MOJAVE, CA - Monday, June 21, 2004 - Today I was fortunate to watch the world's first commercial space launch. SpaceShipOne, a project of Paul Allen and Burt Rutan's Mojave Aerospace, Inc., and built by Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites in Mojave, CA, reached suborbital space (100km) with pilot Mike Melvill at the controls. I was in the media pool so I got free drinks and better seats. :)

Note that this is the first time anyone has gone into space with strictly private funding, and absolutely no government interference (ahem) assistance, I mean. It cost Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen $20 million to put a man into space: less than half the cost of the $43 million Gulfstream V he arrived in, and a tenth the cost of a $200 million Boeing 747. As of today, practical space travel is a reality, thanks to Burt Rutan and Paul Allen.


Brian Dunning

Email me here

Click any picture for a larger view.

When I arrived, I learned that most of us did not get "Extra Special" media passes, so we couldn't go into the actual press conference. Instead, we got to enjoy the pleasures of the tent outside, where we could watch the conference on closed-circuit TV in a 120-degree tent.
The tower at Mojave Airport, and some of the news trucks.
Paul Allen arrived in his blue and white Gulfstream V about a half hour before Saturday's press conference. I was too slow to get a picture of it, but as I tried to chase it down in my car I came across this oddity. Clearly a genetic mistake from some mad engineer's laboratory.
(Several people have since emailed me to explain that this is just a fiberglass prop built for a movie called The 6th Day.)
Some of Scaled Composite's half dozen or so buildings. Doesn't exactly look like a successful aerospace company. This is what your back yard looks like when you spend money wisely and frugally.
Saturday's press conference in the media tent.
Paul Allen is not exactly the most talkative guy you'll ever meet. He said about three words.
Burt, on the other hand, is extremely talkative. He was quite open with his criticism of NASA's lack of progress since the 1960's. Though he applauds its individuals, especially at JPL, he is clearly no fan of bureaucracy; and it shows in the efficiency of his success.
Sunday, June 21, 5:00am. The news trucks are ready.
There were numerous TV camera crews and reporters doing their on-the-scene reporting thing.
The camera guys had all been set up and ready to go since well before 4:00am. Inexplicably, there were still generous amounts of juice, pastries, and coffee in the concessions tent, as I personally verified.
If you crossed the lines, it was these guys' job to cut you down with an M16. They were Civil Air Patrol (actually they were not armed), in keeping with the private, commercial nature of the SpaceShipOne project.
A couple of NASA astronauts showed up at the eleventh hour in a T-38. They walked around like VIP's, giving interviews and shaking hands, which a lot of people were snickering about. Scaled Composites did not officially inform NASA about their launch (they had no reason or need to).
Sunrise in Mojave.
6:30am and the first of the chase planes took off. This Extra 300 was doing a lot of tight circles above the airport the previous day. I later learned that this was Mike Melvill, SpaceShipOne's pilot, doing 7-G turns to acclimatize himself to the loads.
This was our first view of the White Knight carrier plane and SpaceShipOne tucked underneath, as they came out of hangar and turned the corner into view. The crowd cheered.
Another view. Look close and you can see Mike Melvill sticking his arm out of SpaceShipOne and waving. I was pretty impressed that a suborbital spacecraft would actually have a little window that you could open and stick your arm through. It's a feature I don't remember seeing on the Space Shuttle.
The Beechcraft Starship chase plane came out next. The Starship's job is to follow White Knight closely as long as it is attached to SpaceShipOne.
Another view. Coincidentally, Burt Rutan did an early proof of concept model for Beechcraft on this design. Although they accepted the model, none of Burt's engineering made it into the production version.
The takeoff! It was about this time that the batteries on my cheesy camera starting giving me trouble, so bear with me here.
A great shot. The weather could not have been more perfect - wind was directly down the runway, and not a cloud in sight. That's one reason Scaled Composites and others choose Mojave for their test programs: the weather is extremely predictable and reliable.
The Starship following close behind White Knight and StarShipOne. It took about an hour for them to climb to 50,000 feet.
Some weird chick tried to cash in her 15 minutes by dressing silly for the cameras. Bully for her.
Aviation legend Bob Hoover - every pilot's favorite guy - said a few words at the microphone. Among his long list of accomplishments was a flight he took in 1947, flying a chase plane alongside one Chuck Yeager, flying a mission not too different from today's. In his foreword to Bob Hoover's biography "Forever Flying," General Yeager called Bob simply "the greatest pilot I ever saw."
The launch was hard to see because we had to look almost straight into the sun. But nobody had any trouble spotting it when Mike lit the candle. White Knight is barely visible at the bottom of this shot after veering away.
Still climbing...
Still climbing (pay no attention to those fingers behind the curtain)...
It took only seconds to make this immense contrail, straight up. The crowd was going absolutely wild.
Mike cut off the motor and coasted. From this moment on we couldn't see anything.
While we waited for the courtesy reports (which came all too infrequently) from Edwards AFB who used their radar to track SpaceShipOne's altitude, I tried to take a picture of the defunct Rotary Rocket hangar - the only building at Mojave that appears not to be antediluvian - but instead only got this shot of some guy's bald spot.
When SpaceShipOne finally returned into view, it was already being escorted by its three chase planes. In this shot, SpaceShipOne is at the top and the Extra is right below it. The Starship is to the left, and at the bottom is the Dornier Alpha Jet, which I never got a picture of. The Alpha is supposed to be the first plane to reacquire SpaceShipOne after re-entry.
SpaceShipOne made one complete circle of Mojave Airport, demonstrating a surprising glide ratio. The Extra and the Starship are close behind.
Stu Witt is the manager of Mojave Airport. It never would have received approval as a spaceport without Stu's tireless efforts. Today was very much a victory for him as well. It was clear that he and the Scaled team form part of a small and tight community, with a shared vision.
My camera's batteries completely prevented decent focus by this time - but this is SpaceShipOne (second from left) on final approach.
SpaceShipOne has come to a stop on the tarmac and has been met by its support vehicles.
White Knight made a low-level victory pass right down the runway in front of the crowds.
Right about here, White Knight kicked in its twin afterburners and shot straight up with surprising agility. It flies a little better without 8000 pounds of payload.
Two happy men, Burt Rutan (yellow shirt) and Paul Allen (blue shirt) await SpaceShipOne as it is towed over. White Knight is on final approach in the background.

Home Page