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Mon, Jul 25, 2005

SpaceShipOne, White Knight Land At KOSH

Historic Spacecraft, Launch Plane In Only Public Showing

The cast and crew of the Mojave Aerospace Ventures X-Prize-winning entry were center stage at AirVenture on Monday. Pilot/astronaut Mike Melvill flew several overhead passes before guiding the hybrid aircraft/spacecraft combination to a perfect landing at about ten minutes past three PM.

Aboard White Knight with Melvill was crew chief Rick Aldrich. Burt Rutan flew in the chase plane, with Sally Melvill and Tonya Rutan. Paul Allen, the financial backer of the project, and pilot/astronaut Brian Binnie, were waiting for them with EAA's Tom Poberezny.

The members of the historic space project got the warmest Wisconsin welcome from Poberezny and other dignitaries. After Poberezny spoke a few words of welcome, each key member of the said a few words and the men of the hour, including the pilots, the designer, and the all-important financier, said their piece.

Burt Rutan noted that this was his thirty-fifth Oshkosh (OK, so he technically misspoke, because the forerunner of AirVenture was in Rockford, Illinois, when Rutan started attending in 1971), and he hasn't missed a year. "This has to be close to the top of a thrilling arrival here at Oshkosh, flying close formation with the White Knight," Rutan said. "And it's just outstanding to see that the airport is full!" he added, with a smile audible in his voice. One other thing he made clear: "I'm really looking forward to the week!"

Tom Poberezny then took the mike again, and said, "I remember very distinctly you and I being on the stage, some years ago, and you [said] that someday, you would fly to Oshkosh via space. Well, you've made that dream reality."

Paul Allen said, "It's my first Oshkosh, and I'm already having a great time." Just before SpaceShipOne landed, he'd been watching one of his own airplanes -- a rare P-51 with authentic combat history -- fly a display. Paul Allen has spent a very great deal of money, money that he only obtained by taking great risks, on aviation and space -- it was his chance to have a moment in the spotlight.

But he too spoke with humility, lauding Burt and the technical team and the pilots, speaking as if his part in the whole project was not the very large and irreplaceable one that it was. "Seeing SpaceShipOne go straight up, over Mach 3, with these pilots inside -- it's just something that makes your heart soar."

Mike Melvill mentioned how proud he was to be showing off SpaceShipOne here at Oshkosh. "It's a wonderful little airplane, and I wish I could fly it again. But we're going to be here to tell you the story." He urged showgoers to find the many Scaled Composites team members who were here at Oshkosh and ask them about the exotic craft. "There are a lot of Scaled folks here who know more than I do about it -- find them and ask them questions!" the world's first commercial astronaut enthused.

Brian Binnie spoke of being a relative latecomer to the team with touching humility: "I'm the baby of the group," he said. Binnie, of course, flew the second qualifying flight for the X-Prize (Melvill flew the first). Melvill flew an earlier (June 21, 2004) space flight; the two are for the time being the only pilots to have flown SpaceShipOne, or anything but a government spacecraft, in space. Binnie set the altitude record of 368,000 feet on the second X-Prize flight.

You can see SpaceShipOne and White Knight all week at AeroShell Square in the center of Airventure. The mated craft will depart at 1400 CDT Sunday to fly via Wright-Patterson Air Force Base to Dulles International, where SpaceShipOne will be turned over to the National Air and Space Museum for display in the Milestones of Flight gallery alongside machines of similar historic import: the Wright Flyer and the Spirit of St. Louis.

Burt Rutan and Paul Allen are reported to be already at work on "SpaceShipTwo" as it's colloquially known, a larger ship based on SpaceShipOne technology. They intend the machine to fulfill Sir Richard Branson's promise of suborbital flights on Virgin Galactic.

FMI: www.airventure.org, www.scaled.com/projects/tierone/

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