Ep. 350: Space Ship One

SpaceShipOne is the spacecraft created by Scaled Composites to win the $10 million Ansari X-Prize in 2003. It was the first privately built spacecraft to reach 100 km in altitude, twice in two weeks, carrying the equivalent of 3 people. It’s the prototype of the upcoming SpaceShipTwo, created for Virgin Galactic to carry paying passengers into space.

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This episode is sponsored by: Swinburne Astronomy Online, 8th Light

Show Notes


Transcription services provided by: GMR Transcription

Female Speaker: This episode of Astronomy Cast is brought to you by Swinburne Astronomy Online. The world longest running online astronomy degree program, visit astronomy.swin.edu.au for more information.

Male Speaker: Astronomy cast episode 350 SpaceshipOne. Welcome to astronomy class or weekly facts base a journey through the cosmos will help you understand not only what we know how we know but how we know it. My name is Fraser Cain I’m the Publisher of Universe Today and with me is Dr. Pamela Gay, a professor at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, and the director of Cosmo Quest. Hey, Pam, how are you doing?

Female Speaker: I’m doing well, how are you doing, Fraser?

Male Speaker: Good. So this is episode 350 and the last episode we are going to be doing for our summer highness. So we will be recording – we got this episode today and then we will be taking two months off and then the next episode you hear should be the live episode from Dragon Con which will happen over Labor Day weekend 2014 live in Atlanta. If you are going to be going to Dragon Con we’d love to see.

Female Speaker: We will have boots; we will have stuff and things, and T-shirts and lanyards and science.


Male Speaker: Hugs.

Female Speaker: We shall science you.


Male Speaker: High-fives, hugs, handshakes, we sign things; we’ll go for coffee be fun. So hang out with us. And so the other thing which I think was – is kinda appropriate. I mention last week about the new job that I have taken on working for Hero X and which is a division of spin off from the X PRIZE Foundation but the goal is to try and make crowd essentially anybody to be able to make an X prize.

And so you should come check it out at Hero X.com but specifically just the start of demonstrate how this is all going to work of created my own challenge and I’m calling it the self-replicating about challenge. And so the way this works. I want to see a robot make another robot and those two robots make a third robot. And which I don’t think has been done and so the way this works is I want to raise $100,000.00. And then – from everybody.

And we all will be like yes I want to see this in the world; I want to see robots capability. Now, obviously, the space exploration angle of this is that we want to be able to send probes to Mars and the moon and have them build more copies of themselves. Imagine if we could send curiosity to Mars and have them craft another curiosity. So does a lot of technology, but if we can figure this out it would be amazing.

So come to Hero X.com/self-replicating robot and pledge. Join me you know, kick in a couple of bucks and just show that we want to see this thing exist and then if we can get 200,000 or you know then we can start this active challenge and see if people can make this thing happen. So –


Female Speaker: Robots, building robots, so the world can be taken over by self-replicating robots.

Male Speaker: No, no, it’s very clear no, great goo, no terminators, no replicators from Stargate SG-1, no berserkers; you know it’s just its good, nice, lovable.

Female Speaker: Can we have a DRM from almost human? Because they’re kind of awesome

Male Speaker: I don’t know I haven’t seen that. Anyway, so that’s something –


Female Speaker: It got canceled Fox cancel all the good sci-fi.

Male Speaker: Oh, really? So here’s the thing – so I think we can get on with the show now.

Female Speaker: This episode of astronomy cast is brought to you by 8th Light ECH. 8th Light is an agile software development company. They craft beautiful applications that are durable and reliable. 8th Light provides discipline software leadership on demand and shares its expertise to make your project better for more information, visit them online at www@8thLight.com. Just remember, that’s www.the digit 8th L – I – G – H – T.com drop them a note. 8th Light software is there craft.

Male Speaker: So SpaceShipOne A, which is part of the express foundation is a space craft created by Scaled Composites to win the $10 million and Ansari X Prize in 2003.

Female Speaker: 4.

Male Speaker: It was the first privately built spacecraft to reach 100 km in altitude twice in two weeks, carrying the equivalent of three people. It’s the promo type of SpaceShipTwo created from Virgin Galactic to carry paying passengers into space. Now, yeah, so I didn’t know you didn’t pick this topic you know when I got the job so and this is part of our number series and I guess this is probably going to be the last one. Which is SpaceShipOne.

Female Speaker: Yeah. So I had a moment of – I was originally thinking, well, what are the important numbers. We’ve had to Mercury seven and then my brain went to STS51L, which was the Challenger disaster. I was like no; we can’t end this summer on that we cannot.


Male Speaker: Too soon.

Female Speaker: Too soon.

Male Speaker: Yeah.

Female Speaker: So in the midst of my, oh, bad idea, bad idea, bad idea. I was like what others spacecraft have all some numbers and are uplifting and SpaceShipOne is kind of as uplifting as a numbered thing coming out of the space program has been recently so yeah, I went with SpaceShipOne and I figured it would give you warm fuzzy since you know I work with the X prize folks and yeah, life is good.

Male Speaker: So okay so let’s do some history then so where did SpaceShipOne come from?

Female Speaker: Well, it largely came out of Burt Rutan’s brain and it wasn’t born fourth like a tea in a popping fully fledged both of his skull but starting in the 1990s he started thinking about what would it take for us to start doing commercials, space flight. And he started pulling together teams and then with the Ansari X Prize coming up in the early 2000’s, which was originally just the X prize.

Eventually the Ansari came forward and added to the pot and that’s where the dame change to the Ansari X prize. But it really was just over a few brief years where Burt Rutan was able to drive the idea forward, largely funded by Paul Allen of the Amazon fortune and they were able to very quickly go from, how should we build this, to building it, to test flying it in May 2003 to hitting sub orbit passing that 100km mark for the first time in June 2004, to oh, my gosh winning the Ansari X Prize in October 2004.

So once they set their mind to it, it was a matter of a few years, but the ideas were ones that Burt Rutan started playing around with in the mid-90s.

Male Speaker: Yeah. I mean if you have done any research into Burt Rutan and seeing Scaled Composites. They have this wonderful history of these amazing aircraft that just goes back. A lot of craft building, aircraft designers are aircraft enthusiast have ordered various skill compositions aircraft and I think they contributed to the one that went around the world on one take of fuel. So he’s got this innovative method of building aircraft that are designed you know he’s always going for simplicity, always going for safety and able to sort of crack what were normally very complicated problems with some combination of his technology. It’s a pretty amazing company.

Female Speaker: And I love how much the idea for this aircraft change spacecraft, aircraft over the ten years from starting it in 93 to first flight 2003. He was originally just planning a more capsule base spacecraft, the old standby land and water. No big deal, and then basically got inspired by a shuttle quark of all the crazy things. One of the things that you use when playing badminton. It was that oh, wait, and from that inspiration was born this origami spacecraft that goes from one layout of the wing structure for launch, a different for reentry and yet a third for landing.

Male Speaker: Yeah. So let’s talk about, then the components because that’s a fairly complicated way the whole thing works but in the end, you know, as you said, it’s very cool and simple and gets the job done. So if you went and walked up to SpaceShipOne, what would you be seen when it is on the ground still?

Female Speaker: Well, currently you can actually walk up and see it in the US Air and Space Museum, which is kinda cool but the part that is missing from the US air and space Museum is White Knight One. So SpaceShipOne was designed to fly on the underbelly of White Knight One which is a giant high altitude flying aircraft that was designed in a way that it could be used for reconnaissance, it could be used for carrying things to high altitude like it does with patient SpaceShipOne has all of these different applications.

But the greatest one of all is once you start getting up to that 45,000 feet, 50,000 feet altitude that it is capable of, you’re above more than 85 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere in most cases. Once you’re above all that atmosphere you’re dealing with a lot less drag. Gravity is pretty much still a bare but the air is the big issue you have to deal with. So White Knight carries up a little SpaceShipOne on its underbelly.

It hangs there rather like a bomb which actually got White Knight One in trouble when it tried to land in Dallas the first time and actually wasn’t allowed to land there because it looked like it was carrying a bomb.

Male Speaker: Wow!

Female Speaker: Yeah, they had issues trying to deliver it to the Smithsonian. So White Knight takes off caring SpaceShipOne on its underbelly, gets up to somewhere between 45,000 and 50,000 feet and it drops SpaceShipOne and for some period of time that they don’t tell you the pilot on board SpaceShipOne is adjusting the trim, getting everything happy and then presses the ignition and it fires. And at this point, you now have a rocket crafted in the spirit of the early sub war flights were dropped off a bombers back in the 1950s.

Very quickly goes into a straight vertical climb, climbs for several minutes until the rocket is cut off, at which point it’s going so fast that it just get carried the rest of the way up to about 100 km altitude. So it’s – it’s a pretty dramatic day when you’re taking off on one of these things, but once you’re up there hits the apex of its journey and then reconfigures its wings again, flipping them up so you have the belly of SpaceShipOne facing the ground.

By facing the ground it is creating the most dragged possibly can. And flips the wings up into the feathered position that actually takes it about 15 seconds to move everything up and this is an interesting moment. Once it’s feathered it tries to reenter at about 65° and it slows down and you’re pulling about five times the force of gravity as you decelerate through the atmosphere like a shuttle clock.

Male Speaker: Great. Right and that’s really the key and this is back to this idea. Let’s look around for some natural resources we can use to assist our flight in this case, the solution is to use the configuration of the wing that increasingly to slowly increasing air resistance to configure the aircraft but to both slow it down and put it in to an optimal flight path to be able to then continue on and land.

Female Speaker: And I just find it so amazing that they fired at the rockets until they are only about 150 feet up but they are going to thousand miles per hour at that point. So they are able to get along nice quiet glide up to space.


Male Speaker: Anyone who played Turbo space program knows how that works, that you run out of you know, accelerate and proportion and yet your rocket keeps going and going and going and going until it reaches the height of its, you know reaches the apogee and then the down is bad too. So.

Female Speaker: And then it does the badminton birdie from 100 km back down to about 50,000, 60,000 feet again. So you’re still far higher than a 747 flies, but once they hit that point they then change the spacecraft into a glider. It’s actually designated with an FA call number that is it a glider designation and it glides the rest of the way down and I think the most amazing thing I learned while reading about this is how fast turnaround all of this is.

It’s about 10 to 15 minutes from the point that it hits the I am going to become a glider again for it to return all the way back to its landing strip where it took off with White knight. And SpaceShipOne will actually typically beat the White Knight back.

Male Speaker: Right.

Female Speaker: So that’s kind of insane.

Male Speaker: Let’s talk a bit about sort of when things happen in leading up to it actually, winning the X prize?

Female Speaker: So it’s first carried up, left Mojave spaceport was May 20th of 2003. It hit a top speed while being carried of half the speed of sound, it went up about 14 km, flew for about two hours and they just sort of had SpaceShipOne dangling beneath White Knight. So utterly boring, but still kind of cool. From that they went on to carry it one more time in July. This time they had an astronaut on board, Mike Melville would eventually be the first commercial astronaut.

The first man to cross that 100 km barrier. They very quickly in August 2003 started doing glide tests. They continued doing glide tests up until December 2003, at which point they did their first firing of the rockets. They actually didn’t go very high. They just climbed to 20 km, the time for about 6 km above where they started. This time it was been piloted by Brian Binnie who was the pilot when they eventually won the X prize.

The third man who got to fly it was Peter Siebold. He unfortunately was not able to ever fly it up above the 100 km mark so he didn’t get the type of commercial astronaut. But they kept testing, kept doing power testing, kept pushing it a little bit higher, a little bit higher. Hit 32 km in April 2004, hit 64 km in May 2004 and then June 21st 2004, they almost make it to Mock 3. They made Mock 2.9 and just edged over the hundred kilometer attitude.

They actually had to get it confirmed and they didn’t know instantly if they had done it or not, during a 24 minutes flight, Mike Melville qualified as the first commercial astronaut ever in the world.

Male Speaker: Right, and then requirement of the X prize were that you had to carry the equivalent of three people. So the pilot and two passengers and so in this case, he carried weight with Mike Melville and he had to complete this within two weeks?

Female Speaker: Two flights in two weeks and you couldn’t replace more than 10 percent of your non-fuel mass. So if you think about racecars or certain things you always swap out. You swap out the tires things like that. That’s cool. But the idea was you had to be building a reusable space ship and so there is that 10 percent of the mass cut. So they tested something some more and then in September they went for the record.

So on September 29, 2004 Mike Melville, took off hit 103 km, 102.93 km and scared every single person who was watching. Because with the feathered design, there are some known points that they called built in features that causes spin’s that look rather radical and terrifying and so they were a whole lot of people watching going awe. Are they going to die?

Because it started doing some massive spins, but this is a feature of having a feathered designed and Mike and Burt Rutan, said no, we knew this was possible, we knew the model showed it could do this, it was fine. We were never out of control, we were just spinning.

Male Speaker: Right, yes, he do.

Female Speaker: And trying to make the world feel better Mike Melville actually said things along the line so yeah I actually pulled out my camera to get some pictures out the window and spins gave me some great views of the earth as it rotated by and everyone is going okay. That was a little bit terrifying are you sure you are ready?


Male Speaker: It was like Felix Baumgartner when he was spinning from the balloon and he was spinning and you just looked at that and when awe this is not good.

Female Speaker: No.

Male Speaker: But he was able to pull it out and in the case of SpaceShipOne. It was just design to do exactly this and when it got enough wind it was able oriented itself exactly the way it was supposed to and everything was fine.

Female Speaker: It was a feature not to bug.

Male Speaker: Yeah. Give the pilot a view of the earth from upside down because they would probably want that.

Female Speaker: Yeah, something.

Male Speaker: Yeah.

Female Speaker: And then less than a week later I may – they had two whole weeks. But less than a week later on October 4th, they went more than three times the speed of sound; they achieve 112 km and Brian Bennie, won them. I’m sorry the X prize, the $10 million prize that did nothing to cover the cost of the spacecraft but they got the award and went down in history. And if you think about it. This is something we’ve never done and we haven’t repeated.

They launched regular service, two launches in less than a week of the same spacecraft. They actually had additional lunches prepared what they sort of did a wait. This was historical, this was awesome. Let’s just deliver it to all of the awesome places and then take it to the Smithsonian. So they then proceeded and by them. I mean Burt Rutan and the rest of the crew decided let’s take this thing on a tour so they then went on a road trip.

July 2005, they went to Oshkosh airshow, which if you are in you’re an air flight enthusiast is kind of the airshow. People fly in, drive in from all over the world to see all that’s new and awesome and old and put together well in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Mike Melville and crew then flew White knight with SpaceShipOne don’t to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and Melville decided to make a moment in history and Wilbur Wright had given a famous speech called some experiments in flight.

And Mike Melville decided to give a talk with the exact same title at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. And from there they attempted to deliver it to the Smithsonian but poor Mike Melville while trying to land at, Dallas, which was where they were supposed to land apparently the flight controller’s one look at White Knight and went, no. And refuse to let them land because it looked like they were carrying a bomb underneath White Knight.

And I guess if drop incorrectly SpaceShipOne would be an extraordinary expensive bomb but it turned out that Mike Melville had some fast talking to convince a different nearby airport to let them land. And I think that falls as the strangest air traffic control moment of ever heard of.

Male Speaker: That’s funny. So now this is I mean this was the end of the story for SpaceShipOne but you know, right short, after that Virgin Galactic comes in and gets rolling on sort of the future plans for what SpaceShipOne will eventually become, which is a tourist service to the edge of space.

Female Speaker: And this is where we have formed in 2004, was Virgin Galactic where Richard Branson of virgin everything, virgin mobile, virgin air, virgin this that and the other thing he invested and partnered with Scaled Composites and they started building SpaceShipTwo which there is actually two of them. There is the VSS Enterprise and the VSS Voyager and these fly on two different White Knight two model carrier aircraft, VMS Eve and VMS Spirit.

Spirit of Steve Fossett. Both of them have paintings on the side of them that preclude showing them to small children in some communities, I found. So if you have small children open the picture and make decisions before you show them the White Knights. But they are already selling tickets and you can make your own reservation for $250,000.00 per person and there is over 700 people who have already put down their deposit to fly to space for a quarter of $1 million.

Male Speaker: Wow!

Female Speaker: Yes.

Male Speaker: So I mean we have been waiting for it to happen and it just – it – that company still hasn’t gotten – there have been a lot of tests with SpaceShipTwo.

Female Speaker: Yeah.

Male Speaker: And I mean the White Knight Two is much bigger. I mean the SpaceShipTwo spacecraft is much bigger too. It’s really this scaled up, really scaled up version of the SpaceShipOne, but in this case is got nice comfortable seating inside, room for lots of people, plenty of bath bags I’m hoping and these are going to be some pretty adventurous people who are going to finally do this.

Female Speaker: And one of the things that they have run into is in 2014. They change what type of a fuel they are using, they exchange what type of a model they were using 2012. Burt Rutan retired in 2011 and I’m sure that that affected how things were progressing.

Male Speaker: Yeah.

Female Speaker: So they also had to try and recover from – in 2007, they had an explosion while they were testing one of their engines. But they keep plowing forward; they have work on constructing Spaceport America down in New Mexico which is the most amazingly beautiful design for a commercial launch facility I have ever seen.

Male Speaker: Yeah.

Female Speaker: Take the most stunningly beautiful airport you have ever seen and like turn up the futuristic dial it’s gorgeous

Male Speaker: Better have squishing doors, that’s what I want to see.

Female Speaker: I can’t speak to the doors.

Male Speaker: Yeah and so I think you know it’s funny because like on the one hand, when that happened we all felt like this is it, private space flight is unleashed. We’ve hit 100 km altitude, but the thing is, 100 km altitude straight up is night and day from actually going all the way into orbit, and so you know the kind of technology that is required for a private space craft to be able to reach orbit is a whole other level or another order of magnitude here. And so does not a lot of use to go – apart from some scientific use and tourism there’s not a lot to get up to 100 km and then come back down

Female Speaker: And it’s really a stretch to call it sub orbital when you land at the same place you took off.

Male Speaker: Yeah, and so I think that they were, you know you could see there being some applications in transportation. Right, you get into your SpaceShipOne or SpaceShipTwo lunch craft in Los Angeles and then you arrived in New York City an hour later, having gone through this horrifying parabolic art the whole way.

Female Speaker: I’m good with that I look forward to that.

Male Speaker: I think we’re still kind of waiting and it feels a bit like we’re re-creating the moon landing that you know the folks – humans landed on the moon and then, and then, and then –

Female Speaker: Yeah.

Male Speaker: So I really do hope the SpaceShipTwo and Virgin Galactic get roiling and that they are some applications of this –


Female Speaker: Well, and we’re 700 people have paid a quarter of $1 million, that’s a whole lot of investors going, well! And they do get together on a regular basis and they are continuing to make progress. It’s just.

Male Speaker: Yeah.

Female Speaker: It’s not that the 2014 launch goal they originally had.

Male Speaker: It turns out space flight is hard.

Female Speaker: Yes.

Male Speaker: So.

Female Speaker: Surprise, surprise no one ever guess

Male Speaker: Surprise, surprise base but it’s hard. Cool. Well I think that’s all I got, Pamela

Female Speaker: Okay, sounds great.

Male Speaker: All right then. Thanks, thanks for everything and we will see you – we’ll see you in a couple of months. Not next week in a couple of months.

Female Speaker: Dragon con.

Male Speaker: At Dragon con. All right, well thanks, Pamela.

Female Speaker: I talk to you later.

Male Speaker: Thanks for listening to astronomy cast a nonprofit resource provided by Astrosphere New Media Association, Fraser Cain and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can find show notes and transcript for every episode@astronomycast.com. You can email us at info@astronomycast.com. Tweet us at astronomy cast. Like us on Facebook or circle us on google plus. We record or show life on google plus every Monday at 12:00 p.m. Pacific 3:00 p.m. Eastern or 2000 Greenidge Meantime.

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