Eleven years ago this week, Scaled Composite’s SpaceShipOne flew to an altitude of 62.214 statute miles. The flight marked the first time that a privately-developed flight vehicle had flown above the 62-statute mile boundary that entitles the flight crew to FAI-certified astronaut wings. As a result, SpaceShipOne pilot Mike Melvill became history’s first private citizen astronaut.
On Monday, 21 June 2004, SpaceShipOne Mission 15P began with departure from California’s Mojave Spaceport at 0647 PDT. Carrying SpaceShipOne at the centerline station, Scaled’s White Knight aircraft climbed to the drop altitude of 47,000 feet.
At 0750 PDT, the 7,900-pound SpaceShipOne fell away from the White Knight and Melvill immediately ignited the 16,650-pound thrust hybrid rocket motor. Melvill quickly then pulled SpaceShipOne into a vertical climb.
Passing through 60,000 feet, SpaceShipOne experienced a series of uncommanded rolls as it encountered a wind shear. Melvill struggled with the controls in an attempt to arrest the roll transient. Then, late in the boost, the vehicle lost primary pitch trim control. In response, Melvill switched to the back-up system as he continued the ascent.
Rocket motor burnout occurred at 180,000 feet with SpaceShipOne traveling at 2,150 mph. It now only weighed 2,600 pounds. The vehicle then coasted to an apogee of 62.214 statute miles (328,490 feet). The target maximum altitude was 68.182 statute miles (360,000 feet). However, the control problems encountered going upstairs caused the trajectory to veer somewhat from the vertical.
Melvill experienced approximately 3.5 minutes of zero-g flight going over the top. He had some fun during this period as he released a bunch of M&M’s and watched the chocolate candy pieces float in the SpaceShipOne cabin.
Back to business now, Melvill transitioned SpaceShipOne to the high-drag feathered configuration in preparation for the critical entry phase of the mission. The vehicle initially accelerated to over 2,100 mph in the airless void before encountering the sensible atmosphere. At one point during atmospheric entry, Melvill experienced in excess of 5 g’s deceleration.
At 57,000 feet, Melvill reconfigured SpaceShipOne back to the standard aircraft configuration for powerless flight back to the Mojave Spaceport. Fortunately, the aircraft was a very good glider. The control problems encountered during the ascent resulted in atmospheric entry taking place 22 statute miles south of the targeted reentry point.
SpaceShipOne touched-down on Mojave Runway 12/30 at 0814 PDT; thus ending an historic, if not harrowing mission.
After the flight, Mike Melvill had much to say. But perhaps the following quote says it best for the rest of us who can only imagine what it was like: “And it was really an awesome sight, I mean it was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. And it blew me away, it really did. … You really do feel like you can reach out and touch the face of God, believe me.”