Space Ship One


Winner of the $10 million Ansari X-Prize for the first successful flight of a privately financed commercial spacecraft, SpaceShipOne took its first test spaceflight on June 21, 2004, reaching an altitude of over 100 kilometers (62.14 miles) which is the officially designated edge of space aka the “Kármán line.”

The hybrid rocket-motor powered vehicle was developed by Mojave Aerospace Ventures, which was a collaborative project between well-known aircraft designer Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites, and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. All flights took place at the newly christened Mojave Air and Space Port in Southern California. It was flown by longtime Rutan test pilot, Mike Melvill, who subsequently became the first ever licensed commercial astronaut.

Carried aloft from the runway attached to a customized turbojet aircraft called “White Knight,” SpaceShipOne was released at an altitude of 14.3 km (47,000 ft), where its rocket engine was ignited and 76 seconds of thrust propelled it to a speed of 2150 mph, reaching Mach 2.9 at an altitude of 54.9 km (180,000 ft). After rocket burnout, the aircraft coasted upward on a ballistic arc, exiting the densest part of the earth’s atmosphere and ultimately reaching 100.12 kilometers (62.21 mi) and making SpaceShipOne the first privately built vehicle to fly in space. The whole test flight took 24 minutes.

At the height of its trajectory, SpaceShipOne was configured for high drag mode, rotating its tail booms into an upright position to provide stability in its gliding descent, similar to a badminton “shuttlecock.” The coasting parabolic flight path produced a few minutes of zero-G weightlessness. Melvill took a moment to do an experiment with what he had on hand: “I reached into my pocket and I took out some M&M’s, all different colors, and let them go in front of my face and they just spun around like little sparkling things. I was so blown away… I got another handful and threw them out as well.” After his flight, candy manufacturer Mars, Inc. signed on to become one of the sponsors of the Ansari X Prize.

Since this one test flight did not meet the requirements to qualify for the Ansari X Prize (make two successful competitive flights within 14 days, have a payload equivalent of two passengers, etc.), it was not considered for the competition. However the next two flights of Space Ship One on September 29, 2004 and October 4, 2004 qualified Mojave Aerospace Ventures for the coveted trophy and $10,000,000 X Prize. There were 26 teams from around the world competing, but only one with Burt Rutan!


Artifact Details:
Title: Full-scale model of SpaceShipOne
Model: Scaled Composites Model 316
Artist/Maker: Scaled Composites
Country of origin: United States
Medium: Metal frame and fiberglass skin
Dimensions: height: 91″ width: 26’10” length: 27’11” weight: 4000 pounds
Accession No. L2017.03
On loan from: Chabot Space and Science Center, Oakland, CA

Melvill quote from Smithsonian Magazine, February 10, 2015