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The Dawn of the Space Age

Here are the official Press Releases. Microsoft billionaire Paul G. Allen has used the event as an opportunity to admit what everyone knew: he is the secret backer of the Rutan’s project. The second release is the official announcement of the flight, warts and all.

They reached 68,000 feet after a 15 second burn and hit Mach 1.2 during the flight.

I’m not all that surprised they went supersonic. I was thinking about the issue and suspected the thrust to weight on that craft is such they’d have little other choice for a serious test. I’ve been watching them gradually build up the test profile over the last couple months. Even so, I was a bit surprised to see the first powered flight of SpaceShipOne push the envelope as aggressively as it did.

They have tested it several times in a sort of hammerhead stall if the picture I get from the test documents is right. They let it fall off the top in a stall and then recover control. The vertical stall at altitude is part of the testing for recovery of control on re-entry. As I understand it, they do not have an RCS (Reaction Control System, what you use when there ain’t no air for ailerons). If true, they will be more cautious as they begin probing non-aerodynamic altitudes as they are depending on the inherent balance of the ship to keep it facing forwards and rightside up.

From here on out, they are reaching for Space. They’ll take SpaceShipOne higher and faster flight by flight until they finally put some vacuum under her tail.

Those supporting the government position have said high costs are inherent in space flight. The short time scale, low costs and aggressive testing program of Scaled Composites should be an eye-opener to those nay-sayers. What I and others have been writing for nearly a quarter of a century is correct. The rocketmen are not underestimating the cost of space. It is the government and government contractors who have been “ripping the arse” out of the public purse.

After twenty-five years of the blood, sweat and tears of pioneering rocketmen from Zaire to Matagordo Island to San Francisco Bay to Vandenberg we have proven our case. Scaled Composites is not alone. There are others close behind them. Many first flights will happen this decade in a reprise of the totally private aviation of 1903-1910.

It is the end of the beginning and a marvelous time to be alive.

Note: Doug Jones reports SpaceShipOne has a cold gas RCS. I find this very comforting.

18 comments to The Dawn of the Space Age

  • eric

    “putting vacuum under her tail”—bit of a mixed metaphor, don’tcha think?

    Still, This is pretty impressive.

  • Cydonia

    It is interesting to see private philanthropy in this field.

    It makes me wonder if there are ANY aspects of human endeavour that would not benefit from such philanthropy, in the absence of subsidy by the State.


  • Dale Amon

    Tim: It’s not a metaphor. A cute turn of phrase perhaps, but accurate reflection of reality. When the tail control surfaces are in vacuum, you stop being an airplane and become a true spaceship.

    Cydonia: Paul Allen is not doing this for philanthropic purposes, other than chosing this way of *investing* his money over other less risky alternatives. There is no Space Age until people flying in space is a profitable venture. If an ex Dark Lord of MS makes another hundred billion of it, more power to him I say! It brings the day when *I* fly that much closer.

    And that is the whole point of it all.

  • Dale, I’m sorry you’re a bit under the weather, but delighted that you’ve heard the wonderful news. I’d have dropped you a friendly spacer note when I blogged about this, but I hadn’t your email.

    I want to highlight the *good* news about the landing; this ship is robust enough to be readily repaired. No costly redesigns, no agonizing materials and structural reviews — the Scaled team will simply turn to and FIX the problem.

    It’s a stake in the heart of the “spaceships are too complex, too fragile, too tempermental” meme. And high time, says I.

  • Tim


    I have enjoyed reading your up-dates on this and the other scientific subjects you post on, even though the technical stuff goes right over my head.

    But I owe you a specific “thank you” for this post. That a project of the scope of SpaceShipOne is funded by a private individual as opposed to government simply never occurred to me. This is one of those head shake moments when the extent of what’s possible expands beyond every previous notion.

    I also owe you an apology too. I am very slow and have only just made the connection between your posting on the subjects you post on and the fact that you post them on Samizdata. Sorry!


  • Alan


    thanks for posting this material. Indeed these are exciting times – a pity that the mainstream media has not reported on this more widely (or have I missed something?).

    A challenge to your predictive abilities – when do you think they’ll achieve suborbital flight and how far away do you think we are from the first privately funded orbital flight??


  • Dale Amon

    De Doc: As an example of what you are saying. The last time I was in that area and visited the Rutan hanger, one of the guys pointed out how the horizontal parts of the tail on Proteus had been changed after some testing. They got a chainsaw, hacked off parts of it, added in a bit of dihedral, laid up some more composite material to reshape it…

    The biggest problem is not the flight damage. It is finding the reason for the gear failure. These things *do* happen, but there is also the possibility the fault is due to emersion in temperatures lower than it was intended for or due to the rarified air at 68K. There are so many possibilities it would be a waste of time for me to go into them unless I knew a lot more about the actual gear lowering mechanism. (motor, hydraulic, compressed gas…)

    There are other tricky problems as you go to the edge of space and beyond. One that many aren’t aware of is that at a certain altitude the air is thin but largely ionized… so you can get destructive arcing in unprotected electronics.

  • Dale Amon


    They are very, very close. The unknowns I face right now as an outsider are:

    * was the gear problem minor or systemic?
    If it was minor, then give them say 2-4 weeks at most before
    the next test, depending on the extent of the problem. If it is
    systemic, they have to do something different with the gear mechanism and then you are talking 4 weeks minimum.

    * how sure are they of the stability under non-aerodynamic conditions?
    If they are very sure, they might do only one or two more tests before going for it. If they are unsure, they might sneak up on it a little bit at a time.

    The key datum is the parameters on the next flight test. I’ll be able to tell a lot about what they are thinking by where they go on engine test #2.

    I don’t think they will go suborbital on the next flight. I’ll guess the first suborbital flight will almost certainly happen by mid-March. It could be as early as late January/early February depending on the above.

    I’d rather hold my predictive options open until I see more flight test data. It was easy to read where they were going in aerodynamic tests. It is not so easy to see how they will approach the non-aero regime.

  • Dale, SS1 does have a cold gas RCS, using compressed air that also powers the feather mechanism, see Scaled’s info for details.

    The speed and acceleration were emphasized by the thin cirrus clouds that gave some texture to compare it to- Mike Massee shot some
    good video (with various comments in the background over the radio scanner).

    Big congratulations to the Scaled Composites team!

  • Dale Amon

    Thanks Doug. I was rather troubled by the idea that they might not…

    That being the case, they are not very far away from a full flight envelope. They probably will want to dice with exoatmospheric flight before diving in, but it should be no big deal.

    I’ll be interested in hearing what happened to the gear. My worry is that they had problems with high altitude conditions. Without knowing how they do gear down and lock, I can’t really guess what.

  • Dale Amon

    Nice film clip. Was that Aleta’s voice in the background near the beginning?

  • JoeB

    I am amazed that the US media has given this ZERO air time. Nada. Zilch. Zip. Zero. Nothing.

    Then again, since this would be the first step to the “privatization” of space travel, they will do everything to ignore it. When that fails, they will sniff about “safety concerns” and cluck about the “troubling idea of privatizing space travel”, and how “space should be free for all mankind”, and other such drivel.

    The disaster of the space shuttle program is ample evidence of the failure of government programs. Had NASA been a private company, the press (and the lawyers) would have eaten them alive. Instead, we get blue ribbon committees that investigate the accident and then bury the report.

  • Douglas in AZ

    Here is a link to the Scaled Composites web site (more specifically, the websites’ photo index); it includes some really fine photos of the craft with the candle lit:

    Spaceship One Photos

  • Eric Sivula

    Actaully Joe, I heard about this on Fox news several days ago. Not much, just a short blurb calling it a ‘privately designed and built aircraft’, but they did mention that they builders were trying to make a space capable vehicle.

    Not much, but better than nothing.

  • Douglas in AZ

    I don’t like to see these things, but this is what test flights are for:

    Spaceship One Landing “Mishap”

  • From what I’ve read elsewhere it sounds like the approach on landing was steeper than intended, and the landing system wasn’t designed for the level of force it experienced.

    Excellent Tim! Remember to tell all your friends that space isn’t for govt., it should be for all of us! And private industry like this is the only way we’ll have a sustainable presence there.

    Whoever asked how close to orbit they’ll be with this craft, it’ll take about 25 time the energy (5 times the velocity) to achieve orbit as a ship that wins the X-Prize will have gotten to. Which seems like (and is) a lot more than where they’re at now, but operational experience and the incremental development approaches taken by Scaled Comp. and other private ventures will get us there a lot cheaper in the end than top down, socialistic govt. space programs.

  • “Had NASA been a private company, the press (and the lawyers) would have eaten them alive.”

    And you wonder why it was a government program in the first place.

  • Marcus Lindroos

    > Paul Allen is not doing this for philanthropic
    > purposes, other than chosing this way of
    > *investing* his money over other less risky
    > alternatives.

    Hello Dale. Have you personally discussed this with him?

    To me, it sounds more likely that he is doing it for philantropic reasons or because he thinks the P.R. aspect is useful.

    Key elements of SpaceShipOne such as partially reusable rocket engine are *not* very suitable for routine commercial operation. It seems to be a venture that’s narrowly focused on winning the X-Prize for now, although the Proteus carrier aircraft is a multimission platform.

    I also think the quoted cost figures tend to support rather than refute the claims that “space in expensive.” If the SpaceShipOne project has cost $30 million+ so far despite utilizing the simplest, least challenging design imaginable (=focus on development cost rather than operations), how much will it cost to develop a safe commercial suborbital passenger vehicle…?