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Rutan Unveils Spacecraft Program

  • Tuesday, 22nd April 2003
  • Reading time: about 3 minutes

The famed aircraft designer has developed a rocket plane he says is capable of carrying three people on a suborbital flight to an altitude of 62.5 miles. Rutan set no date for the first attempt, which will come after tests.

“”I want to go high because that’s where the view is,”” Rutan said.

He unveiled the rocket plane, dubbed SpaceShipOne, and the White Knight, an exotic jet designed to carry it aloft for a high-altitude air launch, at a hangar at the Mojave Airport on Friday. The private manned spaceflight program has been in secret development for two years, and was built by Rutan’s Scaled Composites LLC.

Development costs were not disclosed. Rutan said the project is funded by an anonymous backer.

Success could bring him the $10 million X Prize pledged to the first privately funded manned space flight, but he suggested the money was secondary to the achievement.

“”We’ll go to space first, but if we succeed, there’s $10 million there,”” he said.

Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, tycoon Dennis Tito, who paid Russia for a ride to the International Space Station in 2001, and Erik Lindbergh, grandson of Charles Lindbergh, attended the unveiling. Space veterans Aldrin and Tito said they did not have any plans to book a ride on Rutan’s rocket plane.

Rutan’s system more closely resembles the old X-15 program than the space shuttle. An X-15 would be carried aloft by a giant B-52, dropped and then boosted to high altitude by its own rocket.

SpaceShipOne, made of graphite and epoxy, has short wings and twin vertical tails.

A space shot would begin with the spacecraft mated to the underbelly of the gangly twin turbojet, which would take off from Mojave and climb to an altitude of 50,000 feet. The spaceship would be dropped, ignite its rocket and soar on a parabolic trajectory to 62.5 miles before plummeting down.

The twin tails would then pitch up — rotating on booms attached to the wingtips — to increase drag as the craft plunges like a shuttlecock, reaching a maximum speed of Mach 3.5. At 80,000 feet the tails would return to their normal position and the spacecraft would glide back to Earth, setting down on two main wheels and a nose skid. The time from launch to landing would be about 30 minutes.

The White Knight, which made its maiden flight in August, made a demonstration flight Friday. Rutan said test flights of the rocket plane mated to the jet could begin in weeks.

Rutan said he’s hopeful that spaceflight could be routine within 10 years. “”What we’re trying to do is show that it can be done at extremely low cost,”” Rutan said.

Two dozen teams have registered to compete for the X Prize, geared toward jump-starting a space tourism industry. Peter Diamandis, X Prize founder and chairman of its board, said a half-dozen teams were actively building hardware. He predicted the various competitors would make “”four or five”” test flights this year.

“”It’s exactly what we hoped to inspire with the X Prize,”” Diamandis said of Rutan’s effort.

Rutan, 59, is a prolific designer of aircraft. He is best known for the Voyager, which his brother, Dick Rutan, and Jeana Yeager flew nonstop around the world in 1986.

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