- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 20, 2004

MOJAVE, Calif. (AP) — Aviation enthusiasts began gathering yesterday in the high desert in hopes of seeing the first flight into space by a privately developed, manned rocket ship.

Thousands of people were expected to be watching early today when an exotic jet-engined airplane named White Knight was set to take off from Mojave Airport carrying the rocket-propelled SpaceShipOne.

“Clearly there is an enormous, pent-up hunger to fly in space and not just dream about it,” SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan told a news conference packed with hundreds of reporters, photographers and TV cameras yesterday.

“Now I know what it was like to be involved in America’s amazing race to the moon in the ‘60s,” he said. “Those folks were driven … and they had the fun of working for America’s prestige.”

If SpaceShipOne is successful, Mr. Rutan and his Scaled Composites development company will use the craft to make a run at the $10 million Ansari X Prize, a formal competition intended to spur commercial development of spaceflight.

White Knight, carrying the rocket plane slung under its belly, was scheduled for a 6:30 a.m. takeoff, followed by a climb to 50,000 feet, where it would release SpaceShipOne about 7:30 a.m.

SpaceShipOne’s pilot, flying solo, would then ignite the rocket and pull up into an 80-second powered climb. After the rocket motor shuts down, the craft is to coast up to a target altitude of 62 miles above the Earth, then re-enter the atmosphere and glide for 15 to 20 minutes to a landing back at Mojave.

Wind or clouds could force a postponement.

At yesterday’s press conference at Mojave Airport, Mr. Rutan and program financier Paul G. Allen, co-founder of Microsoft Corp., named the pilot for today’s flight: Michael W. Melvill, 62, a veteran civilian test pilot and a vice president/general manager for Scaled Composites.

Mr. Melvill, who holds records for altitude and speed in various classes of aircraft, piloted the rocket plane on a test flight last month in which it soared 40 miles high.

Mr. Rutan’s team is one of more than 20 around the world aiming at the X Prize. The three-seat requirement demonstrates the capacity for paying customers, and the quick turnaround between flights demonstrates reusability and reliability.

Although today’s flight will not be an X Prize attempt, officials of the X Prize Foundation will be watching closely.

“This will be the first time that any piloted private spaceship ever goes into space, so it’s of pivotal importance to the X-Prize Foundation, and it certainly puts Scaled Composite’s team front and center in the public’s view as a front-runner,” said Gregg E. Maryniak, executive director of the foundation.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration also is interested, said Michael Lembeck, requirements division director of the space agency’s Office of Exploration Systems.

“We need people like Burt Rutan with innovative ideas that will take us to the moon and Mars,” he said. “Folks like Burt bring a different way of doing business.”