December 17, 2003: SpaceShipOne Becomes First Privately Built Supersonic Aircraft

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A Brief History

On December 17, 2003, the 100th anniversary of the first powered flight of a human piloted aircraft flown by Orville Wright was marked by another aviation first, that being the first supersonic flight by a human piloted aircraft that was built by a private company when SpaceShipOne, piloted by Brian Binnie achieved Mach 1.2 in a rocket powered test flight to a lofty altitude of 20,67 kilometers (almost 68,000 feet).  SpaceShipOne is a privately developed space plane designed to take passengers into suborbital space flight, space being defined as at an altitude of at least 100 kilometers.  (Note: See our many other articles related to aviation and space flight.)

Digging Deeper

The incredible SpaceShipOne aircraft was designed and built by Mojave Aerospace Ventures, a combined effort of Paul Allen and Scaled Composites.  Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft, is an American billionaire businessman and philanthropist that put up the $25 million needed to fund the project.  Scaled Composites is the company founded by Burt Rutan, the aviation inventor and entrepreneur that has designed innovative experimental aircraft to prove aviation theories.  (Scaled Composites is now owned by Northrup Grumman Corporation.)]

SpaceShipOne by Kaboldy

The revolutionary SpaceShipOne was designed and developed in order win the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million prize for the first manned aircraft to fly into space and return twice within a 2 week period.  The aircraft would have to be built and funded through private means and be manned by a pilot and the equivalent of 2 passengers.  (SpaceShipOne was flown with only the pilot and the equivalent weight of the passengers.)  To win the Prize, the subject aircraft would have to be reusable and no more than minimal changeover in parts and systems between flights.  The Prize was conceived as merely “The X Prize” by the X Prize Foundation, and it picked up the addition of the name “Ansari” in 2004 when Iranian American engineers and millionaires Anousheh Ansari and Amir Ansari made a multi-million dollar donation to the Foundation.  The board of the X Prize Foundation includes notable famous people such as James Cameron, Larry Page, Arianna Huffington, Ratan Tata.

Competition for the X Prize was keen, as 26 teams worked to achieve the objectives of the Prize.  Scaled Composites program, which they called the Tier One Project (later changed to Tier 1b), was the winner of the prize, continuing the ground breaking career of Burt Rutan, aviation genius and pioneer that has achieved numerous aviation firsts, including designing the first aircraft to ever circumnavigate the Earth without stopping or refueling.

The first XPRIZE, titled the Ansari XPRIZE, was presented on November 6, 2004.

Rutan and his team are apparently keenly aware of aviation historical dates as evidenced by scheduling the historic December 17, 2003 flight exactly 100 years after the first Wright Brothers powered flight.  The date SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X Prize was October 4, 2004 by making its second successful space flight (to an altitude of 112 kilometers), the anniversary date of the launch of Sputnik, the first man made satellite sent into space (by the USSR) in 1957.

SpaceShipOne is an odd looking airplane type of craft, with a central fuselage between the main wings and a boom extending back from each side of the wing to a tail plane surface remotely similar to the layout of the World War II P-38 Lightning, although the 2 tail sections are not joined by a cross wing as in the P-38.  The rocket powered space craft is designed to be carried aloft by a larger aircraft, a twin jet engine plane designated Scaled Composites model 318 and called White Knight.  White Knight carries SpaceShipOne underneath the jet plane, carrying SpaceShipOne to an altitude of about 15 kilometers (49,212 feet) where the space craft is released.  SpaceShipOne then ignites its rocket engine and climbs to its designed altitude of over 100 kilometers (62 miles) to officially reach “space” flight.  The rocket engine powered by Nitrous Oxide (familiarly known as “laughing gas”) takes the craft to a speed in excess of Mach 3 during its climb while burning for only 80 seconds.  SpaceShipOne then glides back to Earth unpowered, much as the X-15 experimental rocket plane of the 1950’s and 1960’s and the Space Shuttles operated.  By remaining in suborbital flight, SpaceShipOne does not encounter the terrific temperatures experienced by orbital spacecraft upon reentry to the atmosphere.  SpaceShipOne is not large, stretching only 16.4 feet long and spanning 16.4 feet wide (wingspan), while weighing only just under 8000 pounds loaded.  Construction is of composite carbon fiber material, and take-off and landing both take place at the Mojave Airport Civilian Flight Test Center, located at Mohave, California.  (This facility is the first ever licensed for civilian horizontally launched space flights and is the first ever civilian “spaceport.”)

Mojave by Ikluft in 2009

SpaceShipOne was retired after its historic Prize winning flight, and is on public display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.  The likeness of SpaceShipOne became a favorite for replica model rockets flown by hobbyists.  Scale models of SpaceShipOne are also on display at other museums, including Meadows Field Airport in Bakersfield, California, Mojave Spaceport’s Legacy Park, and the Flying Heritage Collection at Paine Field in Everett, Washington. The New Horizons mission to Pluto in 2006 (a NASA flight) took with it a piece of the carbon fiber composite material from SpaceShipOne.

A more important part of the legacy of SpaceShipOne and the Tier 1b Project are the follow on projects that are aimed at presenting space travel to the public.  SpaceShipTwo and White Knight Two were built to carry on testing and evaluation of the technology needed to allow commercial passenger space flight, and a collaboration to achieving that goal between the Virgin Group and Scaled Composites called The Spaceship Company was formed toward that end.  Once the commercial service can be established, the “spaceline” company will be called Virgin Galactic.  (Delays have kept Virgin Galactic from yet initiating commercial flights, notably the crash of SpaceShip Two, named VSS Enterprise in 2014, a crash which killed one pilot and severely injured the other.  Efforts to make commercial space flight a safe reality continue.  We hope to see you aboard with us on the first flight!

A photograph by Steve Jurvetson from Menlo Park, USA, of VSS Enterprise, the first SpaceShipTwo spaceplane, attached to its carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo VMS Eve

Questions for Students (and others): Would you ever consider taking a commercial space flight?  Should the US Government help fund the effort to create civilian space flights?  Are you familiar with Burt Rutan and Richard Branson?  Were you aware of the ongoing effort to create civilian space travel?

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Alef, Daniel. Burt Rutan: Aeronautical and Space Legend. Titans of Fortune Publishing, 2016.

Burt Rutan: Aeronautical and Space Legend (Kindle Edition)

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Linehan, Dan. SpaceShipOne: An Illustrated History.  Zenith Press, 2008.

Rutan, Burt. Moldless Composite Sandwich Aircraft Construction. Aircraft Technical Book Company, 2005.

The featured image in this article is licensed under the Creative CommonsAttribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.  Roylee (talk) created this work as a revision of prior diagram File:World’s_First_Five_Spaceplanes.PNG.  Roylee annotated “First 50 years” so that subsequent editors will not feel compelled to expand this diagram with later-built spaceplanes.  The world’s first five spaceplanes flew within the first 50 years of human spaceflightNorth American X-15 reached space in 1962/1963 (USAF/FAI Kármán line classifications). Space Shuttle and Buranreached space in 1980s. SpaceShipOne in 2004, piloted by world’s first commercial astronautBoeing X-37 flew in 2010. Both X-15 and SpaceShipOne ascend horizontally from a mother ship. Both Buran and X-37 spaceflights were unmannedX-37 launches atop Centaur and Atlas V rockets.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.