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Burt Rutan wants to fly into space every Tuesday for five months, to test a concept and prove a point. And he wants to do it soon: He may make the first flight before the December 17 Wright brothers centenary.

Chances are, he'll succeed.

That was the buzz in Mojave, California, when Rutan, one of the world's most innovative aircraft designers, recently unveiled what could become the first successful privately funded manned space program, a system composed of two startlingly original vehicles: the insect-like White Knight mother ship, and SpaceShipOne, a winged, rocket-propelled pod slung underneath. The pod will be carried by the airplane to 50,000 feet, then detach and rocket three occupants to suborbital altitude at more than 300,000 feet. There they will experience a brief period of weightlessness and some amazing views before heading back to Earth.

Rutan is best known as the designer of the Voyager, the aircraft that his brother, Dick, and Jeana Yeager flew nonstop around the world on a single tank of gas in 1986. If he can pull off this flight, he and his team could prove that the Holy Grail of reusable spaceship design is in a low-cost spacecraft that can fly safely, frequently and on schedule is within reach at a time when NASA's shuttle program is in a severe technical, administrative and fiscal crisis.

All the hardware built by Rutan so far is ready to go. "This isn't arm waving, this is the real thing," says Jim Benson, CEO of SpaceDev, which is developing a rocket engine for the project.

Rutan obviously has his eye on winning the X Prize, $10 million that will go to the first team to launch a three-person spacecraft to an altitude of 62.5 miles and do it again within two weeks using the same hardware. First announced in 1996 by a St. Louis-based foundation, the X Prize is funded only until the beginning of 2005. Yet Rutan is already looking beyond that money and that deadline: He believes cheap suborbital flight will spark a renaissance in aviation and aerospace design. "If I can do this with my little company," Rutan says of his 100-person firm, Scaled Composites, which is backed in the space venture by an unnamed partner, "there will be a lot more people who say, 'I can do that too.'"

The identity of Rutan's unnamed partner has generated ample speculation. Billionaire Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is one likely suspect. Employees at Allen's company, Vulcan Ventures, won't comment, and Kay LeFebvre, vice president of Scaled Composites, says only that "the customer has asked us to be quiet." That the "customer" might be Allen, a known aerospace enthusiast, is plausible. "Paul and I had many late-night discussions about how cool space travel would be," says Vern Raburn, who helped build Lotus and later managed Allen's investments, and more recently founded Eclipse Aviation, a business-jet manufacturer. Raburn flew with Allen to Mojave in Allen's private Boeing 737 to discuss space exploration ideas with Rutan in 1996, the year Rutan now says his space-vehicle program was kicked off.

In building SpaceShipOne, Rutan took inspiration from the X-15, a NASA/Air Force rocket airplane that was flying routinely to the edge of space from nearby Edwards Air Force Base in 1965, the year Rutan, just graduated from California Polytechnic, arrived there as a civilian flight test engineer. SpaceShipOne "is a lot more like the X-15 than anything else," he says. Like the X-15, the new rocket airplane will ride on a jet-powered mother ship to a midair launch at about 50,000 feet. SpaceShipOne will then tilt up, zoom out of the atmosphere, reenter, and glide unpowered to a runway landing.

Launching a rocket from a jet airplane is extremely efficient. Air-breathing jets use less fuel than rockets but won't work in space, while rockets work better in a vacuum than they do in the atmosphere. Like a multistage rocket, SpaceShipOne, which is powered by a hybrid rocket engine (so called because it burns a solid fuel, a synthetic rubber called HTPB, and a liquid oxidizer, in this case, liquified nitrous oxide, commonly known as laughing gas), flies into space without the tremendous dead weight of the engines and fuel tanks needed to lift off from a launchpad. A ground-launched rocket would be three times as heavy as the 6,000-pound SpaceShipOne.

The White Knight, with two sets of tail-control surfaces and a wide-spaced four-point landing gear, is designed so that SpaceShipOne can be trundled into place underneath. SpaceShipOne, meanwhile, with its teardrop body, multiple windows, thick, sawn-off wings and twin tails, was optimized for vertical flight. It will, when detached from White Knight, go almost straight up and down, covering only 40 miles on the ground, rather than flying as far as 300 miles downrange, as the X-15 did.

The blunt cabin is pressurized and double-skinned so that the occupants don't have to wear space suits. But don't expect an entirely comfortable ride, warns Bill Dana, a retired NASA test pilot who made the last flight in the X-15. "You're pressed into the back of your seat," he recalls. "When you launch and the engine lights, you have 2 Gs chest-to-back." As the X-15 burned fuel, it got lighter and accelerated faster. "On an altitude mission you were at 3.5 Gs at the time of burnout. It approached the pain threshold-the tendons that hold your heart to your chest wall don't usually get stressed [like that]."

SpaceShipOne's rocket motor will burn out after about 65 seconds, after which the craft continues to coast upward for about 20 seconds. At this point, there's no air and the conventional controls will be useless, so the pilot must employ gas jets to control the craft's attitude for another two minutes. During this portion of the flight, the pilot will move a lever to activate another unique feature of SpaceShipOne: The entire aft half of the wing, together with the tails, will hinge upward at a sharp angle. It's a completely original shape rooted in Rutan's concern for both safety and low cost. Airplane-like vehicles such as the X-15 and the shuttle have to enter the atmosphere at precisely the right angle-if you sideslip, you die," says Rutan-and do so with the help of complex automatic control systems. In the flight simulator, X-15 pilots frequently experienced loss of control in the vacuum of space.

Rutan's goal, by contrast, is a relatively carefree reentry. SpaceShipOne falls rather than flies into the atmosphere. The flip-up tail, or "feather," is intended to lock it into a safe, stable attitude without the aid of a costly autopilot. The feather concept evolved from a simpler "shuttlecock" configuration; the design was developed by computers that model airflow around the vehicle. Natural stability was critical to make the craft practical and affordable. "Remember," Rutan explains, "affordable cost is the reason we are doing the program. Unlike the X-15, our feathered entry allows the pilot to enter hands-off. We plan to only grossly line it up for entry, then sit back and let it track by itself. We expect to be able to survive an entry from any attitude, even sideways or backward."

SpaceShipOne's flat reentry creates enormous drag, and the ship starts to decelerate as soon as it hits the atmosphere. This keeps heat loads relatively low, around 1,100°F, which enabled Rutan to build SpaceShipOne from a lightweight carbon-fiber composite and coat it with a "troweled-on" heat-resistant layer. It's a new approach, and the few people who have flown in that envelope advise caution. Rutan, says an X-15 veteran, "is trying to stabilize the vehicle with its configuration alone. He may be successful, but he's going to have to explore his envelope in very small increments. If control looks marginal, he may have to go to an autopilot."

With that in mind, Rutan has set up a step-by-step test program, using a sophisticated simulator, to make flight- testing as safe as possible. Ingeniously, the cockpits of White Knight and SpaceShipOne are almost identical, allowing White Knight to test cockpit systems and, with carefully applied airbrakes, mimic SpaceShipOne's flight characteristics to serve as its boost, approach and landing practice vehicle. "He's approaching it as a research program," says one flight-test engineer. "If he runs into a problem, he can step back and do it again." As for Rutan's chances, he adds: "Any guy who gets up from his dining-room table and tells his wife that he's going to build an airplane to fly around the world and get his brother to fly it, and then goes out and does it - I've just got to listen to him."

The potential of Rutan's design isn't limited to a human payload - it could also loft small, cheap "microsatellites" into orbit for university and military customers. Observing with interest at the crowded unveiling was Gen. Simon Worden, the Air Force's director of space development and transformation. "We're excited about microsatellites," he said, "and we're considering putting serious money into them."

Rutan's historical model is Wilbur Wright's tour of France in 1908, which sparked tremendous growth in the industry. Rutan wants SpaceShipOne to kick-start a similar burst of innovation. Hence his ambitious post-X-Prize testing and demonstration plan: Fly every Tuesday for five months, 20 flights in a row on schedule, to determine the system's cost and reliability. Though he envisions everything from 10- passenger suborbital tour buses to a giant White Knight that uses eight 747 engines to launch a 300-ton spacecraft, Rutan says those are for others to build: "The Wrights didn't build the world's first airliner - they didn't need to," he says. "I hope people don't expect me to certificate a spaceship and offer rides. I want to be doing something more exciting by then."




Very well researched, great sources - I'm impressed! Very well written article, MissedApproach!

So, is Burt really as down to earth as he seems?
That is really cool! I hope to see space flight for passengers become an economic reality during my life.
I just absolutely love
seeing what he comes up with. His work is such an inspiration.
I wonder if thats what it was like watching the pioneers of flight do their work 50 years ago.

Think he can invent a warp drive?
Very well researched, great sources - I'm impressed! Very well written article, MissedApproach!

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Copaman stop, your embarrasing me!

And yes, Burt is as down to earth as he seems.

It's interesting, but I'm skepitcal. This is the same guy that was quoted as saying "If you're not killing people during aerospace research, you're not making progress." That scares me a little bit, though I think he brings up a good point. This guy is willing to go down in a fireball for the sake of research, but Joe down the street is not that willing to take the same risk. My concern comes to the question of whether it's possible at this point in time to make space flight safe enough for the general public. I'm not so sure the question is yes. Heck, airplanes were not the most reliable things for a long period of time.


John Herreshoff
This is hardly space flight. You only even get a few minutes of zero g's, and only at the very top of the 300,000 foot parabola are you "in space".

Nevertheless, Rutan's the man. What a great name for the plane. Now he needs a better moniker than Space Ship One.
I got to meet and have dinner with friends and Burts brother Dick last year, and as for Dick, he's down to earth also. He's somewhat of a no-nonsense guy. Doesn't pull punch's and is pleasant enough. He was saying if he knew what he knew now after the Voyager flight and from the ordeal and incredibly hard work before the flight if he had a chance to do it again he WOULD NOT.
I hope he's successful!

Maybe it might give NASA the jolt that it needs to move beyond studying earthworm reproduction in zero gravity and forge a new pioneering spirit.

Ok...Well, I've got to admit that I feel a little cheated! I grew up watching "Battlestar Galactica", "Space 1999" and "Voltron" so I feel pretty cheated because we're nowhere near where I thought we'd be in the 21st century!

And the fastest I've ever flown was mach .85. Bah! Copaman's flown faster than that before he was legal to even buy beer! And I'm a pilot!
This is hardly space flight. You only even get a few minutes of zero g's, and only at the very top of the 300,000 foot parabola are you "in space".

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Yeah see that's the thing. This thing won't actually go into orbit. The tricky part about orbiting is the following reentry at extremely high velocity. The only way to stay in orbit is to maintain this very velocity. There is no way that that thing could stay together if it mimicked the space shuttles reentry.
Wired magazine had a good in-depth article recently (this month ?). Picture of the main ship on the cover.