Gray Watson Personal Thoughts 2004.06.22
Go Space Ship One

SpaceShipOne beneath the
White Knight

If you missed it, yesterday June 21, 2004 at about the Scaled Composite's SpaceShipOne vehicle was launched and flew to an altitude of to 100.124km, crossing into space high over Mojave, CA . The spacecraft is a design from the always innovative and legendary aircraft designer Burt Rutan. Built within 3 years by a small team with $30 million from Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Scaled's goal is to win the coveted $10 million Ansari X Prize to take 3 people up to 100km 2 times within 2 weeks in the same reusable non-government sponsored craft.

The spacecraft is flown up to 14km by the White Knight launch vehicle which was also designed by Rutan. At that point the ship is dropped, is pointed up, and the rocket is lit. SpaceShipOne's hybrid motor is loaded 600 pounds of rubber and 3000 pounds of liquefied nitrous oxide (laughing gas) which should be enough to boost the ship to an altitude of 128km. The flight has some significant trim issues and a couple of backup system saved the day but the team will be pushing hard to fix the problems and get the prize which is being withdrawn at the end of 2004. Spaceflightnow has a great article about the launch.

The top picture on the right shows the space ship with it's blue speckled nose slung beneath the White Knight. Click for larger versions. The middle picture is a shot of the cockpit of SS1 as it coasts down towards a gliding landing. Notice the Garmen GPS above the display and the Radio Shack white indoor/outdoor temperature guage on the upper left. Also, the cockpit has small circular viewports which I'm sure are much stronger than a larger window. The bottom picture is of the SS1's wings in their feather orientation -- another Rutan innovation. When falling back to earth, the wings fold up into a badminton "birdy" or shuttlecock shape creating enormous aerodynamic drag allowing the vehicle to balance the reentry heat over its entire surface.

Cockpit inside

Who Cares?

You might say, who cares? In the face of the Iraq war nightmare, the AIDS epidemic, global terrorism fears, economic pressures, etc., etc. why should we care about space? The thing that really excites me about this day is that this is a privately funded venture -- the first business in space. This is the start of the new space race and possibly the space age. The space shuttle is the most complex vehicle ever to fly yet NASA has to go on ebay to get the 8086 chips for their controllers. It is incredibly expensive to fly and, as the Challenger and Columbia disasters have demonstrated, it is a very brittle launch vehicle.

NASA has a ~$16 billion budget (in 2003) and I don't think American's are getting a good return on the investment. Market forces should be running the business of space with NASA (like a combination of FAA and NSF) left to oversight and heavy science. If there is money to support manned space science labs or manufacturing facilities then the market will finance it else it will have to wait for cheaper launch fees or new technology. If space tourism wants to support the $10,000 booster trip or the $10 million space station vacation then fine.

Picture of SS1 Feathered

As I mention in my Death of Columbia piece I have a couple of specific reasons why I think that space is important.

I heartily congratulate the Scaled Composite team and I'll be eagerly following the news from the Mojave Space Port on their attempt at the X-Prize later in the year. The ball has started rolling and I wouldn't be surprised if the near future pace of space race exploration makes the computer age advances look like they were moving in slow motion.

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