Monday, the first commercial rocket with a civilian astronaut successfully traveled to space, high above the California desert. The men behind the milestone, designer Burt Rutan and investor Paul Allen, say it marks the start of an era of private space travel. However, some obstacles remain as the California team, and more than two dozen others, compete for a $10 million incentive called the X Prize.
Test pilot Mike Melvill achieved an aviation milestone as he touched down on a desert runway after a short trip into space.
In a post-flight briefing, designer Burt Rutan asked observers how they felt as the craft landed. "What did you feel? You know, up in mission control, there were about three other occasions during the flight that we felt exactly the same," he said.
He says the first burst of emotion came at the rocket's brief transition past 100 kilometers, the imaginary point that marks the beginning of space. Other outbursts came with successful operation of a movable wing and tail, which swung up to create drag and to slow the rocket's re-entry, and the return of the assembly to a lower position to let the craft glide in for a landing.
The flight was historic, said the designer, but there were problems. "It was not a nominal [normal] flight," he said.
He says the biggest problem was in a critical system called the trim control, which helps stabilize and steer the craft in the atmosphere. The pilot turned to a backup system, but was slightly off trajectory and did not travel quite as high as expected. The ship re-entered the atmosphere 35 kilometers from the intended re-entry window.
But SpaceShipOne pierced the barrier of space by 120 meters, and as it left the atmosphere, pilot Melvill had time to throw some colored candies in the air, and marvel at them spinning in the weightless environment.
"And they just spun around, like little sparkling things. And I was so blown away, I couldn't even fly the airplane," he said.
He soon got back to business and, after a slow descent, glided to a near perfect landing.
The 63-year-old pilot became the first civilian astronaut, a fact confirmed by Patti Grace Smith of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. "I am very pleased and honored to present for the very first time these FAA commercial astronaut wings to Mike Melvill in recognition of this tremendous achievement," he said.
The successful flight brought praise for designer Rutan. Until now, he was best known for his Voyager aircraft, which was flown around the world in 1986 without refueling.
Mr. Rutan's aerospace company, called Scaled Composites, does contract work for the space agency NASA and major aerospace companies. In its cooperative venture with investor Paul Allen, it leads the competition for the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million award funded largely by Iranian American entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari.
There are additional requirements for a formal attempt at the X Prize. A ship must travel to space twice in a two-week period, with a pilot and enough room for two passengers. It must carry added weight equal to that of two people, about 180 kilograms, but only the pilot need be on board for the dangerous flight.
Peter Diamandis, cofounder of the X Prize, says more than two dozen teams around the world are competing, and that several are ready for flights later this year.
He says the achievement of Burt Rutan's team has added new excitement to the competition. "It's fun for everybody and the world's watching. And hopefully kids from five to 45 are watching and enjoying this and dreaming with the rest of us."
For his historic flight, pilot Mike Melvill wore a horseshoe-shaped charm on his flight suit, which he commissioned from a jeweler 44 years ago for his future wife. "I've worn it on my shoulder every flight. And so far, it's kept the luck for me," he said.
He will wear it again if he competes for the X Prize. First, says designer Burt Rutan, the team must correct the problems on its historic mission, the first privately funded manned flight into space.