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Rutan's rocket ready to go

Published by Robin on Sun Sep 26, 2004 10:52 pm
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SpaceShipOne chases $10 million
By ALLISON GATLIN, Valley Press Staff Writer

This story appeared in the Antelope Valley Press on Sunday, September 26, 2004.

MOJAVE – A 21st-century space race is set to officially take off Wednesday with the first flight attempt by the Burt Rutan-designed spacecraft SpaceShipOne toward claiming the $10 million Ansari X-Prize.

All eyes are on Mojave Airport as preparations are under way to play host to yet another gathering of tens of thousands of space enthusiasts, aviation buffs and the international media for the noteworthy flight.

The SpaceShipOne team already claimed a historic first as the only privately funded manned space program to reach suborbital space with a successful June 21 flight to 328,000 feet.

The feat made pilot Mike Melvill the nation’s first civilian astronaut in a nongovernment program.

Now Mojave Aerospace Ventures – the partnership between Rutan’s Scaled Composites and billionaire investor Paul G. Allen, co-founder of Microsoft – is going for the gold.

The Ansari X-Prize competition, intended to jump-start the commercial space-travel industry, will award $10 million to the first privately funded team to successfully build and launch a spacecraft capable of carrying three people to 100 kilometers – 328,000 feet – and safely returning to Earth, then turning around and duplicating the feat with the same ship within two weeks.

SpaceShipOne’s first flight for the competition is scheduled to take off from the Mojave Airport runway shortly before 7 a.m. Wednesday morning, weather permitting.

The public is invited to the airport to share in the noteworthy flight.

Entrance to the general public viewing area is $20 per car with up to eight passengers; $50 for larger vehicles. Overnight parking for self-contained recreational vehicles is available for $100.

Gates to the general viewing area will open at 3 a.m. Gates to the overnight RV parking open at 5 p.m. Tuesday. Organizers recommend arriving early to be in position to witness the take-off.

Traffic updates will be available Wednesday morning on radio station KLOA, 104.3 FM.

“The whole point is to make this easy and fun for people,” event organizer Wayne Hammack said.

For those unable to attend in person, the X-Prize Foundation will present a live Webcast, beginning at 6 a.m. at www.xprize.org/webcast. The Webcast will show the flight from various angles and include commentary from event sponsors, X-Prize Foundation executives and Mojave Aerospace Ventures team members.

The public viewing area fronts the runway where the spacecraft will take off beneath its White Knight carrier aircraft and where both vehicles will touch down upon return.

A public address system will provide some narration for the morning’s activities.

The White Knight takes about an hour to carry the spacecraft to launch altitude, approximately 50,000 feet, in restricted airspace just east of Mojave.

After the craft drops away from its mother ship, the SpaceShipOne pilot will light the hybrid rocket engine for a run of under two minutes, reaching Mach 3 in a vertical climb. This will be visible from the ground as a streak of white against the sky.

After the rocket engine shuts down, the spacecraft will continue coasting to the goal altitude. The pilot will experience a period of weightlessness for more than three minutes at the height of the flight, according to Scaled officials, and will see the blackness of space against the blue line of Earth’s atmosphere on the horizon.

The return glide flight will take about 20 to 30 minutes before SpaceShipOne lands on the same runway from which it took off.

The takeoff and landing will be visible to the public, as will the tell-tale streak of the rocket boost in the sky overhead.

Within the viewing area, souvenirs and food will be available for sale.

In addition to X-Prize merchandise, an organization of local charities – the Rocket Boosters – will sell exclusive SpaceShipOne souvenirs, everything from T-shirts and hats to mugs and postcards. For those already familiar with the organization’s merchandise from the June flight, the boosters have added new patches, pins, postcards and tote bags to their offerings, organizer Glenda Willie said.

Proceeds from the Rocket Boosters’ sales are dispersed among the nonprofit groups taking part.

A small army of volunteers and others will be in place to ensure the event runs smoothly, using lessons learned from the June 21 launch.

More than 55 cadets from Civil Air Patrol units all over California will take care of parking and crowd control duties Wednesday morning.

“It’s like being at an Apollo launch,” said Maureen Pride, commander of Pancho Barnes Composite Squadron 49 of the Civil Air Patrol. “They’re very excited to be there.”

Members of the Kern County Sheriff’s Department and California Highway Patrol will augment the airport security team, ensuring public safety and traffic flow.

The teams operate under contract to the X-Prize Foundation and are in addition to the regular patrols , said Lt. Dana Leach, commander of the Mojave CHP office.

Some 27,000 people turned out at the airport to witness the June flight.

The brainchild of famed aircraft designer Burt Rutan, SpaceShipOne is designed to be air-launched from the White Knight carrier aircraft, then use a rocket engine to boost it to 100 kilometers – 62.5 miles – above the Earth, where the occupants experience weightlessness and see the blackness of space. Completing an arc, the spacecraft descends to a runway landing, much like a glider.

Although the competition requires two flights within the two-week window, Rutan’s team is preparing for three flights, in case one fails to reach the specified altitude.

With Sept. 29 as the opening date, the team has until Oct. 13 to successfully complete two flights. If all goes well, Rutan said the second flight could be as early as Oct. 4, the 47th anniversary of the Sputnik launch.

The competition requires the spacecraft to carry three passengers or one pilot and the equivalent weight of two more, for a total of 270 kilograms (approximately 600 pounds).

Pilots for the flights have not been announced yet, but will be chosen from three who have flown at least one rocket-powered flight each: Melvill, Peter Siebold and Brian Binnie.

agatlin@avpress.com

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