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Science & Space

Private spacecraft blast offs June 21

By Leonard David
SPACE.comexternal link

Image of SpaceShipOne taken during an April powered test flight from Edwards Air Force Base.
Image of SpaceShipOne taken during an April powered test flight from Edwards Air Force Base.
more videoVIDEO
SpaceShipOne in trial flight to become the world's first commercial manned space vehicle. (June 2)

White Knight takes off carrying SpaceShipOne over the Mojave Desert during a successful test flight. (June 2)

Animation showing SpaceShipOne separating from a turbojet in flight (June 2)
Space Programs
Paul Allen
Scaled Composites

( -- A privately-developed rocket plane will launch into history on June 21 on a mission to become the world's first commercial manned space vehicle.

The pilot of the craft, still to be announced, will become the first person to earn astronaut wings in a non-government sponsored vehicle, and the first private civilian to fly a spaceship out of the atmosphere.

That's the word on Wednesday from Scaled Composites in the Mojave, California desert -- designer and builder of SpaceShipOne. The announcement is the first time the group has pre-announced a high-altitude run of its piloted rocketship.

Investor and philanthropist Paul Allen and aviation technologist Burt Rutan have teamed to create the program, which will attempt the first non-governmental flight to leave the Earth's atmosphere.

Private flight

SpaceShipOne will rocket to 62 miles (100 kilometers) into sub-orbital space above the Mojave Civilian Aerospace Test Center, a commercial airport in the California desert. If successful, "it will signal that the space frontier is finally open to private enterprise," explained a Scaled Composites release.

Allen, founder and chairman of Vulcan Inc, is financing the project. Along with Allen, Vulcan's technology research and development team -- which takes the lead in developing high impact science and technology projects for Allen -- has been active in the project's development and management.

Today's announcement follows SpaceShipOne's successful May 13 test flight. That flight had pilot Mike Melvill hitting the engine-start button to reach a height of 211,400 feet (approximately 40 miles). That's the highest altitude ever reached by a non-government aerospace program.

Making spaceflight affordable

Sub-orbital space flight refers to a mission that flies out of the atmosphere but does not reach the speeds needed to sustain continuous orbiting of the earth. The view from a sub-orbital flight is similar to being in orbit, but the cost and risks are far less.

"Since Yuri Gagarin and Al Shepard's epoch flights in 1961, all space missions have been flown only under large, expensive government efforts. By contrast, our program involves a few, dedicated individuals who are focused entirely on making spaceflight affordable," said Burt Rutan in a press statement today.

"Without the entrepreneur approach, space access would continue to be out of reach for ordinary citizens. The SpaceShipOne flights will change all that and encourage others to usher in a new, low-cost era in space travel," Rutan added.

Spectator viewing

"Every time SpaceShipOne flies, we demonstrate that modest amounts of private funds can significantly increase the boundaries of commercial space technology," Allen also said in the statement.

Unlike any previous manned space mission, the June flight will allow the public to view, up close, the takeoff and landing as well as the overhead rocket boost to space. This will be an historic and unique spectator opportunity.

Information for the general public on attending the event is available at

The launch is set for June 21, with plans calling for taxi out to the runway of SpaceShipOne's carrier plane, the White Knight, at 6:30 a.m. local time.

Private resources

Last December, Allen confirmed that he is the behind-the-scene sponsor of the SpaceShipOne project. Allen has funded the effort since he and Rutan joined forces in March of 2001.

SpaceShipOne being carried by the White Knight turbojet.
SpaceShipOne being carried by the White Knight turbojet.

SpaceShipOne and its White Knight turbojet carrier/launch aircraft represent the first private non-government effort to demonstrate a low-cost piloted space effort. Since it was unveiled in April 2003, SpaceShipOne has undergone 14 airborne flights: capture flights hooked to the White Knight, freefall glides, and three powered high-altitude hops.

The suborbital rocket plane is a leading contender among a worldwide cadre of groups vying for the Ansari X Prize.

For anybody to claim the $10 million cash award, they must fly a privately financed and built three-person spaceship that rockets up to 62.5 miles (100 kilometers) altitude, returns safely to Earth, and then repeats that trip within a two week period.

In a press statement last December, Allen said: "SpaceShipOne is a tangible example of continuing humankind's efforts to travel into space, effectively demonstrating that private resources can make a big difference in this field of discovery and invention."

Allen co-founded Microsoft Corporation with Bill Gates in 1975 and served as the company's executive vice president of research and new product development, the company's senior technology post, until 1983.

Today, Allen owns and invests in a suite of companies, with a portfolio focus on digital communications, new media, biotechnology, and entertainment. His primary companies include Vulcan Inc. of Seattle, Washington.

Risks of space

Peter Diamandis, Chairman of the X Prize, said Allen and his team stepped up to sponsoring a private-sector space endeavor at a time when few others were willing to take the risk.

"In my role as chairman of the X Prize, I had approached well over one hundred corporate chief executive officers regarding sponsorship. Few were able to grasp the importance of this new market...and those who were had great difficulty accepting the risks involved," Diamandis said.

Vulcan's financial support has clearly allowed the Scaled Composites team to take a methodical, step by step approach, Diamandis said. "The flight test program has been expanding the envelope in an incremental process. I hope that Allen's leadership will allow other wealthy industrialists to follow in his footsteps to sponsor spaceship development like they currently do with sail boats and race cars," he said

Copyright © 1999-2006, Inc.

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