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SpaceShipOne Captures the X Prize 896

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the takes-two-to-tango dept.
SpaceShipOne's second flight was a success, the craft successfully launching from mothership White Knight and returning safely about 20 minutes later. If the flight is certified to have reached the X Prize's target height (62.5 miles) before its safe return, it will win the $10 million purse, and more importantly attain the prestige of repeatably (if only technically) reaching space, on a budget embarrassingly smaller than NASA's. Today's flight was manned by 51-year-old test pilot Brian Binnie (rather than Mike Melvill, who piloted last week's trip), and according to spectators present at both launches seemed even smoother than last week's flight. The view from the sidelines was incredible. flapjack submits a link to CNN's coverage of the launch (which lists a claimed height attained of 368,000 feet), noting "Interesting to note that a majority of its funding ($20-$30 million) was put up by Microsoft's own, Paul Allen." See also the official X Prize site for continuing live coverage. Update: 10/04 17:05 GMT by T : I was able to attend the launch; read below for my short sketch of the event.
Impressions from the launch:

I got to Mojave yesterday evening (it's a long way from El Paso), slept in my car, and got to the airfield itself just before 4 a.m. Traffic on state highway 58 was brisk already, though not clogged (which it later became), and nearly every car was turning onto the two-lane entrance heading for acres of packed-dirt parking spaces near the runway from which SpaceShipOne would take off.

The crowd which built up in the following hours was surprisingly quiet on takeoff, which happened right at 7:45 local time. Not exactly hushed -- perhaps "hesitant" is a better word, or maybe just waking up. Only scattered clapping (guilty!) as the White Knight / SpaceShipOne piggyback duo lifted off, followed shortly by two chase planes, an AlphaJet and a Beechcraft Starship. The enthusiasm grew, though, as the flight progressed; a P.A. system kept the spectators informed of the trip's progress.

When SpaceShipOne finally separated and fired upward ("Good release, good release!" over the P.A, followed by enthusiastic cheering), it was after three separate two-minute warnings, then for one-minute and 30-second intervals. After an 84-second burn followed by a clean shutdown, SpaceShipOne coasted to its final altitude. At 90 seconds into the flight, the ship was well past 100,000 feet, and out of sight to the unaided eye. At 7:51, an altitude of 328,000 feet was reported, but the ship was still climbing for the next 40,000 feet under its own momentum. The reported peak altitude is enough to top the previous record, set by an X-15 at 354,200 ft. in 1963.

The descent was happily uneventful. At 60,000 feet, Binnie experienced "slight oscillations" -- consistent with previous flights, according to the announcer, who continued to count down the altitude. At approximately 45,000 feet, the conditions are right for contrails, and more cheering erupted when those popped into view. The crowd perked up and cheered even more with the first of two sonic booms audible on the ground (the booms that occur during ascent aren't), pointing and shading their eyes from the sun, following the ship as it traveled in wide arcs to bleed off the energy of the ascent, followed by a smooth 3-point landing.

(Special thanks to the members of the Foothill High School band who traveled the three hours from Orange County to watch the flight and play both before and after the flight. The launch itself was surprisingly low on ceremony, and their playing provided a bit of well-deserved pomp.)

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SpaceShipOne Captures the X Prize

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