Skip to comments.Passenger-Carrying Spaceship Makes Desert Debut
Posted on 04/18/2003 1:45:40 PM PDT by Andy from Beaverton
The wraps are coming off what is billed as the "First Private Manned Space Program" and a new, never-seen spaceship.
Aggressive work on a passenger-carrying sub-orbital craft has been active and hidden from public view for two years.
Labeled as the SpaceShipOne Project, the unveiling comes courtesy of Scaled Composites, Inc. -- highly regarded as a leader in innovative aircraft development -- and based in the Mojave, California desert, about 80 miles north of Los Angeles.
Noted design wizard, Burt Rutan, is lead maverick of the space project and is the firm's president and chief executive officer. He makes no bones about what's behind the hush-hush project.
"Scaled Composites is tired of waiting for others to provide affordable human space access," Rutan said.
Over the last few years, considerable effort has been secretly underway at the company's desert site. Experts at Scaled Composites are confident they've designed a system that supports suborbital flight - drawing from earlier aircraft design work, particularly the high-altitude Proteus vehicle.
From behind closed hangar doors their stealthy product was rolled out today.
"The event is not about dreams, predictions or mockups," Rutan explained in a pre-debut statement. "We will show actual flight hardware: an aircraft for high-altitude airborne launch, a flight-ready manned spaceship, a new, ground-tested rocket propulsion system and much more. This is not just the development of another research aircraft, but a complete manned space program with all its support elements," he said.
Rutan makes it clear that the unveiling is not a marketing event.
"We are not seeking funding and are not selling anything. We are in the middle of an important research program to see if manned space access can be done by other than the expensive government programs," Rutan explained.
Rutan said that after today, plans call for his group to go "back into hiding," to complete the flight tests and conduct the space flights.
Point and shoot
While details of the project are being revealed today, in past years some aspects of the direction Rutan and his fellow rocketeers were headed were openly discussed.
Using a derivative of Proteus, space-launch operations are made possible. By changing out aircraft sections and configuring the vehicle to carry large external payloads, both suborbital and orbital booster operations could be carried out.
As example, in October of 2000, the Proteus set several world records for performance in its weight class, one being flight up to 62,786 feet toting a 2,200-pound (1,000-kilogram) payload.
Vehicles launched from Proteus could take advantage of a "point and shoot" capability. This requires the carrier aircraft to be positioned to a select attitude -- including vertical for suborbital sounding rockets and astronaut flights -- before booster separation and ignition.
According to earlier thinking, this approach would allow lofting a three-person single-stage fully reusable spaceship up to 112 miles (180 kilometers), giving those onboard some five minutes of microgravity. In addition, two-stage expendable boosters could be lobbed skyward from the aircraft, placing micro-satellite payloads of up to 80 pounds (36 kilograms) into low Earth orbit.
Initially, operating cost goals for the Proteus system, including booster, were pegged at less than less than $50,000 per seat for astronauts and $500,000 per launch for micro-satellites.
Hybrid rocket propulsion
Scaled Composites has been working with SpaceDev of Poway, California to evaluate use of a hybrid rocket propulsion system for the SpaceShipOne program.
Jim Benson, founding chairman and chief executive of SpaceDev, told SPACE.com that hybrid rocket propulsion is a safe and low-cost capability. Work on an advanced hybrid rocket motor has resulted in successful test firings, he said.
Benson said the company's motor design is thought to be the largest of its type in the world. It uses clean and inexpensive propellants, namely Nitrous Oxide (Laughing Gas) and HTPB (tire rubber).
For sub-orbital manned vehicles, Benson said, hybrid is ideal, not only for reaching the desired altitude, but due to propulsion system safety features. They far outweigh the higher performance of dangerous liquid or solid rocket motors, he said, which, unlike hybrids, can explode.
Hybrid rockets are non-explosive, and their responsiveness, affordability and simplicity of operation make them ideal for high-reliability manned or unmanned, orbital or sub-orbital applications, Benson said.
Eyes on the prize
One clear ambition of Rutan is to snag the X Prize purse of $10 million. The competition is patterned from the more than 100 aviation prizes offered in the early 20th Century. Those purses kick-started today's $300 billion-dollar commercial air transport industry.
The most significant of these prizes was the Orteig Prize, won by Charles Lindbergh for his 1927 flight from New York to Paris.
To win the X Prize, private teams must finance, build and fly a three-person spacecraft 62 miles (100 km) to the edge of space, return safely, and then demonstrate the reusability of their vehicle by flying it again within two-weeks.
The goal of the St. Louis, Missouri-based X Prize Foundation is to make space travel frequent and affordable for the general public.
Based on an earlier statement, Rutan has clearly been keeping his eyes on the prize.
"It would not be an understatement to say that the X Prize has already had an effect on me. I have never been as creative as I have been in the past few months," Rutan explains on the X Prize web site.
"The X Prize competition, more than anything else on this Earth, has the ability to help make private spaceflight and space tourism a reality. By creating the X Prize, the St. Louis leaders have taken an important page from aviation history and created an opportunity for a modern day Orteig to step forward and open the door to a whole new industry," Rutan said.
He will have a lot of allies, but the Feds own everything, especially the air and the water. If he can get to space without burning through the air, he might make it. The king does not like to lose subjects.