US aerospace company Scaled Composites has carried out the first captive carry test flight of SpaceShipOne - a prototype private passenger space vehicle aiming to become the first non-governmental craft to reach outer space.
Scaled Composites unveiled the existence of a commercial manned space program in April after two-years of research behind closed doors. One of the guests at the launch, Dennis Tito, became the first "space tourist" aboard the Russian Soyuz craft in 2001, but both he and Mark Shuttleworth (the only other civilian to spend time in space) paid multi-million dollar fees to government based programs in order to achieve their goals.
SpaceShipOne is one of several contenders for the "X Prize" - a $10million cash prize offered for the first private team to build and launch a craft able to carry three people into space (a height of 100km is specified as it's the accepted height for "astronaut status" in the US), bring them safely back to Earth and repeat the launch again within two weeks. The aim of this competition is to bring forward the reality of private passenger space travel and eventually to reduce cost so that it is at least within the realms of affordability - don't expect to get into orbit for less than $100k in the near future though. Read more on the Xprize and other contenders at Gizmo article number 1318.
The Scaled Composites space-craft design consists of two parts, an airborne launcher - the White Knight) and the main spacecraft - SpaceShipOne. The first captive carry flight underneath in which SpaceShipOne was connected to the airborne launcher took place on May 20 and reached a height of almost 17,000m.
For the space launch, White Knight will carry SpaceShipOne on its underside to a height of 50,000 feet before SpaceShipOne detaches and fires its own rocket engine and continues the journey at an almost vertical angle (84 degrees).
After reaching an altitude of 100km and enjoying approximately three minutes of sub-orbital flight, the 3-person crew will re-enter the atmosphere using the unique design of the craft. During weightless flight and re-entry, the spaceship converts to a high-drag configuration by tilting the entire wing-structure upwards. This allows a safe, stable atmospheric entry. Once this deceleration is complete (it takes more than a minute), SpaceShipOne converts back to a conventional glider configuration at 80,000ft to complete a runway landing at the same speed as a lightplane.
The next planned test flight will be manned and glide tests are expected to follow soon after.
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