First Private, Manned Space Mission Successful
By Mark Stencel and William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, June 21, 2004; 4:03 PM
A civilian test pilot flew a stubby rocket plane to the outer edge of the Earth's atmosphere over California's Mojave desert this morning, apparently making him the first astronaut to fly a privately financed spacecraft.
But difficulties controlling the rocket plane led pilot Michael W. Melvill to briefly consider aborting the rocket flight, which instruments showed reached a few hundred feet beyond the boundary of space.
Independent confirmation of the accomplishment will come later from the nearby Edwards Air Force Base. But the flight's corporate organizers were confident they had reached their target altitude, from which Melvill said he could see the Earth's horizon curving from coastal islands north of Los Angeles to San Diego.
"The colors were pretty staggering," said pilot Michael W. Melvill at a news conference immediately after landing. "Looking at the Earth from up there is almost a religious experience."
Melvill, 62, was chosen from a group of four experienced commercial test pilots to fly the bug-eyed rocket plane, called SpaceShipOne, to an altitude of about 62 miles -- the official marker for space.
Thousands of spectators began gathering before dawn at the Mojave Civilian Flight Test Center, about 100 miles north of Los Angeles, to watch the historic flight, which was conceived by a small locally based aviation firm and approved by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Shortly before 8 a.m. Pacific time (11 a.m. EDT) the rocket plane disconnected from its gawky custom-made, twin-engine carrier jet at its launch point, nearly 50,000 feet above the desert.
Melvill then fired SpaceShipOne's rocket to power his steep climb to today's target altitude: 328,084 feet. On board, instruments showed that the rocket plane reached an altitude of 328,491.
On the ground, a trail from the rocket was visible to spectators far below for more than a minute.
After a few minutes of weightlessness, Melvill's space plane began its return flight, reconfiguring its wings to increase drag in the upper-atmosphere and decrease its speed. As the rocket plane reached denser parts of the atmosphere, the wings returned to their normal configuration and the unpowered rocket plane began to glide back to the commercial airport runway where the mission began. It landed safely at 8:15 a.m.
Melvill said at a news conference immediately after the flight that the spacecraft rode smoothly at supersonic speeds and described hearing "incredible rushing wind" outside the sealed cabin. He also described hearing a loud bang, which he speculated might have come from the rear of the craft, where part of the structure buckled.
At a later briefing, the pilot described rolls of as much as 90 degrees in either direction during the rocket plane's ascent and troubles controlling the rocket plane's trim during its return flight.
The rocket plane's designers were still reviewing data from today's flight to determine if any of the difficulties Melvill encountered would delay their plans for subsequent flights -- including the pursuit of a multi-million dollar prize for the private group that builds the first successful reusable suborbital spacecraft.
Private citizens have flown in space many times in the past two decades aboard U.S. and Russian space missions, but every manned spacecraft ever flown before today's flight was paid for by a governmental agency.
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