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SpaceShipOne Triumphs in Becoming First Private Manned Mission to Space

25 June 2004

The world witnessed the dawn of a new space age earlier this week as investor and philanthropist Paul G. Allen and Scaled Composites launched the first private manned vehicle beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.

The successful launch demonstrated that missions to space is now open to private enterprise.

Under the command of test pilot Mike Melvill, SpaceShipOne reached a record breaking altitude of 328,491 feet (approximately 62 miles or 100 km), making Melvill the first civilian to fly a spaceship out of the atmosphere and the first private pilot to earn astronaut wings.

”This flight begins an exciting new era in space travel,” said Paul G. Allen, sole sponsor in the SpaceShipOne program. “Burt Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites are part of a new generation of explorers who are sparking the imagination of a huge number of people worldwide and ushering in the birth of a new industry of privately funded manned space flight.”

The historic flight also marks the first time an aerospace program has successfully completed a manned mission without government sponsorship. “Today’s flight marks a critical turning point in the history of aerospace,” said Scaled Composites founder and CEO Burt Rutan. “ We have redefined space travel as we know it.”

However, there were some unexpected problems when the craft experienced a serious anomaly between the time its motor ignited and when the vehicle reached the pinnacle of the voyage 100km above the Earth. As yet the crew are not yet certain of what was the cause of the problem which forced pilot Mike Melvill to use a back-up system in order to control SpaceShipOne.

The Scaled Composites team says there will be no attempt on a $10m space prize until it understands the fault.

Aircraft developer Burt Rutan made a blunt assessment of the problem, which could have ended pilot Melvill's life and wrecked the $25m effort to demonstrate a passenger-carrying reusable suborbital spaceship.

""The anomaly we had today is the most serious flight safety systems problem that we have had in the entire programme,"" said Rutan, during a press conference following the flight. ""The fact that our back-up system worked and we made a beautiful landing makes me feel very good.""

Rutan said the team was assessing a sudden roll seconds after SpaceShipOne's motor ignited and a more serious glitch that occurred when Melvill reached the highest peak of his suborbital flight. He was attempting to tweak his altitude by manoeuvring the nose of the plane when the flight control system that operates flaps on the ship's wings failed. Melvill activated the back-up system but the ship was already off course by 35km (22 miles). The problem also ate into the engine performance during the climb to space and kept Melvill short of reaching his intended mark 110km (68 miles) above the atmosphere.

""There is no way we would fly again without knowing the cause and without assuring we have totally fixed it because it's a very critical system,"" Rutan said.

But these problems were forgotten as the team succeeded in their mission with the composite craft landing safely back on the ground. A large crowd watched the momentous flight live from the grounds of the Mojave Airport, joining millions of others around the world who tuned in by television, radio, and the internet. Dignitaries attending the event included U.S. Representative Dana Rohrabacher, the Commanding Officer of Edwards Air Force Base, General Pearson and the China Lake Naval Air Warfare Center, Admiral Venlet; former astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and Konrad Dannenberg, one of Werner Von Braun’s lead scientists on this country’s original space development effort. Hundreds of media representatives were also on hand to record history in the making.

“Our success proves without question that manned space flight does not require mammoth government expenditures,” Rutan declared. “It can be done by a small company operating with limited resources and a few dozen dedicated employees.”

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