Seventeen Years Ago: SpaceShipOne, Mike Melvill made history, first private manned mission to space

by Cathy Hansen, special to Aerotech News
Just a few days ago, I sat in Voyager Restaurant talking to Mike Melvill about his historic flight in SpaceShipOne, 17 years ago.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Melvill. “All of a sudden I was seeing the stars in a black sky. It happened in an instant.”

Melvill is most famous for his flight test work at Scaled Composites with SpaceShipOne, designed by Burt Rutan. 

Mike Melvill piloted SpaceShipOne on its first flight past the edge of space, (100 kilometers or 62 miles) Flight 15P, becoming the first commercial astronaut and the 434th person to go into space.

SpaceShipOne, a Paul G. Allen project with Scaled Composites, launched the first private manned vehicle beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. The successful launch demonstrated that the final frontier was opened up to private enterprise.

Burt Rutan, Scaled Composites founder and CEO at the time said, “Our success proves without question that manned space flight does not require mammoth government expenditures.” Rutan declared. “It can be done by a small company operating with limited resources and a few dozen dedicated employees.”

From left: Cathy Hansen, Diane Barney and Mike Melvill at Voyager Restaurant at Plane Crazy Saturday June 19, 2021. Plane Crazy Saturday is a monthly event at the Mojave Air and Space Port. (Courtesy photograph)

It was not a typical smooth flight — “Very rough ride initially, a lot of pitching,” Mike told Doug Shane, Mission Control Director. As the rocket motor was burning, wind shear moved SpaceShipOne 90-degrees to the left and Mike compensated the move by trimming the spacecraft 90-degrees to the right and banking 180-degrees. He was approaching Mach 1 and was 30 miles off course, as the spacecraft completed 29 rolls streaking upwards into space and the black sky. He had lost stick and rudder control, as he went faster than the speed of sound, and shock waves diminished the use of the control surfaces.

Melvill tried to correct the condition but the controls wouldn’t respond with aerodynamic flight controls, so he decided to wait. Burt Rutan said later, “Mike feathered the boom-tail in space, before using the reaction control system thrusters (RCS) to damp the roll rate. When he finally started to damp the rates he did so successfully and promptly. The RCS damping, to a stable attitude without significant angular rates was complete well before the ship reached apogee (337,600 feet). That gave Mike time to relax, note his peak altitude, and then pick up a digital high-resolution camera and take some great photos out the windows.”

The enormous crowd on the ground didn’t realize he was rolling as he went through the sound barrier and a large boom was heard. Everyone cheered and I remember Mike’s wife, Sally, yelling, “Go Michael, go!” Maj. Gen. Doug Pearson, then commander of the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., made a quick phone call to approve SpaceShipOne breaking into Edwards’s air space.

An interesting side story of this flight was Mike wanted to illustrate what weightlessness looked like to everyone. The night before the flight, he stopped in at the local AM-PM mini-market and bought a small bag of M&Ms. He poured them into a pocket of his flightsuit, but didn’t tell anyone, as he knew he would be told that he couldn’t release them inside the space ship.

Of course, during all of the excitement of the takeoff, release from the mothership, White Knight One, the ignition of the rocket motor and the trying to get the spacecraft under control, he had forgotten about the M&Ms, until he reached apogee. It was quiet, the sky was black, the Earth was beautiful to look down on, and as he was taking photos, he remembered that he had placed the M&Ms in his shoulder pocket.

He unzipped the pocket and got a handful of M&Ms and let them go right in front of his face and they just stayed there. He was amazed at them just floating there. In a video he said, “It was just a weird feeling, because if you do that here they just fall on the ground.”

He pushed them around to see what would happen and they floated all around. Mike said, “I reached into my pocket and threw out another handful and then went on about my business.”

Dignitaries attending the event included General Pearson, U.S. Representative Dana Rohrabacher, and the China Lake Naval Air Warfare Center, Adm. David Venlet, then commander of Naval Air Warfare Center, Weapons Division at China Lake, former astronaut Buzz Aldrin, William Shatner of Star Trek fame and Konrad Dannenberg, one of Werner Von Braun’s lead scientists on this country’s original space development effort.

“The re-entry is very exciting,” said Mike. He described Burt Rutan’s ingenious ‘feather’ invention by saying, “We bend the feather on the tail up 70-degrees to the fuselage. So, rather than coming into the atmosphere nose down, like the space shuttle, we bend the feather up and re-enter with the fuselage and the wing flat to the atmosphere, so we have an enormous amount of drag, which slows it down very quickly at very high altitude. We don’t get the high heat buildup that we would if we came in nose first and that was the key to the success of the whole program. It’s a carefree re-entry method that Burt invented himself and he was sure correct about that. It worked flawlessly every time.”

Mike Melvill following his historic flight into space. (Courtesy photograph)

It was wonderful to see Sally run up to Mike as he exited SpaceShipOne. They have a beautiful and everlasting love for one another that is extraordinary. He was wearing the lucky horseshoe that she had pinned onto his flightsuit before the takeoff that morning. He had the horseshoe pin designed for Sally in 1961 with their names inscribed on it.
Immigration from South Africa
Melvill moved from South Africa to England in 1960 and married his wife, Sally, in Scotland in 1961. Sally was 17 and Mike was 19 when they eloped. They immigrated to the United States in 1967 and settled in Indiana.

In 1969, Mike earned his pilot’s license and in 1974 he purchased a set of VariViggen plans.

This unique plane was designed by a man named Burt Rutan. Mike said that he had no idea who Burt Rutan was when he bought this set of aircraft plans, but he was the first individual to complete one of these aircraft, with help from his wife Sally and both of his boys. Sally got her pilot’s license in 1977, and they both hopped into their newly completed homemade aircraft, and flew it from Anderson, Ind., to Mojave, Calif., where Burt Rutan had a small company, called The Rutan Aircraft Factory.

Burt had built his own prototype VariViggen, but had not seen another like it until he saw Mike and Sally’s. Burt asked to fly it, and after he had done so, offered both Sally and Mike a job at his company nearly 2000 miles from where they lived.

They accepted his offer, sold their home in Indiana, and set off in two cars to drive to the High Desert in California. Mojave is located only 15 miles from Edwards Air force base, which was and is the flight testing hub in the U.S. for the U.S. Air Force.

Mike then returned to Indiana with his youngest son Keith, and together they flew the VariViggen across the country to Mojave.

Mike and Sally worked for Burt Rutan for 32 years and Mike became the test pilot for all of the different aircraft Burt designed over the years. He was vice president/general manager of Scaled Composites and chief test pilot before his retirement in 2007.

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