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SpaceShipOne: A look at the world’s first reusable commercial spacecraft - banner

SpaceShipOne: A look at the world’s first reusable commercial spacecraft


Commercial space flight might seem like the stuff of science fiction, but with SpaceX and NASA’s plans to send humans to Mars within a few decades, we’re closer than ever before to being a spacefaring civilization. However, commercial space flight has a longer history than you’d think. Join ACS for a look at the tumultuous story of the world’s first reusable commercial spacecraft, SpaceShipOne, and how it might impact on the future of flight.

A quick look at the design of SpaceShipOne

SpaceShipOne was designed, developed and manufactured by Scaled Composites, a Californian aerospace company owned by renowned aerospace engineer Burt Rutan. However, much of the project’s funding came from billionaire Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The two parties came together to form the joint venture Tier One, with the objective of making passenger space flight affordable and repeatable on a commercial scale. But that’s not to say SpaceShipOne was designed with mass transport in mind – the original craft was a mere 28 feet long, with a fuselage no larger than five feet in diameter and a 16-foot wingspan. The cockpit was designed to accommodate a pilot and two passengers, without much in the way of creature comforts or legroom. SpaceShipOne had large, vertical tail booms mounted on the end of both its wings, the rear half of which folded up during re-entry to increase drag without sacrificing stability. During landing, the wings folded back down into gliding position for a smooth descent.

SpaceShipOne’s history at a glance

While SpaceShipOne was a fully-fledged spacecraft, it didn’t make the trip from the surface of Earth completely unassisted: the craft was launched at an altitude of 50,000 feet with the help of a turbofan-powered mothership, White Knight. After decoupling, SpaceShipOne glided for a few seconds before its hybrid rocket engines kicked in, firing for around 80 seconds – long enough to send it through Earth’s atmosphere for a short sub-orbital flight.

SpaceShipOne’s first successful flight took place on June 21, 2004, when it reached an altitude of 62.5 miles above Earth’s surface – considered to be the boundary between our planet and space. After two more successful flights in the same year (one on September 29 and the other on October 4), the project won the coveted $10 million Ansari X Prize and went on to make a total of 17 test flights. Of these, the spacecraft only achieved space flight on its 15th launch and was retired after just two more flights.

Onwards and upwards: SpaceShipTwo and beyond

An artist’s impression of a space plane orbiting around Earth
An artist’s impression of a space plane orbiting around Earth

Some two years after SpaceShipOne’s first successful flight, Rutan announced a new iteration of the spacecraft: the aptly-named SpaceShipTwo. This time, the project attracted the attention of British business magnate Sir Richard Branson, who incorporated it into his spaceflight corporation Virgin Galactic. With a length of 60 feet and a wingspan of 27 feet, the second version of Rutan’s spaceplane carries two pilots and a maximum of six passengers and is powered by an upgraded version of the original hybrid rocket engine. Its mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, is also approximately double the size of its first iteration.

SpaceShipTwo’s development has been fraught with complications. In 2007, during an oxidizer flow test at the Mojave Air and Space Port, an explosion inside the facility killed three employees and injured a further three. The project has been further delayed by several revisions to the hybrid rocket engine design: between 2009 and 2014, an engine based on hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene (HTPB) fuel and nitrous oxide was used in several tests, but Scaled Composites announced plans in early 2014 to develop a new, polyamide fuel-based engine instead – before announcing in late 2015 that they were reverting back to the original HTPB design.

The future of flight or a flash in the pan?

An astronaut in a space-suit sits alongside three alien passengers on board a spaceship
An astronaut in a space-suit sits alongside three alien passengers on board a spaceship

With SpaceShipOne’s first successful flight taking place some 14 years ago, why isn’t space travel a daily occurrence today? After all, in a press conference shortly before the craft’s maiden voyage in 2004, Rutan himself was confident the flight would signal the signal a renaissance in commercial space flight: “I believe that our real significance of this program is that realization, and I believe that realization will attract investment, and [it] will attract a whole bunch of activity and very soon it will be affordable for you to fly.”

If the rigorous testing of SpaceShipTwo is anything to go by, Rutan’s predictions may come to fruition one day soon. Its first test flight took place on April 9, 2018 and a second successful powered flight test was completed on May 29. According to Branson’s speculation, we can expect commercial space travel to be a reality from as early as the end of 2018 – although with SpaceShipTwo ticket prices currently in the region of $250,000, you can probably assume trips to space will initially be limited to the very wealthy.

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