Pilot Mike Melvill has some fun celebrating his successful private suborbital flight atop SpaceShipOne, as the tow vehicle pulls it to the general viewing area.
Pilot Mike Melvill has some fun celebrating his successful private suborbital flight atop SpaceShipOne, as the tow vehicle pulls it to the general viewing area.
Credit: Mike Massee

This is part of a Space.com series of articles on the Most Amazing Flying Machines Ever, the balloons, airplanes, rockets and more that got humans off the ground and into space.

A major turning point for private spaceflight occurred on June 21, 2004, when SpaceShipOne, the first non-governmental manned spacecraft, flew 62.5 miles (100 kilometers) above Earth's surface to reach the boundary of space. After two more 2004 flights — one on Sept. 29 and another on Oct. 4 — the piloted vehicle won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for repeated flights in a privately developed reusable spacecraft.

SpaceShipOne was a space plane designed and fabricated by Scaled Composites, a company owned by aerospace designer Burt Rutan. Its development was backed by the deep pockets of billionaire Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, in a joint venture named Tier One whose objective was to develop technology for low-cost routine access to space.

SpaceShipOne was 28 feet (8.5 meters) long. The cigar-shaped fuselage was about 5 feet (1.5 meters) in diameter, and could carry a pilot and up to two passengers. The plane had short, wide wings with a 16-foot (5 m) span. Large vertical tail booms were mounted on the end of each wing. During re-entry, the rear half of the wings folded upward, increasing drag while maintaining stability; then the wings were moved back into gliding position for landing.

SpaceShipOne, with pilot Brian Binnie at the controls, rolls onto the runway tucked under its White Knight mothership during its second Anasari X Prize flight attempt on Oct. 4, 2004.
SpaceShipOne, with pilot Brian Binnie at the controls, rolls onto the runway tucked under its White Knight mothership during its second Anasari X Prize flight attempt on Oct. 4, 2004.
Credit: Ansari X Prize.

The spacecraft was launched in midair, at an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15,000 m), from the underside of its mother ship, White Knight, a turbofan-powered airplane. After gliding for a few seconds, hybrid rocket motors on SpaceShipOne fired for 80 seconds to loft the craft just beyond the atmosphere. SpaceShipOne arced through space for about 3 minutes, then glided back to Earth, without making a complete orbit around the planet, in what's known as a suborbital flight.

SpaceShipOne made 17 flights in all. Spaceflight was achieved on the 15th flight. Test pilot Michael Melvill was at the controls for that momentous trip, and he later became the first licensed commercial astronaut.

After the first flight into space, the ship made two more flights before being retired from active service, setting records during each:

  • On Sept. 29, 2004, Mike Melvill flew to an altitude of 64 miles (102 km).
  • On Oct. 4, 2004, pilot Brian Binnie flew to an altitude of 70 miles (112 km).

Next generation

Virgin Galactic's first SpaceShipTwo spacecraft, the VSS Enterprise, glides over California's Mojave Air and Space Port in this view from a series of unpowered flight tests.
Virgin Galactic's first SpaceShipTwo spacecraft, the VSS Enterprise, glides over California's Mojave Air and Space Port in this view from a series of unpowered flight tests.
Credit: Virgin Galactic

Five years after the success of SpaceShipOne, Rutan rolled out a new version of the spaceliner, SpaceShipTwo, and its carrier plane, WhiteKnightTwo. This venture was backed by British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson and his commercial spaceflight company, Virgin Galactic.

SpaceShipTwo is designed to fly two pilots and six passengers on short suborbital spaceflights that reach more than 62 miles (100 kilometers) above Earth, offer a few minutes of weightlessness and then return to a runway landing. Tickets for SpaceShipTwo flights currently cost $250,000 apiece. [Images: Rise of SpaceShipTwo: Virgin Galactic's Test Flight Photos]

— Tim Sharp, Space.com Reference Editor

Related:

The Greatest Moments in Flight

The Most Amazing Flying Machines Ever

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