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Sat, Apr 19, 2003

Scaled Composites Unwraps Commercial Space Plane

Secret Project Answer To NASA Woes?

Burt Rutan has headed up 34 manned flight research projects. Not once has he officially unveiled one until it's ready to fly. This one is no different in that it evokes a one-word reaction: Whoa.

Since 1996, Rutan and Scaled Composites have been working under cover in Mojave (CA), creating a two-vehicle solution to the question of what comes next in manned space flight.

SpaceShipOne And White Knight

The two ships - SpaceShipOne, the actual space-going vehicle and White Knight, the vehicle which carries it aloft look like aircraft you'd expect from Burt Rutan. Only wilder. White Knight has a twin-empennage design much like his 'round-the-world-on-one-tank-of-gas Voyager. Between the twin booms there's a ... well, a salt shaker. Instead of a single, forward-looking window, the twin-engine aircraft has 16 glass-covered portholes. The pilot faces a single, flat-panel display that gives him all the information of a six-pack, plus a graphical representation of his flight path, engineering and navigational data.

But 16 portholes. Isn't it a little tough to see where you're going?

Scaled Composites writes, "The visibility is actually much better than you might imagine. By moving your head slightly you can piece together an acceptable picture of the outside world and maintain adequate 'situational awareness.' What is more difficult is spotting other airborne traffic. However, between radar advisories from ground controllers and an onboard traffic alert system called "Skywatch," this limitation is minimized."

The Flight Of The White Knight

Isolated in the Mojave Desert, Rutan's White Knight made its first flight in August. It wasn't without a few tense moments. In fact, it lasted just two minutes. "The airplane had outboard spoilers on the wings to help improve roll control in the event of gusty cross wind landings," according to the Scaled Composites web site. "They were pneumatically actuated (using the same tanks, valves and fittings as the RCS system on SpaceShipOne) and returned to recesses in the wings by springs. On the first flight, the low air pressure, at rotation was sufficient to 'suck' the spoilers out which killed the lift and caused the return springs to slam them closed. Four of these surfaces chattering out on the wingtips during the climb out produced significant airframe vibrations and the pilot elected to turn downwind and land immediately rather than aggravate the condition any longer than necessary."

But Scaled is confident in the White Knight. "Right from the start the White Knight has been one of Scaled's best handling aircraft. It has good control harmony and is surprisingly responsive for a large airplane. Despite its high wing, the airplane's dihedral effect (being able to pick up a wing with rudder only control) was too low. Therefore, winglets have been added." White Knight has flown again since the modifications. The Rutan team appears confident in the tweaks - they flew White Knight at the press event in Mojave Friday.

Coming Soon: SpaceShipOne's Maiden Voyage

The actual space-going vessel, SpaceShipOne, is designed to reach space, but not to enter orbit. Slung underneath White Knigh, SpaceShipOne is drop-launched at 50,000 feet. It's single rocket fires, carrying it to an altitude of 62.5 miles, the altitude established by the X-Prize organization as a goal in creating a private-sector space vehicle prototype.

"I want to go high because that's where the view is," Rutan said. And he will, according to Scaled. Perhaps not on the first flight, but as soon as practical.

SpaceShipOne is a stubby, three-place vehicle with a window scheme much like that on White Knight. "The windows need to be small to keep the weight of the vehicle down and they need to be round to minimize the structural loads," says Scaled on the web site. "This configuration is also the least expensive to manufacture. Each portal consists of two windows to provide redundancy for the integrity of the pressure vessel should one window crack or fail. The number and location of the windows were selected to provide the pilot a view of the horizon throughout SpaceShipOne's mission profile."

The wings fold as SpaceShipOne re-enters the atmosphere. "The wings are folded up to provide a shuttle-cock or 'feather' effect to help stabilize the vehicle for reentry. This configuration orients the vehicle to a belly first attitude that increases its drag and reduces its speed while coming back into the atmosphere thus helping to lessen the aerodynamic heating and reduce G-buildup." In fact, Rutan says the maximum gravity load during any portion of the flight is six g's. Rutan says flight testing of SpaceShipOne could commence within a matter of weeks.

Reaching For The X-Prize

SpaceShipOne is Rutan's entry in the X-Prize contest. That makes his team one of a dozen competing for the bragging rights to the first commercial manned spaceflight. Oh, and there is the $10 million prize. But Rutan, who's backed by an anonymous donor, doesn't seem all that concerned about winning the prize money. Scaled isn't saying how much each flight will cost, but estimates it to be around the price of a Soyuz ride.

Can I Fly It?

Surprisingly, the qualifications needed to pilot the two ships are relatively attainable. "Scaled's pilots come from a variety of different backgrounds and experiences," according to the web site. "It is the training provided by in-house assets and program specific resources that provide confidence in our ability to fly the space ship. This training includes glide approaches in our twin engine Duchess, acrobatic and unusual attitude training in an Extra 300, a sophisticated simulator with tailored flight displays for each distinct phase of flight and finally the in-flight exposure to the same cockpit environment provided by the White Knight aircraft."

If Rutan succeeds with SpaceShipOne, he could have some of the answers NASA is now so desperately looking for, in the wake of the shuttle Columbia disaster. Right now, there is no successor to the aging shuttle fleet and, until a cause is determined in the Columbia disintegration and has been addressed by NASA engineers, the shuttle fleet is gathering dust on the ground.



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