Rutan unveils manned suborbital spacecraft

Posted: April 22, 2003

The SpaceShipOne is unveiled. Photo: Jeff Foust
Famous aircraft designer Burt Rutan ended months of speculation Friday when he publicly unveiled an aircraft and a spacecraft that together offer what his company calls "the first private manned space program."

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.

Spacecraft design
SpaceShipOne is, in essence, an air-launched rocket-powered aircraft that flies to the edge of space and glides back to Earth for a runway landing. It is a direct descendent of the X-15 and even the X-1 rocket-powered experimental aircraft. "The program is a lot like the X-15, but we had a minor annoyance: we had to build our own B-52," Rutan quipped, referring to the bomber that carried the X-15 aloft.

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.

Photo: Jeff Foust
After reentry, at an altitude of about 24,000 meters, SpaceShipOne lowers its wings and tails back to the horizontal position and becomes a glider. It is designed to glide for distances of up to 65 kilometers, allowing it to land back at the runway where it and the White Knight took off from even if there was a significant error in the angle of its initial trajectory. For at least the planned series of test flights, the takeoffs and landings will occur in Mojave, although the rocket flight portions will take place in restricted airspace over nearby Edwards Air Force Base.

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'
Rutan, fighting laryngitis during his speech, said he is developing this private spacecraft now in the hopes of igniting a "renaissance" in spacecraft development similar to the one seen in aviation between 1909-1912. While by 1908 only the pilots had flown, by the end of this three-year aviation renaissance hundreds of aircraft types had been developed and thousands of pilots had flown. The development of a private suborbital spacecraft could create a similar renaissance in spaceflight to end the decades of stagnation in government-run programs, Rutan said.

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."

Secret plans
The timeline for the SpaceShipOne flight test program is shrouded in secrecy. Rutan hinted that the first phase of the flight test program, captive carry test flights where SpaceShipOne is carried aloft under White Knight but not released, would begin in the very near future, with glide tests taking place afterwards in the next few months. However, Rutan refused to disclose any schedule for later flight tests, or even when the first rocket-powered flight or first flight into space would take place. Part of that reticence to disclose information, Rutan explained, is because "we just don't know yet" how many test flights will be required.

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.

Photo: Jeff Foust
A similar uncertainty hangs around the financial status of the project and its future plans. Rutan said that when Scaled started work on the project in April 2001, "I went out to look for money and immediately found it." Rutan would not disclose how much he raised, or from whom, but when asked if the $10 million X Prize would allow the program to pay for itself, he simply answered, "No." A list of frequently asked questions provided by Scaled said that the total cost of the development program is not known yet but "projections place it close to a Soyuz ride," suggesting a cost on the order of $20 million.

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."

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