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20 years ago, SpaceShipOne made history

Short Flights

Mike Massee.

Melvill on top of SpaceShipOne.

First private manned mission to space – June 21, 2004 at Mojave Air & Space Port!

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to talk to Mike Melvill about the historic flight of SpaceShipOne in June 2004. I remember him telling me, "I didn't know what to expect. All of a sudden I was seeing the stars in a black sky. It happened in an instant."

Melvill is most famous for his flight test work at Scaled Composites with SpaceShipOne, designed by Burt Rutan.

He piloted SpaceShipOne on its first flight past the edge of space (100 kilometers or 62 miles) on June 21, 2004. On Flight 15P, Melvill became the first commercial astronaut and the 434th person to go into space.

The White Knight mothership was piloted by Brian Binnie, and went to an altitude of 47,000-feet before releasing Mike Melvill in SpaceShipOne. At 7:50 a.m. SS1 was released from the pylon and it fell, Melvill armed and fired the rocket motor and in less than two seconds it lit off.

Melvill was thrown back in his seat at

3.5 g acceleration straight up and at Mach 2.7 the spacecraft started to roll. He tried to correct the condition but the controls wouldn't respond with aerodynamic flight controls, so he decided to wait.

Not a typical smooth flight. "Very rough ride initially, a lot of pitching," Mike told Doug Shane, Mission Control director. As the rocket motor was burning, wind shear moved SpaceShipOne 90-degrees to the left and Mike compensated the move by trimming the spacecraft 90-degrees to the right and banking 180-degrees. He was approaching Mach 1 and was 30 miles off course, as the spacecraft completed 29 rolls streaking upward into space and the black sky. He had lost stick and rudder control, as he went faster than the speed of sound, and shock waves diminished the use of the control surfaces.

The enormous crowd on the ground didn't realize he was rolling as he went through the sound barrier and a large boom was heard. Everyone cheered and I remember Mike's wife Sally yelling, "Go Michael, go!" General Doug Pearson, Commanding Officer at Edwards AFB made a quick phone call to approve SpaceShipOne breaking into Edwards's air space.

An interesting side story of this flight was Mike wanted to illustrate what weightlessness looked like to everyone. The night before the flight, he stopped in at the local ampm mini-market and bought a small bag of M&Ms. He poured them into a pocket of his flightsuit, but didn't tell anyone, as he knew he would be told that he couldn't release them inside the space ship.

Of course, during all of the excitement of the takeoff, release from the mothership, White Knight One, the ignition of the rocket motor and the trying to get the spacecraft under control, he had forgotten about the M&Ms, until he reached apogee. It was quiet, the sky was black, the Earth was beautiful to look down on and as he was taking photos, he remembered that he had placed the M&Ms in his shoulder pocket.

Courtesy Scaled Composites.

Melvill with Astronaut wings from FAA.

He unzipped the pocket, got a handful of M&Ms and let them go right in front of his face and they just stayed there. He was amazed at them just floating there. In a video he said, "It was just a weird feeling, because if you do that here they just fall on the ground."

He pushed them around to see what would happen and they floated all around. Mike said, "I reached into my pocket and threw out another handful and then went on about my business."

There is a great Experimental Aviation Association (EAA) YouTube video showing his flight and releasing M&Ms: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AAAHcjfe-r0

Burt Rutan said later, "Mike feathered the boom-tail in space, before using the reaction control system thrusters (RCS) to damp the roll rate. When he finally started to damp the rates he did so successfully and promptly. The RCS damping, to a stable attitude without significant angular rates was complete well before the ship reached apogee (337,600 feet, or 103 Km). That gave Mike time to relax, note his peak altitude and then pick up a digital high-resolution camera and take some great photos out the windows." He rolled 29 times before releasing the boom-tail.

SpaceShipOne, a Paul G. Allen project with Scaled Composites, launched the first private manned vehicle beyond the Earth's atmosphere. The successful launch demonstrated that the final frontier was opened up to private enterprise.

Burt Rutan, Scaled Composites founder and CEO at the time said, "Our success proves without question that manned space flight does not require mammoth government expenditures.... It can be done by a small company operating with limited resources and a few dozen dedicated employees."

Only at Mojave Air & Space Port could you see an astronaut's wife running to greet him after a historic flight! It was such a grand occasion with thousands of people looking on.

There is a fabulous Discovery Channel movie called "The Black Sky: The Race for Space" that tells the story of Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne and Melvill's historic flight. Search "Black Sky: The Race For Space" on YouTube to watch. Just to watch the team at Scaled Composites construct not only SpaceShipOne, but also the White Knight is mesmerizing! I have watched it many times and find myself saying, "Wow!" all the way through this wonderful documentary.

Congratulations to Burt Rutan, Scaled Composites and Mike Melvill on this extraordinary accomplishment! Hard to believe it was 20 years ago! Where did the time go?

Mike and Sally worked for Burt Rutan for 32 years and Mike became the test pilot for all of the different aircraft Burt designed over the years. He was Vice President/General Manager of Scaled Composites and Chief Test Pilot before his retirement in 2007.