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Space Ship One Soars Into History - 2004-07-02


Mojave California is out in the desert about 150 kilometers north of Los Angeles. Mojave is the home of a company called Scaled Composites - its owner Burt Rutan built the Voyager aircraft that circled the earth without refueling. Mojave is where, on June 21, South African born Scaled Composites test pilot Mike Melvill piloted a spacecraft called Space Ship One into history. His story begins 13.8 kilometers above the earth, where the aircraft carrying Space Ship One released it. Mike Melvill describes sudden dangers and his struggle to maintain control.

"When I dropped off the hooks off the mother ship, the White Knight, I lit the motor and started making the turn to the vertical. And as I passed through maybe 58,000 feet (19,000 meters) I got a very, very strong wind blowing from the left side to the right side. It actually rolled the plane violently to the right, and I corrected that thinking I had it made. Then I came out of the wind and it rolled me hard to the left and then I managed to get it straight again. I almost shut it down at that point because I honestly thought I was out of control. But I saw everything straightening up. So, I continued."

The thrust from Space Ship One's rocket engine slammed Mike Melville back into his seat, where he had to contend with G-forces, the phenomenon that multiplies gravity and puts massive strains on the body.

"On the way up, the acceleration of the engine and the turn gives you about a six G in one direction combination which is very, very disorienting and hard on your body. I weigh 72 kilos, so six times that - 436 kilos - was my body weight. So my heart was really struggling. I could feeling it thumping and pumping and trying its best."

In the vacuum of space, any loss of pressure would cause instantaneous death to those aboard the ship. Astronauts and Cosmonauts have special suits that provide protection. Mike Melvill went into space in his shirtsleeves!

"I did not have a G-suit on, and I did not have a pressure suit on. You know, I flew in just my flight suit. I went all the way up there and all the way back and my ears didn't even pop. We had no concerns at all about depressurization. We designed this vehicle from the ground up to be the pressure suit."

Space Ship One was now at the apogee, the highest point of its flight at just over 100 kilometers. The earth's atmosphere was well below as the stars shined above as if it were night. Mike Melvill described it with a sense of wonder.

"The thrill of seeing a blue sky turn to black is mind blowing. The sky above is absolutely jet black, and that's in the middle of the day. The L.A. basin looked like a layer of snow with the sun shining on it. The very dark green, almost black, mountains to the north of Los Angeles, the light tans and browns and ochre of the desert all the way towards Las Vegas - it's absolutely breathtaking. You can clearly see the curvature of the earth. You can see for the first time that we do live on a sphere."

After a few minutes at the top of its flight, in the weightlessness of space, Mike Melvill's spacecraft then began a supersonic plunge back to earth.

"The velocity was 3,400 kilometers per hour. That acceleration is just due to gravity, and because there's no drag in the vacuum of space the acceleration rate is shocking. I was flabbergasted how quickly I got up to Mach 3."

The supersonic plunge also affected Mike Melvill physically and mentally. He described an experience that no roller coaster could ever equal.

"You feel the fall in your stomach for a long way. It was terrifying. The noise as the vehicle starts striking the first molecules of air you can hear the air rushing by and it sounds like a hurricane. And there's a lot of high-frequency vibration going on in the structure, and I really thought it would come apart."

The next challenge was gaining control of the spacecraft as it fell into enough atmosphere to allow Mike Melvill to fly it much like an airplane back where the historic flight began some ninety minutes earlier.

"You're just falling like a stone from 62 miles or 100 kilometers down to about 13 miles before I had any control at all. At 13 miles I suddenly could turn it and steer towards the Mojave airport and land it on a runway."

Mike Melvill now has a pair of astronaut wings, something only a handful of civilian pilots such as Neil Armstrong have earned. Space Ship One has proven that initiative and a mere 20 million dollars can send someone to the edge of space and back. Soon, Mike Melvill and his spaceship plan to compete for the 10 million dollar "X Prize," offered for the first team to make two space flights in two weeks carrying three people or their equivalent weight. The Scaled Composites team says it fully intends to win it.

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