Neil Armstrong, X PRIZE and SPACE.com | A True “Right Stuff” Moment
By Dave Brody, SPACE.com Science & Technology Writer
Neil Armstrong, an investor and Board member of SPACE.com, participated in an executive meeting in New York City on the morning of September 29th, 2004. At the same time, 2600 miles to the west, Scaled Composites was launching their SpaceShipOne in the first of two competitive flights to capture the Ansari X PRIZE.
At 11:00 am Eastern Time, we interrupted the meeting, inviting the Board members to watch the video feed from X PRIZE (a media partner of SPACE.com).
Neil was standing about 10 feet from our large plasma monitor when
Scaled's WhiteKight carrier aircraft released SpaceShipOne at 10 minutes
past the hour. Moments into the drop, pilot Mike Melville fired the
hybrid rocket motor, which was capable of providing 82 seconds of thrust. He pulled up sharply.
But, less than a minute into that burn, Neil quickly strode toward the screen; watching closely. He'd caught something nobody else saw. "That's a pretty good roll...” he said very, very quietly. Slowly, the rest of us began to notice the rocket motor's contrail had taken on a corkscrew shape over the track of the last 17 seconds of powered flight.
None of us yet knew what Neil had already figured out: Up on SpaceShipOne, Mike Melville had cut the engine’s power early. Mike was running out of atmosphere in which to use the ship's aerodynamic controls to damp that dizzying roll.
What we could not see and could not have known (except Neil) was that out there, 180,000 ft over the Mojave, Melville was doing battle with roll rates upward of 180 degrees per second. Neil knew Mike’s world was literally flipping upside down every 2-3 seconds, and that Melville must block out disorientation while brain-working his way through a shift from correcting with flight control surfaces (in atmosphere) to correcting with thrusters (in vacuum).
In true “Right Stuff” fashion, Melville let the rolling as he climbed. [Melville would later comment that he thought the roll was “pretty cool.”] He even let it roll while he reconfigured SpaceShipOne to its feathered "shuttlecock" re-entry mode. Then methodically and minimally damped it out, knowing that the feathered surfaces could also play a stabilizing role.
As the vehicle – which would fly again the following week to claim the Ansari XPRIZE – made its way back into breathable space, Neil turned to
our group." I had one like that on the X-15," he said.
Armstrong explained to us that the pilot's manually flown angle of attack
in such vehicles is extremely critical to preventing any lack of symmetry in the motor's thrust from turning into "mission threatening" rolls; and it makes a big difference in maximizing the final altitude of the ballistic arc.
Back on April 20, 1962, during a test of the X-15 rocket-plane – in many ways, the direct ancestor of SpaceShipOne – Neil had literally skipped off the atmosphere. His flight track ballooned far to the south of its plan, sailing over Pasadena and northern Los Angeles, California before Armstrong got his ship turned around and down onto the dry lakebed of Edwards Air Force Base. At twelve and a half minutes, it remains the longest flight of that x-15 program.
Those memories, perhaps, near to him that day at SPACE.com, Neil could not have been less jealous, or more complimentary, of Scaled Composites' pilots and engineers.
He should know. Neil was both.
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Pilot Mike Melville rode a rapidly rolling SpaceShipOne during Scaled Composite's first competitive flight for the Ansari X PRIZE on September 2004. The craft rolled 29 times at 130 degrees per second. Melville would later call it 'pretty cool.'