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Craft Rolls On Into Space in Bid for Prize

September 30, 2004|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

MOJAVE — The first privately funded rocket to reach space completed the first half of a $10-million flight competition Wednesday by soaring to an altitude of nearly 64 miles -- but only after enduring a white-knuckle series of barrel rolls.

Pilot Mike Melvill appeared to lose control as SpaceShipOne spiraled like a corkscrew near the top of its vertical climb.

"It was a real good ride, but at the top I got a little surprise," Melvill said, standing atop the squid-like rocket after gliding to a landing here.

"It did a victory roll," he said of the unintended maneuver.

Built by innovative aircraft designer Burt Rutan and financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, SpaceShipOne climbed to 337,500 feet, about 10,000 feet beyond what is widely considered the boundary of space.

A second flight, which is required to win the $10-million Ansari X Prize, is tentatively scheduled for Monday, pending a post-launch review to be completed by today.

The flight brought Rutan's rocket team one step closer to winning the unusual prize created to spur development of commercial spaceflights. It requires a vehicle with a pilot and two passengers or an equivalent weight to reach sub-orbit, about 62 miles above Earth's surface, twice in two weeks.

Rutan said the rocket was loaded with personal items of his team members, including the ashes of his deceased mother, to make up the required weight of two people, or about 400 pounds.

"One down, one to go," said Peter Diamandis, the Santa Monica businessman who created the prize. "If all goes well, we have a beginning of a new era."

There are 26 teams from seven countries vying for the prize, but SpaceShipOne is in the lead by a wide margin. A team from Canada, the Da Vinci Project, had hoped to launch its rocket Saturday, but postponed the first attempt another two weeks, citing a missing part. The Canadian team hopes to launch the rocket from a high-altitude balloon.

Wednesday's flight marked the second time that the SpaceShipOne rocket had reached space. In a June test flight, the rocket, under the control of Melvill, climbed to 328,491 feet, or just past the boundary of space.

It was the first time that a privately funded vehicle had reached sub-orbit. The Federal Aviation Administration conferred commercial astronaut wings to the pilot, allowing him to join an elite cadre of pilots who have flown more than 50 miles above Earth.

Wednesday's flight came two days after British billionaire Richard Branson, owner of Virgin Atlantic Airways, announced that he was launching a commercial spaceflight service using a larger version of the Space- ShipOne rocket.

Expected to begin service in 2007, Branson's rocket service would take up to five passengers to about 80 miles above Earth, where they would feel weightlessness and see the blue sky turn pitch black.

The service, Virgin Galactic, would charge passengers about $190,000 each for the two-hour flight.

Taking the space race a step further, a Las Vegas budget motel mogul announced this week that he was establishing the "America's Space Prize," which would give $50 million to the first team to build a commercial spaceship that could send five to seven astronauts into orbit.

The prize is five times more than the X Prize because the challenge would be far greater than sending man to the edge of space. The vehicle would have to dock with an already orbiting craft such as the International Space Station, more than 100 miles above Earth, and then survive a fiery reentry similar to NASA's space shuttle.

Rutan's SpaceShipOne rocket, propelled by a mixture of rubber and laughing gas and featuring tiny round windows resembling polka dots, took off from Mojave Airport at 7:11 a.m. attached to the belly of a spider-like plane named White Knight.

Shortly after ascending to 48,000 feet, the plane released the rocket, letting it fall for a few seconds before its engines ignited and propelled it straight up for about two minutes.

As the rocket neared the height of the climb, it began to roll in what designer Rutan called a "flight control anomaly." The flight director radioed Melvill to shut off the rocket engine, cutting short by about 11 seconds what was supposed to have been 90 seconds of engine burn.

Rutan said during a post-flight news conference that the team had hoped to reach 360,000 feet, shattering the altitude record set by the X-15 winged rocket plane in the 1960s.

"There was plenty of performance in this spaceship," Rutan said, adding that the team would be analyzing the flight data to figure out the cause of the roll.

But he added that it did not appear to be a serious problem.

About 5,000 people came out to the see Wednesday's flight, compared with 27,000 who attended the one in June. But organizers said they expected a much larger crowd when the rocket attempts the winning flight Monday.

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