Laura Rauch / AP
Brian Binnie rides on SpaceShipOne after his flight to win the Ansari X Prize
on Oct. 4, 2004. A new book chronicles the SpaceShipOne saga.
Before it was ever named SpaceShipOne, the world's first private-sector spaceship was designed for a splashdown if necessary. And when the rocket plane and its carrier airplane made a farewell trip to the museum, SpaceShipOne looked so much like a missile that a skittish air controller nearly denied the pilot permission to land.
These and other inside stories come to light in a glossy book titled "SpaceShipOne: An Illustrated History." Aviation and aerospace writer Dan Linehan's 160-page volume is chock-full of photos and diagrams, as you'd expect a coffee-table book to be - but this coffee-table book also contains plot twists that weren't widely known four years ago, when SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X Prize.
For that, Linehan needed access to the sometimes-secretive players in the drama - ranging from aerospace guru Burt Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites in Mojave, Calif., to software billionaire Paul Allen, who put more than $25 million into the first-ever privately backed space effort.
Linehan begins the story well before the X Prize, with Rutan's rise as an airplane designer who gradually set his sights beyond the atmosphere. Rutan's initial plan was to build a space capsule that would be air-launched from something like his long-winged Proteus airplane, then come back down buoyed by a parachute and shuttlecock-type fins.
"It was on the drawing board in '93," Linehan told me today.
Initially, the capsule was designed to come down over water, so that it would splash down safely even if a helicopter failed to catch it in midair. After analyzing the design, Rutan decided to go instead with a rocket plane capable of gliding to its landing on a runway. However, he stuck with the idea of designing the wings so that the craft was certain to come down in the right orientation, no matter what happened during re-entry.
That's why the comparisons to the shuttlecock stuck, even though SpaceShipOne ended up looking nothing a badminton birdie. "That's really where the term 'feathered flight' came from," Linehan explained.
Linehan traces every one of SpaceShipOne's flights, beginning with the first unpowered tests in the spring of 2003 and climaxing with the three honest-to-goodness spaceflights of 2004. Photos and diagrams show how the design was tweaked along the way, and the book also boasts annotated pictures of the craft's instrument panel. "That's the first time that all these instruments have been called out," Linehan said.
Rutan had intended to keep SpaceShipOne flying even after the X Prize was won, in order to test the business plan for space tourist flights. But that plan was called into question after the first private-sector spaceflight in June 2004. The curators of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum told Rutan that they wanted to put SpaceShipOne alongside Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, the Bell X-1 and other pioneering aircraft.
When Rutan's financial backer heard that, he didn't want to take any extra chances with what was already turning into a piece of aviation history.
"When we got that request, Paul Allen called and said, 'Listen, I don't want you to fly it anymore. Just get the X Prize. Two more flights and that's it,'" Rutan recalled in the book. At first, Rutan considered arguing with Allen, "and then I realized that he really was right."
The museum wanted the plane in the exact condition it was in after June's flight. That meant the decals for the X Prize and Virgin Galactic had to be removed. It also meant undoing some repairs: The plane's rocket motor fairing buckled during the first spaceflight, leaving a big dent that was fixed for the two flights that followed. After those flights, the dented fairing was put back on the craft.
To this day, some people think the dent was done by accident when the Smithsonian put the craft on exhibit, Linehan said. "It's interesting how the rumors and folklore go around," he said.
Among the most bizarre stories is the tale of SpaceShipOne's final journey to the museum. The rocket plane was loaded beneath its White Knight carrier aircraft, then flown in hops across the country. The final 500-mile hop took it from Dayton, Ohio, to Washington's Dulles International Airport. But when pilot Mike Melvill sought clearance to land, he was ordered to turn around instead.
The flight controller apparently thought that SpaceShipOne looked too much like a missile, slung on the underside of a strange aircraft's belly. That was a big problem for Melvill. "He literally told the guy that if he didn't land he was going to run out of gas," Linehan said.
After pleading with the control tower, Melvill finally landed with his historic cargo on a side runway that the commercial airlines weren't using. And the rest was literally history.
But is Linehan's book the last word? Even he refuses to go that far.
"I definitely don't consider this the definitive history. ... There are a lot of stories that are part of the history that still need to be written," he said.
Some of those stories may well come out in a book yet to come from Joel Glenn Brenner, an author and journalist who was embedded with Rutan's team. Linehan said Rutan and the rest of the SpaceShipOne team saw his richly illustrated book as a "complement" to Brenner's work.
"They wouldn't have given me this kind of access if it was going to be the same kind of book," Linehan said.
There's another sense in which the last word has not yet been written: The SpaceShipOne team is now hard at work on SpaceShipTwo - backed this time by British billionaire Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic and a myriad of other Virgin subsidiaries.
The saga of SpaceShipTwo, which may become the first privately developed spacecraft to take on paying passengers, is still in its early chapters: Last week, Virgin Galactic announced that White Knight Two, SpaceShipTwo's super-sized carrier aircraft, is scheduled for its rollout next month. The upgraded rocket plane that would be launched from White Knight Two isn't likely to take to the air for its first tests until next year, with passenger service beginning in 2010 or later.
Linehan refers glancingly to the post-SpaceShipOne era at the tail end of his book. But to get the long-range view, you really have to turn to the very beginning: In one of the last things he wrote before he died this March, science-fiction great Arthur C. Clarke hails the rise of "a new breed of 'astropreneurs'" who are building a new industry without relying on government funding:
"In that sense, space travel is returning to where it started: with maverick pioneers dreaming of journeys to orbit and beyond, some carrying out rocket experiments in their own backyards. Burt and his team have been a great deal more successful than Robert Goddard ever was in his lifetime (and, thankfully, no one is ridiculing Burt the way they did with Goddard).
"Yet, today's astropreneurs like Paul Allen and Burt Rutan are driven by the same spirit of enquiry, adventure and exploration that sustained Lindbergh and Goddard. This, then, is the inside story of how citizens reclaimed space."
For more inside stories, check out Michael Belfiore's overview of the astropreneur industry, "Rocketeers," as well as our own online history of the "New Space Race." And feel free to add your own footnotes to history as comments below.
Correction for 12:30 p.m. ET June 3: I originally said that the dent on SpaceShipOne's motor fairing was pounded back into metal - but I should have known that wasn't the case, because much of the rocket plane was constructed from composite. A commenter from Mojave (see below) set me straight: A new fairing was made after the June 2004 flight and and installed on SpaceShipOne. When it came time to take the plane to the museum, SpaceShipOne's team simply put the old, dented fairing back in place. I've fixed the reference in the item itself. Thanks, Z.C.R.!