Photograph by Jim Sugar
Republished from the pages of National Geographic magazine
The creator of SpaceShipOne says private space flight's about to take off.
At the dawn of a new era, SpaceShipOne is minutes away from being released by its launch aircraft. White Knight, on September 29, 2004. With pilot Mike Melvill at the controls, the pioneering civilian rocket would climb to more than 62 miles (100 kilometers) in the first of two flights to win a ten-million-dollar prize.
To me this would be the fulfillment of a childhood dream.
Just before sunrise on October 4, as the launch vehicle White Knight—with SpaceShipOne tucked neatly under its belly—was poised to taxi onto the runway at Mojave Airport in California, I stuck my head inside the tiny graphite-and-epoxy rocket to give pilot Brian Binnie a few last words of advice. I knew that Brian, an avid golfer like me, would get my meaning. "Use a driver," I said. "Keep your head down and swing smooth."
My message: Shoot for the greatest possible performance, but also strive for accuracy. Brian's job wasn't going to be easy. To qualify Space-ShipOne for the ten-million-dollar Ansari X Prize, he had to fly himself and the equivalent of two passengers—a total of 595 pounds (270 kilograms)—to an altitude of at least 100 kilometers (62.1 miles) and return for a safe landing. We'd measured his payload precisely. But nobody had planned on Brian's mother-in-law contributing a last-minute surprise. As Brian got ready to enter the cockpit, she gave him a big hug, spilling a cup of coffee all over his flight suit.
"I got soaked," Brian said. "I later figured those extra 12 ounces (0.35 liters) probably cost me 200 feet (61 meters) of apogee."
We were used to surprises by then. Five days before, test pilot Mike Melvill had taken SpaceShipOne to more than 337,500 feet (102,870 meters)—the first of the two suborbital spaceflights required within two weeks to win the X Prize. But as Mike had rocketed toward the edge of space, SpaceShipOne had started spinning at an alarming rate. Mike was never in any danger, but the unexpected rolls left us scratching our heads.
For the next two days none of us got much sleep. We eventually hypothesized that the rolls were caused by a lack of directional stability as the rocket left the atmosphere. Mike may also have been pushing a little too hard on the rudder pedal. The incident led me to ask if I might be pushing too hard as well. I gathered the team together 48 hours after Mike's flight to see if they were ready to try again. Their response: a wholehearted yes.
As the designer of both SpaceShipOne and White Knight, I had a lot riding on our team's success. Not only did I hope to bring home the X Prize, I also wanted us to prove that privately built spaceships could achieve what the U.S. government has not: develop technology to make spaceflight affordable and safe for the masses.
To me this would be the fulfillment of a childhood dream. I was 14 years old when Sputnik was launched into orbit, and I convinced myself, naively, that the space race would one day punch my personal ticket to the stars. Someday, I told myself, I too would be able to hop aboard a spacecraft and rocket into orbit, even vacation on the moon. By the mid-1990s, however, I'd realized that waiting for NASA wasn't going to work. The government's attempts to reduce the cost of space access had led to billions of dollars being spent on design studies and a few research craft. If my dream was going to come true—of floating weightless in the black sky and being thrilled by the sight of Earth from outside our atmosphere—I'd have to get things started myself.
I was encouraged to do this by the history of aircraft design itself. Five years after the Wright brothers' first flight, in 1903, the airplane was still just a dangerous curiosity. Only a dozen or so people had ventured into the air. Yet by 1912 hundreds of pilots had flown a number of different designs developed around the world, with crashes weeding out the bad ideas. Soon factories in France, England, and Germany were producing hundreds, and then thousands, of airplanes a year. Why? I believe the answer lay in two observations: "That's gotta be fun" and "maybe I can do that."
Clearly, if private spaceships were going to be built, they would also need to be created for fun by those discovering that "maybe I can do that." My theory was about to be tested as I stood inside our mission control room at Mojave Airport. By now White Knight had carried SpaceShipOne to its launch altitude of 47,100 feet (14,356.1 meters). The moment of truth was at hand.
Inside White Knight, flight engineer Matt Stinemetze released SpaceShipOne from its hooks, and Brian Binnie, inside the smaller rocket ship, called out "arm and fire." The motor ignited and 18,000 pounds (8,164 kilograms) of thrust threw Brian back in his seat at three times the force of gravity.
In about ten seconds he broke the sound barrier and began a steep climb that would take him into the record books: Not only did he fly smooth and true, he also broke the unofficial world altitude record set 41 years before by the North American X-15. And he broke it by 13,000 feet (3,962.4 meters)! Brian topped it all off with a picture-perfect landing at Mojave Airport 24 minutes after he had ignited SpaceShipOne's rocket engine.
Winning the X Prize didn't mark the end of our fairy tale; it was merely a very good beginning. I'm committed to continuing research into suborbital flight to ensure that it can be done far more safely than any past manned system. Affordability is necessary too, so that many thousands can fly, not just ten or so astronauts or cosmonauts a year. I know this will be a challenge; we need major technological breakthroughs to make such visions come true. But the same could have been said of SpaceShipOne a few years ago—and look at how far we've come.
Already, Richard Branson, head of the Virgin Group, has announced that he will license the SpaceShipOne technology from investor Paul Alien, who has financed my endeavor all along. Branson is investing about a hundred million dollars to create the world's first spaceline, Virgin Galactic. My company, Scaled Composites, will work under contract to Virgin to build the first few spaceships, which may begin commercial operations by the end of the decade.
And guess who will be on that first commercial flight? Yours truly. But we won't stop there. Branson has stated that he plans to reinvest his Virgin Galactic profits to continue funding research that will result in new flight systems that could take people to orbiting hotels or a lunar landing base. And guess who will be on one of those flights? You. Or perhaps your children. If you're a space dreamer like me, then believe it when I say that you're waking up to find that it's really happening.
The Innovators Project
Meet some of science's most important movers and shakers—from past and present.
'Live From Space' March 14
How to Feed Our Growing Planet
National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.
A new study on marmoset monkeys offers some hints about the causes of stillbirth.
The Titan Missile Museum gives an insider's look at what might have happened if the Cold War had turned into World War III. Video.
Shop Our Space Collection
The updated companion book to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, featuring a new forward by Neil deGrasse Tyson is now available. Proceeds support our mission programs, which protect species, habitats, and cultures.