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Mon, Aug 02, 2004

Rutan And Melvill Overflow Theater In The Woods

EAA AirVenture Crowd Hears Legendary Designer And First Private Astronaut Describe Space Shot

By ANN Contributor Christopher Armstrong

It didn't take billions of dollars to accomplish and the man at the controls started out as a homebuilt pilot. In the end, Scaled Composites' honcho Burt Rutan and SpaceShipOne pilot Mike Melvill did what NASA and Alan Shephard did more than 40 years ago. They sent a small ship -- albeit briefly -- into space.

Thursday evening at the EAA AirVenture Theater In The Woods, designer Burt Rutan and pilot Mike Melvill described their historic June 21 flight to an overflow crowd.

After introducing Rutan and Melvill, EAA President Tom Poberezny left the stage, but Melvill called him back and told him "Tommy, I have something for you." When Poberezny returned to the stage, Melvill presented him and EAA with a plaque to which someone had affixed a twenty dollar bill. Melvill had carried that particular bill into space on the first SpaceShipOne flight to reach the 100 KM altitude generally considered to be the boundary of space.

Rutan briefly described the Global Flyer program before Melvill joined him on stage. Once Poberezny exited the stage, Rutan and Melvill amazed the crowed with an extremely detailed account of the space shot. They showed a video detailing the flight, from the morning briefing to the FAA's award of Melvill's commercial astronaut wings, the first ever.

Melvill described the physical sensations and powerful emotions of his amazing flight. He said that during the long climb to altitude, he wanted to talk to someone -- a little conversation to help him stay relaxed. "But for some reason, no one wanted to talk to me," said Melvill.

After SpaceShipOne dropped away from its mothership, White Knight, Melvill fired the rocket motor and pulled into a five-G climb. The flight got off to a rolling start as wind shear rolled the space ship, forcing Melvill to make a manual attitude correction.

After motor burnout, as SpaceShipOne coasted nearly straight up at Mach 2.9, Melvill set the pitch trim for reentry. When he did, he saw the roll trim indicator go hard over. This appeared to be a flight control system failure, so he immediately switched to a backup trim system, which worked perfectly.

As it turned out, Rutan said, there was no failure. Instead, the motors that run the trim went into what Scaled Composites calls "thermal time-out." One of trim motors exited time-out before the other, resulting in an asymmetrical elevon deployment.

The crowd was especially pleased to hear Rutan describe an idea for what to do with SpaceShipOne after it completes its flight test program and wins the X-Prize. "How many of you would buy a $5.00 lottery ticket for a space flight?" he asked. He paused, then added, "How many of you would buy 100 of them?"

Everyone in the crowd raised their hands at the first question and quite a few stayed up for the second.

Rutan described a possible scenario for an AirVenture Fly-In of the future. The SpaceShipOne ride lottery tickets would be sold until Friday. That evening, a drawing is held where the next two civilian astronauts are chosen. On Saturday, the lucky winners go through training, which would include a sustained five-G turn in an Extra 300. If the lottery winners can handle the G-forces and other requirements, they would be cleared for flight.

Rutan's description of this future space lottery drew some laughs and a lot of applause. While tracing loops and rolls in the air with his hands he said, "First you have a biplane aerobatic routine. Then White Knight with SpaceShipOne attached would take off. While White Knight climbs to altitude, you have time for another couple biplane routines. Maybe even a biplane with a turbojet attached."

With White Knight at altitude, making contrails over Lake Winnebago (the very large lake just east of Oshkosh), SpaceShipOne would ignite its rocket motor, leaving a miles-long smoke trail as it climbs into space.

Rutan envisions live video feeds from chase planes, with White Knight and SpaceShipOne displayed on large video screens. After the SpaceShipOne completes re-entry and glides back to Wittman Regional Airport, there would be time for one or two additional aerobatic routines. Then the crowd would watch SpaceShipOne glide in for a landing followed by fly-bys by mothership White Knight and the SpaceShipOne chase planes.

After the flight the world's two newest astronauts would be awarded their astronaut wings.

Rutan doesn't know if or when he would be able to fly at an Oshkosh of the future. He does know that after SpaceShipOne is retired, all but one gram of it will be donated to the Air and Space Museum as a historic aircraft.

What is to become of that last gram of SpaceShipOne? Rutan plans to send it on-board the first robotic mission to Pluto. Rutan-watchers say that's the kind of unlimited thinking that has allowed him to achieve what others have always thought to be impossible.

FMI: www.scaled.com

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