Starship Private Enterprise
Rocket Plane Becomes First Manned Civilian Craft in Space
By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 22, 2004; Page A01
MOJAVE, Calif., June 21 -- Flying a foam composite rocket ship powered by laughing gas and burning rubber, Mike Melvill took off faster than a bullet over a ramshackle airport in the desert Monday and overcame serious malfunctions to become the first astronaut to reach space in a mission entirely funded by private entrepreneurs.
The 90-minute early morning flight was heralded by the space plane's inventor, Burt Rutan, and his financial backer, billionaire and Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen, as the dawn of a new age in commercial space travel.
The pair envision that sometime in the next decade or so, astro-tourists will be able to pay around $10,000 each to repeat the feat and experience, for a few minutes at least, weightlessness -- and some awesome views.
According to instruments aboard SpaceShipOne, the craft pushed through the outer atmosphere and touched the edge of space, some 62 miles, or 328,491 feet, above the Earth's surface. The Rutan team, however, is still awaiting independent confirmation of the feat from observers at nearby Edwards Air Force Base. Upon his return to Earth, Melvill, the 63-year-old veteran test pilot wearing a lucky horseshoe pendant from his wife, pumped his fists in the air and appeared ecstatic.
Later, he said he was afraid on the way down, as he experienced forces of five times Earth's gravity. He was also dealing with malfunctions in the craft's ability to control its trim while plummeting back home at Mach 3, three times the speed of sound, or 3,300 feet per second -- faster than a bullet fired by an M-16 rifle.
At his apogee, Mevill said, the colors were "staggering," the clouds over faraway Los Angeles looked like snow, and he could see from San Diego to Mono Lake, 400 miles, and detect the curvature of the planet. "Looking down at Earth," Melvill said, "was almost a religious experience."
During his four minutes of weightlessness at the peak of his arc, Melvill tossed a handful of colored candies into the cockpit and watched them float around his head.
NASA astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who walked on the moon during Apollo 11, came out to the tarmac and "welcomed me to the club," Melvill said.
Allen, the computer impresario who is among the richest men on the planet, said he had devoured books and TV reports of space flight as a boy. Watching the Monday flight, he said, "the sensation was incredible. Elation mixed with relief."
Allen has said he funded the project "in excess of $20 million," not exactly pocket change, even for a man worth an estimated $20 billion.
Rutan, too, confessed he felt a combination of pride and anxiety. "It was not a perfect flight," he admitted at a press conference following the touchdown. And indeed, despite all the "Right Stuff" speak, it sounded downright hairy.
At one point in the flight, SpaceShipOne apparently experienced a serious anomaly in the trim controls, which adjust the ship's roll and pitch. Rutan described the mechanism as "a very critical flight control. I can't think of anything more critical."
Rutan added, "No way we'd fly again without fixing it." But the problem has not yet been thoroughly investigated.
Many astronauts and military pilots, supported by governments in the United States and abroad, have reached the altitude of space over the last half-century, and a number of civilians have flown aboard the space shuttle and Russian spacecraft.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Pilot Mike Melvill celebrates atop SpaceShipOne after it became the first privately funded craft to enter space.
(Mike Blake -- Reuters)
_____SpaceShipOne Takes Off_____
Gallery: Photos from the flight of the first privately financed spacecraft that flew to the outer edge of the Earth's atmosphere over California's Mojave desert.
Video: SpaceShipOne pilot Michael W. Melvill spoke to reporters after becoming the first astronaut to fly a privately financed spacecraft.
After being lifted to an altitude of 50,000 feet, SpaceShipOne reached a height of 62 miles before returning to Earth.