12 December 2022, etc.venues Monument, London
Business Travel Show Europe, presented by The BTN
21 November, London Hilton Metropole
If all goes well, later today, a privately-developed rocket plane will launch into history on a mission to become what is claimed to be the world”s first commercial manned space trip. This fact might be disputed by Dennis Tito who in 2001 paid $20m to become a space tourist via a Russian rocket and the International Space Station. What is not disputed is that Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen and aviation legend Burt Rutan have teamed to create the programme to attempt the first non-governmental flight to leave the earth”s atmosphere.
Launched in the air from another Rutan design called White Knight, SpaceShipOne will rocket into sub-orbital space above the Mojave Civilian Aerospace Test Centre in the California desert. If successful, it will demonstrate that the space frontier is finally open to private enterprise. This event could be the breakthrough that will enable space access for future generations and the dream of London to Sydney in less than the time it now takes to get to New York. However historians (and more elderly aviation types) will tell you that the idea of flying off an aircraft from the back of a mother ship is not new, the most famous example the Shorts Mayo1937 project in which an Empire series flying boat took to the air with another sea plane (called Mercury) sitting on top. The system worked with a non-stop test flight from the UK to South Africa but war and new technology meant an end to the experiment.
Today”s lift off comes after SpaceShipOne completed a 13 May 2004 test flight in which pilot Mike Melvill reached a height of 211,400 feet (approximately 40 miles), the highest altitude ever reached by a non-government aerospace programme. Sub-orbital space flight refers to a mission that flies out of the atmosphere but does not reach the speeds needed to sustain continuous orbiting of the earth. The view from a sub-orbital flight is similar to being in orbit, but the cost and risks are far less. ”Since Yuri Gagarin and Al Shepard epic flights in 1961, all space missions have been flown only under large, expensive Government efforts. By contrast, our programme involves a few, dedicated individuals who are focused entirely on making spaceflight affordable,” said Burt Rutan. ”Without the entrepreneur approach, space access would continue to be out of reach for ordinary citizens. The SpaceShipOne flights will change all that and encourage others to usher in a new, low-cost era in space travel.”
SpaceShipOne was designed by Rutan and his research team at the California-based aerospace company, Scaled Composites. Rutan made aviation news in 1986 by developing the Voyager, the only aircraft to fly non-stop around the world without refuelling.
To reach space, a carrier aircraft, the White Knight, lifts SpaceShipOne from the runway. An hour later, after climbing to approximately 50,000 feet altitude just east of Mojave, the White Knight releases the spaceship into a glide. The spaceship pilot then fires his rocket motor for about 80 seconds, reaching Mach 3 in a vertical climb. During the pull-up and climb, the pilot encounters G-forces three to four times the gravity of the earth.
SpaceShipOne then coasts up to its goal height of 100 km (62 miles) before falling back to earth. The pilot experiences a weightless environment for more than three minutes and, like orbital space travellers, sees the black sky and the thin blue atmospheric line on the horizon. The pilot (actually a new astronaut!) then configures the craft”s wing and tail into a high-drag configuration. This provides a ”care-free” atmospheric entry by slowing the spaceship in the upper atmosphere and automatically aligning it along the flight path. Upon re-entry, the pilot reconfigures the ship back to a normal glider, and then spends 15 to 20 minutes gliding back to earth, touching down like an aircraft on the same runway from which he took off. Today”s experiment will be solo, but SpaceShipOne is equipped with three seats and is designed for missions that include pilot and two passengers. ABTN has not asked for press facilities for subsequent flights!