theme was to encourage experimentation. When Rutan referred to his notion of the future, or ‘space for the rest of us’, the ‘us’ he refers to is not high-tech. Rutan may dream of a future like the Jetsons with flying cars, but for the time being, he has set his sights on getting a couple thousand people to take a suborbital flight. Rutan considers those astronauts will be ‘ carbon-based folks who are produced by unskilled labor’.

Astrobiology Magazine followed Rutan’s talk and his reflections on the big picture: how to get 4,000 astronauts in the next four years?

I’m winging it. We’ve not given this talk anywhere before.

We’ve had some interesting conversations with the German rocket scientists today [in Huntsville, Alabama, home to NASA Marshall Space Flight Center where Wernher von Braun spearheaded the manned missions to Earth orbit and eventually the moon].

What we’re trying to do here is build a very low-recurring-cost spaceship. We wanted to inspire commercial experimentation [in space]. Like what happened [in aviation] after 1908. In that year, less than a dozen people had flown. But in only four years, by 1912, hundreds of planes were flying in 39 countries. Something sparked that off.

Mars plane
Mars airplane design anticipates another aerodynamic envelope as it tries to maneuver in an atmosphere only 1% of Earth’s at sea level.
Credit: NASA

What I think inspired that was the attitude, "I can do that."

The entrepreneurs tried all kinds of configurations [to fly]. Most were never heard of again, because they crashed. This was flight by natural selection.

Most of those planes would make smoking holes in the ground.

So now forty-three years after [Russian cosmonaut] Gagarin first flew to space, is that kind of innovation possible today?

Politics has been the justification for all space missions. But if you’re not willing to take risks, you won’t make progress. Around two hundred and forty four (244) spaceflights have happened since Gagarin. Four hundred and thirty-four people have gone to space.

But now, after the last few weeks, four hundred and thirty-six people have been outside the atmosphere.

Over the last forty-three years, there has only been a flight every two months (on average). In the year following Gagarin (1961), there were four manned spaceflights from two countries. This year, with SpaceShipOne, there have been only two manned spaceflights, and only from one country. This seems backwards. What happened?

The wrightflyer
Wright flyer, 101 years on. As Orville Wright wrote: "We had taken up aeronautics merely as a sport. We reluctantly entered upon the scientific side of it."
Credit: Wright archives

So the question can be asked, is a space renaissance possible?

What is needed is an environment like the year 1909, with alot of entrepreneurs and experiments. People who have the attitude, ‘I think I can succeed with a new idea.’ It is the courage to try something new.

There will of course be natural selection too. Those are the risks.

What are the benefits? We don’t know, and frankly we don’t care.

When thousands of people have gone to space, you — the carbon-based folks who are produced by unskilled labor– will discover that you are the best payload to take into space. Mainly because you will pay to be a payload.

There have only been four suborbital flights. In 1962, the Redstone rocket carried the first two Mercury astronauts to over 100 kilometers altitude. Then in 1963, two consecutive X-15 planes were carried underneath a B-52 to high altitude, where they rocketed to space. But after 1963, manned, suborbital flights were never tried again.

SpaceShipOne, with its many viewing ports, next to its carrier plane that carries it to its first 40,000 feet altitude. Credit: Scaled Composites

During our SpaceShipOne flight, weightlessness was achieved for three and half minutes. It feels like you are in orbit, with similar views [of the Earth’s curved blue horizon and pitch-black canopy].

After the first ten to fifteen years, these suborbital flights will be done at low-cost. The cost will be high in the beginning [est. $200,000 per ticket], until the infrastructure is built. Then the spaceline Virgin Galactic–now commercially sponsored with $100 million by Sir Richard Branson–will operate as a true corporate spaceline. It will take off from the Mojave Desert and four or five other sites around the world.

How did SpaceShipOne fly? First off, I bought the engines for $65,000 each. [Because of its novel, rolling-wing design], the spaceship pilot doesn’t have to control the entry of attack as it returns through the atmosphere. [That was the first innovation, a kind of analogy to the self-correcting reentry. It uses a design modeled after a badminton shuttlecock, one that corrects itself even if it reenters upside-down or at a bad angle.]

The second innovation was a nitrous-rubber motor. One single valve operating at room temperature runs the propellant, [which is nitrous oxide, or dental ‘laughing gas’]. Except for a solid rocket, which is not safe, [nitrous] is the simplest rocket fuel, a kind of expansion of a gas into a rubber chamber.

We fly this motor very aggressively to Mach 1.7 [nearly two times the speed of sound]. At high altitude, when we light this motor, the pilot experiences 3.6 times gravitational acceleration [or 3.6G. At this acceleration, a pilot weighing 200 pounds, would feel movement resisted as if weighing 720 pounds]. We have to accelerate for this initial takeoff aggressively. We go to that Mach-speed real fast, while still in the atmosphere where we can fly the plane aerodynamically. That way, we just coast to space, and don’t need complex attitude controls and thrusters once we get to thinner atmosphere.

That’s it. Virgin Galactic is pumping $100 million into the new spaceline. [It is an extension of the airline, Virgin Atlantic]. We will build five spacecraft for them, each about the size of a Gulfstream jet and different from SpaceShipOne. That will happen in the next three to four years.

The goal is to make three to four thousand astronauts.

Homo sapiens. What an inventive, invincible species. It’s only been a few million years since they crawled up out of the mud and learned to walk. Puny, defenseless bipeds. …And now, here they are, out among the stars, waiting to begin a new life. Ready to outsit eternity.

Dr. Who, 1963

For kids today, if they want to go to space, they won’t just have to hope to go.

They will know they can go to space.

Burt Rutan’s public presentation on October 23, 2004 at Moontown Airport hangar was kindly videotaped by Andrew Dollarhide for Astrobiology Magazine editing and publication.

Related Web Pages

Rutan Aircraft
Scaled Composites Company
Dinner with Captain Kirk
Hooked by Flying: The Wrights
Wright State Special Collections
Flying the 1902 Glider in 2002: NASA Ames
Flying Humans: Interview with David Glover
Dinner with da Vinci
Dinner with Orville
Dinner with Darwin
Featherless Bipeds – Dinner with Simon