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.
But Rutan and his team are the first to do so with no government help -- and not in a titanium machine powered by solid-fuel rockets, but a relatively lightweight craft. It was "a manned space program designed from scratch," Rutan boasted, in four years for $20 million -- about what NASA would spend "on a paper study," Rutan taunted.
Rutan is among at least 27 competitors (of whom about a half-dozen are considered serious challengers) who seek to win the Ansari X Prize by year's end. The $10 million X Prize, devised by a coterie of entrepreneurs and space buffs in 1996, goes to the team that can launch a vehicle into suborbital space (62 miles high) twice in two weeks with the same craft, carrying a pilot and two passengers -- or, as these flights are still very risky, their equivalent weight.
Rutan said he envisioned a next-generation suborbital spacecraft as a luxe cruiser, with big windows and spacious seats, that would allow the tourist to press his nose to the glass, get a good look at space, and then unbuckle for a few minutes of weightlessness, floating in a giddy escape from Earth's gravitational coils.
While Rutan is now clearly in the lead for the X Prize, and Monday's flight was a milestone, SpaceShipOne carried only Melvill. No passengers. No extra weight. The Rutan team said it hopes to go after the X Prize with two flights later this year.
But the Canada-based Orva Space Corp. is hot on Rutan's heels. The Canadians plan for a giant helium-filled balloon that will release a rocket 80,000 feet above Earth for a high-altitude launch into suborbital space.
Late Sunday night, with SpaceShipOne hidden away in its hangar at the Mojave Airport, 90 miles northeast of Los Angeles, the wind over the high California desert was howling at almost gale strength. But as the sun rose over the tarmac, and thousands gathered for the launch, the breeze died down to a trickle in the orange windsocks, and the sky was empty of clouds.
As the flying rocket rolled down the runway, it appeared to be a most fantastical contraption. The suborbital vehicle itself, SpaceShipOne, looks like a bomb with folding wings. It was cradled underneath the belly of its larger mother ship, called White Knight, a futuristic twin turbojet with long outstretched wings and a high bullet-shaped cockpit. Tethered together, the pair looked insectile, like mating dragonflies.
The White Knight took off and turned toward the sun. The conjoined craft made big lazy turns, slowly gaining altitude for an hour. Melvill later recalled being a bit lonely.
There was a final checklist between White Knight and SpaceShipOne, assuring that the pressure in the rocket ship was good and the rockets primed to fire. At around 50,000 feet, White Knight released SpaceShipOne, which glided for a moment. Then Melvill flipped two switches and fired the hybrid rocket engine, which runs on a mixture of solid- and liquid-fueled propellants, burning nitrous oxide (more commonly known to dental patients as laughing gas) and hydroxy-terminated polybutadiene (a clear rubber).
Soon after Melvill lit the candle, and as the space plane began to reach its ascent speed of three times the speed of sound, the pilot said the craft rolled heavily left and right, 90 degrees, and he briefly considered aborting the mission.
From the ground, the crowd could clearly see the contrail of the blazing rocket wiggle. But Melvill and ship regained control. It soared into the sky, and the earthbound spectators gasped at its speed.
Then it disappeared from sight. The burn was scheduled to last about 80 seconds, but it appears to have extinguished after about 75 seconds, and Rutan and Melvill said later they are not yet sure whether Melvill shut it down or the rocket expended its fuel. The astronaut later said that piloting the craft, which required him to steer the spaceship (unlike NASA shuttles, which basically launch by computer control), was not easy.
"Even if a good pilot hopped in there," Melvill said, without extensive training and simulation "he'd be instantly dead."
As the craft made its reentry, the wings of SpaceShipOne drew up, an innovation that Rutan describes as "feathering," which forces the craft to return to Earth like a badminton shuttlecock, stabilizing it, distributing the heat along the whole ship. Rutan said this gives his spaceship its greatest asset, "a risk-free reentry."
And as Rutan reminded journalists, SpaceShipOne was America's first return to space since the space shuttle Columbia's disaster 16 months ago, as it broke apart on its return to Earth.
Monday's suborbital flight was similar to NASA's first two manned Mercury space missions in 1961. It did not reach Earth orbit, in which spacecraft such as the space shuttle can circle the Earth every 90 minutes.
After its feathered wings slowed SpaceShipOne, acting as a kind of air brake, the wings spread out again and the craft glided back toward the Mojave airport. But because of the problems with the trim controls, it was more than 20 miles off course as it began its descent.
It was still close enough to get home, and the landing appeared a perfect rolling touchdown. On the ground, the small ship didn't look much worse for wear, though a single foil was bent.
An earlier Rutan-designed aircraft, the Voyager, captured the world's attention in 1986 when it became the first plane to circumnavigate the globe without refueling. That historic two-person aircraft is now displayed near the main entrance of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington.
Staff writer Guy Gugliotta contributed to this report from Washington.