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U.S. Awards First Suborbital Aircraft License

  • Friday, 16th April 2004
  • Reading time: about 3 minutes

The US government has cleared a commercial aviator to fly to the edge of Earth’s orbit in an experimental aircraft that could become the model for taking tourists into space.

The Federal Aviation Administration issued the license for a commercially sponsored suborbital manned flight to Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites group of Mojave, California.

Enterprising companies have taken reservations for space tourism for years, but regulatory hurdles and the lack of affordable technology have blocked commercial travel. The government license, issued on April 1, is to last one year.

Scaled Composites is competing in a privately run, $10 million contest to send a reusable craft carrying three people on a suborbital round-trip. The flight would have to be repeated within two weeks to win the X Prize.

Rutan flies SpaceShipOne, a rocket-powered winged craft designed to be launched at 50,000 feet from a plane. It has completed nearly a dozen preliminary test flights and broke the sound barrier last year. Rutan’s craft will land like a plane.

Twenty-seven contestants representing seven countries have already registered for the X Prize contest, modeled on the $25,000 Orteig Prize that Charles Lindbergh claimed by flying solo from New York to Paris in 1927.

“”This project keeps getting more exciting, with each SpaceShipOne flight powered by SpaceDev, going higher and faster than before,”” said Jim Benson, SpaceDev’s founding chairman and chief executive officer. “”This time, we delivered more performance in order to expand to a higher altitude and velocity beyond the record making Mach 1.2 that we achieved on the first historic flight last December 17th. Each flight takes the private sector one step closer to safe, affordable, commercial human space flight.””

After being released by the White Knight, a carrier aircraft, SpaceShipOne’s test pilot fired the hybrid rocket motor powered by SpaceDev at 38,300 feet and it soared to over 105,000 feet in 40 seconds, flying near Mach 1.6. The pilot commented that the motor was surprisingly quiet and there was no flight control flutter or buzz during the climb.

“”These successful private sector, rocket-powered human flights are historic and demonstrate that the private sector can perform affordable and safe human space flight,”” said Benson. “”As stated during the unveiling of the SpaceShipOne program last April, the propulsion role is of key importance and one of the most difficult parts of the entire program. SpaceDev is proud to have been selected by Scaled Composites as the sole source of rocket motor technology for this program. SpaceDev is providing the first hybrid rocket motors ever used for human flight. Our replaceable hybrid motors are the largest rocket motors of this type ever developed and flown.””

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