Karl Stolleis  /  Pool via AP file
SpaceShipOne sits underneath its White Knight carrier plane in Mojave, Calif. in this file photo.
By Alan Boyle Science editor
updated 9/29/2004 8:37:40 AM ET 2004-09-29T12:37:40

The SpaceShipOne rocket plane is filled up with mementos, fueled up and ready for the first of a pair of space missions that could reap a $10 million prize. The craft is to be piloted by Mike Melvill, who was at the controls for SpaceShipOne's first journey to the edge of space in June.

At the time, Melvill had said that flight would be his last on SpaceShipOne, but the longtime test pilot was pressed into service once more.

The last time around , SpaceShipOne made it across the internationally accepted boundary of outer space by only about 400 feet (120 meters), due to unexpected wind shear and a control-system glitch. During the supersonic descent, Melvill weathered accelerations of 5 G's — more than a shuttle astronaut would typically feel — and said afterward that he was "pretty scared."

This time, the rocket engine's performance has been tweaked so that it should pass the 100-kilometer (62.5 miles) threshold with plenty of fuel left to burn, designer Burt Rutan of Mojave-based Scaled Composites told reporters Tuesday.

"We don't want to scare everybody, including me ... by flying that close, so we do plan to intentionally shut down the rocket motor when the onboard computer tells us that we're above 345,000 feet," Rutan said. That translates to 65.3 miles or 105 kilometers.

The spaceship's rubber-based fuel has been in place for the past month, and the nitrous oxide that is used as an oxidizer was loaded into its tanks Tuesday, Rutan said.

"We're all very confident that we can pull this off tomorrow and turn it around quickly," Rutan said. "Anything can happen, though. There's all kinds of surprises that can happen. We believe our system is extremely robust to the normal types of failures with rockets that cause really big problems. ... The fact that this has gone so well — I've got to pinch myself."

Mementos riding along
The flight plan calls for SpaceShipOne to be carried underneath its White Knight carrier airplane for takeoff from the Mojave Airport at 6:47 a.m. PT (9:47 a.m. ET). About an hour later, when the paired planes rise to an altitude of 47,000 feet (14.3 kilometers), the rocket plane would be released, then fire up its engine for a 90-second burn.

At the peak of the ride, Melvill should be able to see the curvature of the earth beneath the blackness of space, and feel about three and a half minutes of weightlessness. For its descent, SpaceShipOne would bend its wings into a shape designed to allow for a "carefree re-entry" through the upper atmosphere, then become a glider and land back at Mojave at about 8:30 a.m. PT.

Wednesday's flight — along with another tentatively scheduled for Monday — is designed to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize, an eight-year-long effort meant to encourage private spaceflight.

SpaceShipOne must successfully complete two piloted spaceflights within two weeks in order to win the prize. The rules require SpaceShipOne to carriy almost 400 extra pounds (180 kilograms), to represent the weight of two passengers. Rather than loading up the craft with lead weights, Scaled Composites' ground crew packed the seats behind the pilot with video equipment, a flight monitoring device known as the "Gold Box" and mementos from team members.

Among the items: photos, personal tools from toolboxes, tree seedlings, a teddy bear for a British charity, Rutan's 1961-vintage college slide rule, an heirloom watch and a copy of "The Spirit of St. Louis," Charles Lindbergh's book about his 1927 solo trans-Atlantic flight. That flight made Lindbergh the winner of the $25,000 Orteig Prize, which in turn provided the inspiration for the X Prize.

Don't expect these mementos to turn up on eBay: Rutan said employees had to sign forms promising that they wouldn't sell the items that were flown.

If the X Prize is won, the $10 million purse would go to Mojave Aerospace Ventures, the company created by Rutan and software billionaire Paul Allen. Allen has said he has invested more than $20 million in the venture.

Other payoffs
In addition to the X Prize, SpaceShipOne's success could yield other payoffs: Rutan said there were "at least five customers who want to fly payloads" aboard SpaceShipOne once the X Prize flights are finished. "We are assessing all of those, and we haven't even ourselves made the decision, so we're certainly not going to be making an announcement," he said.

Among the would-be customers is Iranian-born entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari, whose family made a multimillion-dollar contribution to solidify the financial arrangements for the $10 million purse. Ansari said she was ready to take a seat on SpaceShipOne or one of its successors.

"Suborbital is the first step," she said. "I didn't want to wait until a few years down the line for orbital flight. I want to experience whatever can be experienced now."

On Monday, Virgin founder Richard Branson announced that he would license SpaceShipOne technology for a new fleet of "Virgin Galactic" suborbital spaceships, in a deal worth as much as $21.5 million. David Moore, managing director of Mojave Aerospace Ventures, noted that the nonexclusive deal left his venture free to forge other licensing agreements as well.

"I've actually had four other parties approach us," Moore told reporters. "We're starting those negotiations, and we'll see where they go."

Peter Diamandis, president and founder of the St. Louis-based X Prize Foundation, said the growth of the suborbital space industry was the primary aim of his eight-year effort.

"We've stimulated a new generation of ships. ... I wouldn't be surprised if we see not just Virgin Galactic, but a half-dozen other vehicles," he said.

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