MOJAVE, CALIFORNIA - The frightening spin of SpaceShipOne during its trip into space Wednesday was caused by a known deficiency and at no time led to an out-of-control situation, officials said today.
The privately built and financed suborbital vehicle shot to an unofficial altitude record of 63.9 miles (102.9 kilometers) during a flight that had ground controllers and webcast viewers worrying for a few tense moments as the craft went into an unexpected series of rolls.
Assuming the altitude is verified, SpaceShipOne is one step away from winning $10 million Ansari X Prize, which will be given to the first team that can send a three-person craft 62 miles (100 kilometers) up within two weeks.
A decision on whether to attempt the second flight as early as Sunday will be rendered by late Thursday, officials said during a post-flight press conference.
'Kind of cool'
Roaring straight up through the sky after release from the White Knight carrier plane, SpaceShipOne began rolling at the top of its flight, with pilot Mike Melvill at the controls.
"I didn't actually have any discomfort," he said. "I thought it was kind of cool."
Using the craft's reaction jets, Melvill was able to tame it for the high-speed plunge back to Earth. He figures he did about 20 turns, some at high rates.
"It was a fast roll. And a spectacular view out the window watching the world go around there quickly, Melvill explained. "I even had time to pick up a still camera and take some pictures out of the window."
Melvill stressed that the roll rate was very controllable. "I'm not sure what kicked it off," he said. "It probably was something I did." He said that at no time was the control of SpaceShipOne an issue.
Change of pilot
According to Gregg Maryniak, Executive Director of the X Prize Foundation, radar data from the neighboring Edwards Air Force Base tentatively pegged the craft's top altitude at 337,500 feet.
Confirmation of the exact altitude reached, tying together several sources including an onboard "gold box," is expected shortly, Maryniak said, but the flight went above the X Prize qualifying altitude.
Burt Rutan, head of Scaled Composites, the firm that designed and built the rocketplane, said that Melvill was not the pilot slated for today's flight.
The planned pilot fell ill at the same time his wife was giving birth. That unidentified individual felt he was under too much stress to undertake the flight and give a full 100 percent, Rutan said.
The pilot change was made two weeks ago, Rutan said, although Melvill's name was not announced until early this morning. Melvill flew SpaceShipOne into space the fist time in June, in a test run for this week's X Prize attempt.
The unplanned corkscrew maneuver Wednesday was characterized as a "spin-stabilized" roll. Rutan said there's a "known deficiency" in SpaceShipOne that caused the roll.
Wind that hits an airplane from the side causes the craft to roll as a corrective technique, Rutan explained. The same thing applies to SpaceShipOne as it pierces the upper reaches of the atmosphere, although the rocketship "rolls much too much to correct for that," he said.
Despite the deficiency, Rutan said SpaceShipOne is an extremely robust setup. "Any system that will ever go out there and fly space tourists needs to be 100 times or more safer than any manned spacecraft that has ever flown."
There is a clear goal in mind here. Earlier this week, British entrepreneur Richard Branson said he plans to contract for a modified version of SpaceShipOne to carry paying customers into space as early as 2007.
"We are extremely confident that we are going to be able to produce the first space tourism commercial spaceliner that will start out service with reliability, I believe, significantly better than the first airlines had when they started to offer service decades ago," Rutan said.
Ashes of mother flown
After the flight, a ground survey of SpaceShipOne's overall health showed that there is nothing to fix on the vessel, Rutan said.
"You can't believe how happy I am right now," he said.
Rutan revealed that SpaceShipOne carried the ashes of his mother, Irene Rutan. She passed away a few years ago.
"I only thought of doing this last night. We rounded up her ashes...she flew today," Rutan said, his eyes tearing as he spoke.
"I was very, very proud to have carried her," Melvill said.
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