First Private Manned Space Flight

One June 21, 2004, at the Civilian Flight Test Center in Mojave, California, the first privately-built and funded space craft flew into space. Scaled Composites, a contender for the Ansari X-Prize, flew its space craft, called SpaceShipOne, to just above the 100 km (62 mile) altitude that marks the division between earth's atmosphere and space. The space craft was designed by aerospace designer Burt Rutan, the CEO, and piloted by VP and test pilot Mike Melville. After the flight, the FAA awarded Melville his wings as the first civilian astronaut. At 63 years of age, Melville is also the oldest man ever to pilot a space craft.

I was there, with camera and wide eyes. :) So was a good friend, Joe Jefferson, who is as big a space nut as I am. So were over ten thousand other people. Here are some pictures Joe and I took. Click any of the photos below to display the full-size photo in a separate window.


The White Knight taxis down the runway for takeoff, with SpaceShipOne attached beneath the fuselage. In the foreground are the heads of some of the large crowd of people present. Taken by Joe Jefferson, who (fortunately) is taller than I am and was able to see over the heads of the crowd!


A Beech Model 2000 Starship, one of two chase planes, flies over the assembled crowd. Burt Rutan, CEO of Scaled Composites, designed this plane as well as the White Knight and SpaceShipOne. Taken by Joe Jefferson.


The assembled crowd, numbering in the thousands, awaits the takeoff of the White Knight and SpaceShipOne. A local country-and-western radio station provided live coverage, celebrating Mojave's return to the world stage eighteen years after the Voyager aircraft's journey around the world.


The White Knight and SpaceShipOne fly over the airport while climbing to 16,000 m (50,000 ft) altitude.


The second of the two Scaled Composites chase planes, the photo plane, passes over the crowd at Mojave Airport. Taken by Joe Jefferson.


As it climbs to the boundary between the lower atmosphere (the trophosphere) and the upper atmosphere (the stratosphere), the White Knight leaves a trail of ice crystals, or a contrail, in its wake.


SpaceShipOne made it into space, but not entirely as planned and not without some problems. The largest problem was the jamming of the controls to the wing surfaces, which steered the craft. It flew a little over 20 miles off of its planned flight path before pilot Mike Melville successfully regained control over the wing surfaces using a backup system. As a result, instead of climbing to almost 114 km (70 miles) altitude, a significant number over the required 100 km (62 mi) to reach space, SpaceShipOne made it into space with less than a kilometer (about a half mile) to spare. This conceptual graphic illustrates the projected and actual flight trajectories.


A four-legged spectator who had no idea what was going on, and wanted someone to explain or at least throw a stick for him to catch! Taken by Joe Jefferson.


SpaceShipOne and both chase planes returning to earth after its historic flight into space.


After successfully flying into space, SpaceShipOne returns for a landing, followed by the "photo plane."


SpaceShipOne moments before landing, with some of the waiting crowd visible in the foreground. Taken by Joe Jefferson.


The White Knight came in low over the Mojave airport, and looped once before coming in for a landing. Taken by Joe Jefferson.


The White Knight above the runway, moments before landing.


Both the Beech Model 2000 Starcraft and "photo plane" chase planes fly by before landing.

The Russian Space Agency and NASA blazed the trail into space, but for space travel to be anything other than an expensive toy for governments, private industry must gain access to space. It now has gained that access, although it still has a long way to go. Reaching space via a suborbital flight, as SpaceShipOne did, is just a first step -- equivalent to Alan Shepard's first suborbital space flight in May 1961, but not to Yuri Gagarin's flight a month earlier, which reached orbit. Reaching orbit requires a much faster space craft than SpaceShipOne -- a space craft capable of accelerating to approximately 10 km/sec (7 mi/sec), compared to the 1 km/sec necessary to reach space.

Fortunately, Scaled Composites is by no means the only X-Prize contender, or only private company working to put men in space. Check out the list of X-Prize contenders on the X-Prize home page to find out who else is competing for the X-Prize. The X-Prize home page also has some cool pictures of SpaceShipOne and the White Knight. Finally, has complete coverage of SpaceShipOne, including articles and many pictures.

Last modified on Thursday, October 23, 2008 at 8:40 AM PDT.