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SpaceShipOne: Taming The Threshold Of Space

Venture marked the first privately-funded human space flight in history

Early one morning, more than 10 years ago, we drove up to the Mojave desert to see a tiny spaceship make a remarkable flight. The date was June 21, 2004.

The Mojave desert was dark and cold. Cactus and scrub brush stretched for miles. We smiled as we recalled Capt. Pike’s line from “The Cage,” in which he remarked that he’d love to live in the beautiful “parklands” in Mojave, which presumably becomes an oasis in Gene Roddenberry’s future. By the time we pulled into the makeshift parking lot at the Mojave Airport, it was already packed with thousands of other space enthusiasts, all eager to witness the first privately-developed human spaceflight in history.

SpaceShipOne, the brainchild of maverick designer Burt Rutan, was carried by an exotic-looking, custom-built aircraft called White Knight. Shortly after dawn, the two ships trundled down the runway and into the air. The ungainly duo circled the airport for what seemed like an eternity. With each circle, the joined craft gained altitude, until it reached about 8 miles. Then, a voice on the public address system announced that White Knight had released its charge.

SpaceShipOne, piloted by Mike Melvill, was flying free of her mothership. A moment later, we saw a white exhaust trail shooting upwards, almost straight into the sun.

SpaceShipOne’s rocket motor burned for a little over a minute, reaching nearly three times the speed of sound. Then, fuel exhausted, the space bird coasted upward, peaking at just over 100 kilometers, the threshold of outer space. SpaceShipOne was now a glider. And Melvill was now officially an astronaut. He piloted his craft back to Earth and to a perfect landing at the Mojave Airport, now officially a space port. The White Knight mothership made a victory pass over the cheering crowd.

SpaceShipOne flew twice more into space, claiming the $10 million Ansari X Prize on Oct. 4, 2004. Burt Rutan’s company, Scaled Composites, plans to offer commercial suborbital flights using a larger followup vehicle, SpaceShipTwo.

SpaceShipOne now occupies a place of honor among the legends of flight at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

© 2016 Michael and Denise Okuda.

White Knight, a custom-built aircraft, carried SpaceShipOne about 8 miles up before releasing it. SpaceShipOne then reached nearly three times the speed of sound.

The crowd witnessed a historic moment for privately-funded spaceflight .

SpaceShipOne rocketed to an altitude of just over 100 kilometers, the threshold of outer space.

Newly-minted astronaut Melvill piloted SpaceShipOne to a perfect landing in the Mojave Desert after the first privately-funded human spaceflight in history.

Related Topics: Michael Okuda  Denise Okuda 

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