Pilot and first commercial astronaut Mike Melvill stole the show at Mojave Air & Spaceport’s Plane Crazy monthly event as he recounted his first spaceflight of SpaceShipOne, 10 years to the date in a packed conference room June 21.
Sadly, many engineering students from Cal-Poly and Los Angeles had to be turned away due to lack of seating.
With humor, modesty and a drop of well-deserved pride, the 434th person in space captivated his audience. It was the first time anyone had flown into space without government backing. “We did it without any big government, without autopilot,” said Melvill.
After appearing on the Jay Leno show twice, he said Paul Allen came on board and graciously funded the entire program. “We could have never done it without his generous, financial support. That was pretty impressive.”
SpaceShipOne was launched and released from the White Knight One piloted by Brian Binnie then boosted by a rocket to 63 miles above the Earth with 27,000 spectators watching, including: Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, Sir Richard Branson, Paul Allen and actor William Shatner. “Buzz and I had some head to head butting because he thought what we did was pretty minute compared to what he did. But, he did not fly himself to space and I did. He had a computer do it for him!” Melvill humorously explained. His absolute hero is Captain Kirk, “The best captain that ever existed on the Enterprise (Star Trek) and a fabulous guy.”
The main reason Melvill believed the mission succeeded was the pure genius of Burt Rutan. “He was my boss, he is my best friend and I was his best man – at two different weddings. Without Burt’s phenomenal abilities and willingness to take huge risks- with other people incidentally, this would never have happened.”
He also credited the 123 talented Scaled Composite employees who built White Knight, SpaceShipOne, a rocket motor, and the SpaceShipOne simulator – all while building Steve Fossett’s Global Flyer. “That program and the Space Ship program ran parallel with the White Knight; I always thought that was incredible,” said Melvill.
Twenty-nine years ago Melvill bought a set of Rutan’s plans out of the back of his trunk at the OshKosh airshow for $51. He built the plane, flew it to Rutan and was hired that day. “It has been a wonderful 29-year career,” says Melvill. He said Burt was a wonderful, extraordinary leader who led by example, often putting on gloves and working alongside his employees.
Melvill flew SpaceShipOne eight times prior to the historic June 21, flight. Every flight was an envelope-expansion, going faster and higher with the ship enduring hotter temperatures.
After filling the flight capsule with water and no leakage, Melvill was confident he could fly into space without a pressure suit. “The Air Force thought we were completely insane, they went up to about 50,000 feet without a pressure suit, we went to 350,000 without a pressure suit.”
Rutan was 100 percent confident in his designs except for the re-entry on this mission. “It was probably the scariest flight- I think because it was the one thing Burt wasn’t sure would work,” laughed Melvill. “He is a pretty confident guy and he was very confident about everything else, but he wasn’t sure what would happen when we reentered at 2.7 mock which is what we hit the atmosphere at.” With the aircraft temperature reaching 1,200 degrees at 1,200 mph, there wasn’t enough time for the heat to penetrate the structure that was only built to endure 350 degrees. “I was pretty scared, I can’t remember if it was hot or not.”
Rutan designed the craft with a “feather maneuver” he likened to a shuttlecock, to slow the craft down before reaching extreme temperatures; however, Rutan must have been more confident than he portrayed because while Melvill was waiting to taxi, Rutan climbed into the cockpit and strapped in. If it wasn’t for the FAA pounding on the door and pulling him out at the last minute, the famous aircraft designer would also be an astronaut.
The only voice Melvill could hear from the control room during that flight was from Doug Shane. “If the controllers felt a problem, they would tell Doug; if Doug thought I needed to know, he would tell me.” After reviewing the footage and comments of concerned controllers, he was glad that Shane filtered the conversations. After some gut wrenching shaking, hard flying, the sudden drop of the landing gear, and assurance that all was well by chase pilot Chuck Coleman, Melvill landed and was greeted anxiously by his bride of 43 years, Sally, the cheers of 27,000 spectators and grateful, relieved yahoos from the mission control room. “It was absolutely mind blowing.”
Cathy Hansen, president of the Mojave Transportation Museum said she always enjoys hearing about the historic event. “Mike is the greatest. Listening to him, it’s like being there all over again.”
SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for repeated flights in a privately developed reusable spacecraft, the Collier Trophy for greatest achievement in aeronautics or astronautics in 2004, and the National Air and Space Museum Trophy for Current Achievement. It now hangs in the Milestones of Flight Gallery at the Smithsonian between Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis and Chuck Yeager’s Bell X-1.
Melvill told a smaller crowd that he was disappointed space travel is not advancing as quickly as it could. “It is a hundred times harder to accomplish things today than it was ten years ago. With the regulations and restrictions, it is nearly impossible to progress.”
Space companies are sending more work out of California and perhaps soon, out of the United States.