Rutan unveils manned suborbital spacecraft
BY JEFF FOUST
Posted: April 22, 2003
At an event attended by several hundred invited guests at the headquarters of Rutan's company, Scaled Composites, in Mojave, California, Rutan displayed for the first time both the SpaceShipOne rocket-powered suborbital vehicle and the White Knight aircraft that will carry it aloft. Guests of the event ranged from Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin and Apollo-era spacecraft designer Max Faget to space tourist Dennis Tito and balloonist Steve Fossett.
Rutan's custom-built "B-52", the White Knight aircraft, is designed to carry SpaceShipOne under its fuselage. On a typical flight, the White Knight would fly to an altitude of about 15,000 meters before releasing SpaceShipOne. Once clear of the aircraft, SpaceShipOne will fire its single rocket engine and bank into a steep climb. The engine will burn for just over a minute, putting the spacecraft on a trajectory to reach an altitude of 100 kilometers, a widely-accepted definition of the boundary between the atmosphere and space.
After passing through its peak altitude, SpaceShipOne will quickly descend, again on a steep trajectory. To cope with the heat of reentry the spacecraft has a unique feature: the trailing edge of its wings, and the twin tail sections attached to them, rise from the horizontal to nearly the vertical position. This reconfiguration puts the spacecraft into a stable, "carefree" orientation, making it less susceptible to errors in the angle of attack. This is a far cry from the X-15 and space shuttle, which must be carefully oriented for reentry. "We go straight into the atmosphere for reentry without ever touching the controls," Rutan said.
SpaceShipOne will be powered by a single hybrid-propellant rocket engine, using nitrous oxide oxidizer and rubber fuel. Much of the propulsion system will not be developed by Scaled; as Rutan noted, "we're not rocket scientists here." With propulsion systems from major engine developers too expensive, and concerned about putting such a critical system in the hands of a single, small company, Scaled is instead running a competition. Two companies, Environmental Aerosciences Corporation and SpaceDev, are each developing and testing engines, one of which will be selected for use on SpaceShipOne. Rutan would not disclose when he would select a winning design, but a source with one of the competing companies said that a decision would likely come late this year.
Igniting an aerospace 'renaissance'
Despite the current state of human spaceflight, Rutan believes that it is possible for vehicles like SpaceShipOne to create a renaissance like the one in aviation nearly a century ago. "I believe I can do it," he said, "and if I can, there will be a lot of other people who will also believe they can do it too."
Indeed, the shroud of secrecy that has surrounded this program prior to Friday's event will likely remain in place for the foreseeable future. "We're not going to have any press conferences during the test regime," Rutan said. Instead, Scaled will post a monthly summary of the events that took place in the last month of the test program, but not what is scheduled to take place in the next month. "We'll tell what we have done, not what we're going to do," he said.
While SpaceShipOne is clearly designed to win the X Prize, a competition designed to foster space tourism, there is no evidence that SpaceShipOne will ever see commercial service. Rutan said that SpaceShipOne would be certified as an "experimental research and development glider", which means that the spacecraft could not be put into commercial service. According to Scaled documents there are no plans to offer rides in SpaceShipOne; the vehicle will instead be used for flight tests to determine what the operational cost of the vehicle would be "without the burden of regulatory costs." Rutan suggested that "you might think of this as a subscale proof-of-concept design for a ten-person spacecraft" that would be better suited to serve space tourism markets.
While focused on the near-term development and testing of SpaceShipOne, Rutan seems content to wait decades for history to judge his efforts. "If, 20 or 30 years from now, there is super-affordable space access, people will look back and they'll say that what we went out and did helped make that happen," he said. "If that happens, if there is even just a tiny bit that we did that inspired others, then that's everything."
NEW! This remarkable calendar features stunning images of planets, stars, gaseous nebulae, and galaxies captured by NASA's orbiting Hubble Space Telescope .
U.K. & WORLDWIDE STORE
Stunning posters featuring images from the Hubble Space Telescope and world-renowned astrophotographer David Malin are now available from the Astronomy Now Store.
U.K. & WORLDWIDE STORE