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Rutan spaceship prepares to fly

Sometimes things cross my desk which are so interesting I have to just pass them on verbatim. I’ve been expecting this one for years. In 1999 I walked under the wings of the Proteus high altitude aircraft in the Rutan hanger at Mojave. I knew immediately that Rutan had to be thinking of this as a first stage prototype. I also knew that I would not hear about such a thing until roll out.

Rollout day has finally arrived.

Here is a press release from Huntsville L5.

Huntsville Rocket Man Key Player in First Private Manned Space Program
Legacy Ties to Local HAL5 HALO Program

In the early morning hours of April 18, before the in burning heat blasted the Mojave Desert, the hangar doors swing open to reveal yet another strange craft with the obvious signature of the designer. Burt Rutan, President of Scaled Composites LLC, thus unveiled “The First Private Manned Space Program” with the roll-out of the suborbital SpaceShipOne. SpaceShipOne will be air-launched from the “White Knight” high-altitude research aircraft at 50,000 feet. Once released, SpaceShipOne will fire its rocket engine and climb to over 100 km (62 miles), carrying a crew of three into space on a suborbital flight. The rocket engine that will enable this historic feat was co-developed by Huntsville-native Timothy L. Pickens, who served as the Propulsion Systems Developer for Scaled Composites.

Tim first met Burt Rutan (designer of the famous Voyager aircraft) at an AIAA event in Huntsville in 1998. Because of their common interests, a professional rapport developed that would lead to Burt asking Tim to move to Mojave and lead a very important part of this “history in the making.” From what started out as napkin sketches with Burt in a Huntsville restaurant became what was rolled out in the Mojave. The propulsion concept was very much rooted in the Rocket City. Tim’s contributions to the SpaceShipOne project drew extensively from his involvement in HAL5’s High Altitude Lift-Off (HALO) Program. HALO pioneered the high-altitude launch of hybrid rockets.

Tim’s SpaceShipOne responsibilities included main and RCS propulsion development, nitrous-oxide portable fill station, rocket motor test stand, ECS support, propulsion fluids, and pressurization. Two hybrid motor vendors were selected to handle the fuel pouring, injector/valve design, and engine controller. This allowed Tim to reduce Scaled’s workload, decrease costs, and focus on the complex issues of designing the hybrid rocket motor, fuel case, and nozzle.

SpaceShipOne’s hybrid rocket engine employs a solid fuel grain (HTPB rubber) and a liquid oxidizer (nitrous-oxide), providing greater safety and lower cost than fully solid or liquid rocket engines. Scaled’s hybrid motor also employs a common bulkhead between the oxidizer tank and the motor. Tim’s co-designed the case/throat/nozzle (CTN) which reduced weight and complexity. This approach saves weight and reduces complexity. SpaceShipOne will be the first venture to launch people into space without government money or government technology. Rutan claims this will be accomplished before the 100th anniversary of the first powered flight at Kitty Hawk (17 December 2003).

SpaceShipOne’s Huntsville roots can be seen in HAL5’s Project HALO. HALO’s hybrid rockets utilize either an asphalt or HTPB solid fuel grain with liquid nitrous-oxide that is kept in an oxidizer tank separated by a common bulkhead with the motor case. In 1997, HALO air-launched a hybrid rocket from a high-altitude balloon over the Atlantic Ocean into the edge of space. That HALO mission, designated Sky-Launch 1 (SL-1), is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records 2000 (Millennium Edition) as the highest flight of an amateur rocket (36 nautical miles).

Like SpaceShipOne, HALO SL-1 used no government money, nor hardware. HAL5 had tested a rocket utilizing the same motor design a year before when it launched HALO Ground Launch-1 (GL-1) from a field in Tennessee to about 30,000 feet. In 1998, the group conducted the HALO SL-2 mission from a barge in the Gulf of Mexico. Other projects that spun off from HALO included the Balloon Launched Return Vehicle (1998) and the Cheap Access to Space (CATS) prize launch (2000). The HALO Program began in 1994 with a high-altitude balloon flight, launched from Huntsville’s Space & Rocket Center Alabama. Rocket motor testing at a site just east of Maysville in rural Madison County began early in 1995, followed by dozens of high-altitude balloon flights and hundreds of rocket motor firings. Tim Pickens was the Rocket Lead/System Designer for all of those local HALO and HALO spin-off projects. He was responsible for all mechanical and system designs.

Tim has returned to Huntsville where he continues to support Rutan’s propulsion efforts on a consultant basis. He is currently a propulsion engineer working for Plasma Processes and runs his own propulsion test company called Orion Propulsion located in Gurley, Alabama. Tim has designed and built a rocket-powered bike featured in Custom Bike magazine, and he is currently working on a “James Bond” type rocket belt. Mr. Pickens, who began his serious hybrid rocket work with the HALO Program, has since worked on such noted rocket engines as the RL-10, Fast-Track, the Space Shuttle Main Engines (SSME), and Space America’s 4000-50,000 pound thrust LOX/Kerosene engines. HALO member Glen May currently works for Scaled Composites in Mojave, California as a propulsion technician responsible for many aspects of the program.

Tim and other members of Project HALO will be testing future rocket engines and are available for press interviews on Thursday, 24 April from 7-10 PM, at his rocket workshop located at 104 Lindell Drive in Madison. For more information on Project HALO, please see web site.

HAL5 will host a public presentation by Mr. Pickens on the Huntsville connection to SpaceShipOne at the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library main auditorium on Thursday, 1 May 2003 from 7:00 to 8:30 PM. The public is invited and attendance is free. For more information, please call (256) 971-2020.

HAL5 is the Huntsville Alabama chapter of the National Space Society. It formed in 1983 as a non-profit, 501(c)(3), space educational/advocacy organization. Members share the enthusiasm that space development can stimulate our world with immeasurable benefits in the areas of education, energy, environment, industry, resources, and (ultimately) room to grow for our society. Members believe that by educating and working with the public, the government, and private industry, we can speed up the date when routine, safe, and affordable space travel is available to anyone who wants to go. Tim is helping this to become a reality.

The National Space Society, formed in 1974 by Wernher von Braun, is an independent, non-profit space advocacy organization headquartered in Washington, D.C. Its 23,000 members and over 50 chapters around the world actively promote a spacefaring civilization.

Please note that the NSS was created from the merger of two organizations formed around the same time; Werner Von Braun’s NSI mentioned above, and The L5 Society from which myself and chapters such as Huntsville L5 came from. The two merged in 1987.

Greg Allison, the leader of the HAL5 group is usually seen wandering about the yearly ISDC

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15 comments to Rutan spaceship prepares to fly

  • Walter E. Wallis

    I am proud that I was a contributor to the Voyager project. One of the Rutans said, at the end of that flight, “this is what free men can do” or words to that effect.

  • That is one ugly paint job.

  • mad dog barker

    You can’t be Sirius! This idea is Barking(TM)!

    Rubber granules and Nitrous Oxide. A space ship powered by laughing gas and rubber? The smell alone means it would HAVE to launch at 50.000ft (sorry 16Km) otherwise the ground crew would asphyxiate at takeoff. :0)

    I wonder if you might get better results if you made a big elastic band with all the rubber fuel. One could form it into a human catapalt, get the pilot to inhale all the Nitrous oxide and the let go the rubber band.

    I reckon he’d get very high indeed and after he came round the pilot would probably agree too. But it doesn’t matter how high these guys fly, they’ll never catch me.

    But I like the style. Me, me, me! I wanna go! I can bring my own laughing gas and a box of rubbers, opps, erasers…(do they refill the empties?)

  • I think it looks kind of cool. If I was a James Bond villain, I would be putting in an order right now.

  • Let me add that not only does it look cool, it is extremely cool.

  • sad pedantic git

    “… accomplished before the 100th anniversary of the first powered flight at Kitty Hawk (17 December 2003).”

    Err, a sight technicality but worth (pedantically) pointing out.

    The 100 aniversary of powered flight has come and gone, some decades back now. Atificial powered flight first occured in Chard, Somerset, UK in about 1860(ish). It was steam driven, it was in a barn, but it was powered flight.

    2003 is the 100th aniversary of pilot controlled powered flight.

    The Brits don’t do much – but we should credit them for what they do do, as not everything they make becomes a dodo… :0)

  • Alan

    I think it looks pretty cool too.

    This would seem to put them in front in the X Prize competition.

  • Gentlefolk:

    A bet:

    That one of the X Prize contenders will succeed in launching a new orbital vehicle before NASA does.

    The amount: 10 pounds UK, 15 dollars US, 15 Euros (hey, I’m open to anyone taking this bet). Other currencies subject to availability, stability, exchange rates, etc.

    I’m betting that it will happen.

    Damn, maybe I will come to San Jose, California, Dale.

  • Nick Mallory

    So this is what a Rutan spaceship looks like. The Rutans of course are usually engaged in an endless war with their old foes the Sontarans and the only glimpse of them we’ve had before was in ‘Horror of Fang Rock’ in which the Doctor and Leela foiled a Rutan invasion of Earth centred on a lonely lighthouse in Edwardian days. The explosion of the Rutan ship at the end of the adventure of course changed Leela’s eyes from brown to blue. I hope this one has better luck.

  • Nick, what are you smoking? And where can I get some?

    I must say I did rather fancy Leela.

  • I kind of remember all that, too, Now that Nick refreshes my mind. That he managed to dig it all up from memory is very impressive, though.

  • Malcolm

    What does “sub-orbital” mean?

    Isn’t it that the item hasn’t escaped Earth’s gravity? Excuse my ignorance.

    I believe that generally accepted terms for “space” are mainly concerned with the vacuum, but for me at least vacuum isn’t that different from very very thin air (for the purpose of getting excited about it, anyway), as seen by some weather baloons. When it really gets interesting is when if you put something up there it *stays* up i.e. a stable orbit. Or even close approximations; orbits that decay gradually but don’t require the constant expenditure of massive amounts of fuel really seem to be qualitatively different to situations where this is needed.

    Don’t get me wrong; this is very, very cool, and a major step along the way. But intuitively it doesn’t feel like real “space” unless it doesn’t fall down.

  • Darn you Nick for beating mr to that Doctor Who joke!

  • James

    Malcolm:

    The “Sub-Orbital” flight doesn’t have as much to do with vacuum as it has to do with altitude. The international legal definitation of outer space begins at 100 Km (62 miles) above sea level. This is the requirement to win the X-Prize (www.xprize.org) and be the first non-government sponsored space flight. If altitude is acheaved without the velocity to go into orbit, the vehicle comes back to Earth just like an ICBM.

    Your comments are at least made with intellegence, unlike the stupidity of the comments by mad dog barker who doesn’t have the balls to give a working email address.

  • James

    Malcolm:

    The “Sub-Orbital” flight doesn’t have as much to do with vacuum as it has to do with altitude. The international legal definitation of outer space begins at 100 Km (62 miles) above sea level. This is the requirement to win the X-Prize (www.xprize.org) and be the first non-government sponsored space flight. If altitude is acheaved without the velocity to go into orbit, the vehicle comes back to Earth just like an ICBM.

    Your comments are at least made with intellegence, unlike the stupidity of the comments by mad dog barker who doesn’t have the balls to give a working email address.