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Stubby, Rubber-Burning 'Flash Gordon' Craft Heralds A New Space Age

Using a manufacture process similar to that used to make surfboards, Rutan and his innovative team based in California's harsh Mojave desert used graphite and epoxy composite to build the airframe, creating a spaceship made essentially of tough fabric and glue.
By Marc Lavine
Mojave CA (AFP) Oct 05, 2004
It's stubby, made out of fabric and glue and is powered by laughing gas and tyre rubber, but SpaceShipOne on Monday streaked into history as the herald of a brave new space age. The small, handmade vessel that made history when it soared 112 kilometers (nearly 70 miles) into space is an unlikely hero of a space race once dominated by the US and Russian governments and their huge, multi-billion-dollar high-tech spaceships.

The white star-spangled ship, about the size of a truck with a pointy nose and short, fat body, is more reminiscent of a fantasy craft from the 1930s comic book "Flash Gordon", than it is of state-of-the art technology.

But aviation pioneer Burt Rutan, hailed a genius and visionary by aerospace colleagues and by such figures as Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen, who stumped up the estimated 20 million dollars that SpaceShipOne cost to develop, turned his simple yet ingenious dream into reality.

"If you told me when we started this project ... how well it would turn out, I wouldn't have believed it," Rutan said. "It has worked much better than we could have hoped."

Former US Air Force test flight engineer Rutan, who has built experimental planes since the 1970s, used simple materials and revolutionary yet uncomplicated designs to reach for the stars when he launched the SpaceShipOne project in 2001.

Using a manufacture process similar to that used to make surfboards, Rutan and his innovative team based in California's harsh Mojave desert used graphite and epoxy composite to build the airframe, creating a spaceship made essentially of tough fabric and glue.

The ship, which has a 4.9-meter (16-foot) wingspan and twin vertical tails, was then coated with a simple "trowel-on" ablative thermal protection layer to withstand re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere.

Inside the double-walled pressurised three-man craft, crew do not have to wear space suits, but can wear shirt-sleeves for the short space journey that so far lasts only a few minutes.

The ship is powered by a unique hybrid engine using nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, which ignites and burns into vehicle tyre rubber which explodes, propelling the ship on a vertical journey into space once it is launched from its mother plane, also a Rutan design.

The gas and rubber combustion allows SpaceShipOne to travel at speeds of up to 3,500 kilometers (2,180 miles) an hour in its vertical ascent from near its mother plane into space. It then glides powerlessly back to Earth.

But the most remarkable aspect of the ship, which weighs just 3,060 kilograms (6,800 pounds) compared to the 1960 X-15 space jet that weighed almost 6,700 kilograms (14,750 pounds), is its ability to transform its shape at will.

The rocket's tail and wings fold, allowing it to transform into three different configurations during the course of its flight and adopt the aerodynamic qualities of a shuttlecock when it re-enters Earth's atmosphere.

That slows it down enough to pass gently through the natural barrier that has until now been one of the greatest dangers posed to large manned spacecraft like the space shuttle, which is covered with special tiles to prevent it from burning up on re-entry.

The ship can then glide downwards before deploying its "feather" configuration that allows it to land gently on an ordinary aircraft runway.

"We have come up with some major breakthroughs that make us confident that a manned spaceflight can be flown a very high safety levels compared with current space craft," Rutan said Monday.

Test pilot Peter Siebold said most systems on the plane were built from "off the shelf" equipment and items including lap-top computers, making it simple to repair and adapt.

Rutan said SpaceShipOne would ultimately be placed in Washington's National Air and Space Museum to commemorate the world's first viable commercial space liner.

But until then, he said, it will likely continue flying and be used to carry out further research to develop a new generation of spaceliners for British tycoon Richard Branson, who has ordered five.

All rights reserved. 2004 Agence France-Presse. Sections of the information displayed on this page (dispatches, photographs, logos) are protected by intellectual property rights owned by Agence France-Presse. As a consequence, you may not copy, reproduce, modify, transmit, publish, display or in any way commercially exploit any of the content of this section without the prior written consent of Agence France-Presse.

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First Commercial "Spacecraft" Set To Clinch Big Prize
Mojave (SPX) Oct 03, 2004
A private US spacecraft is set to blast off for the second time in five days Monday in the final stage of an attempt to clinch a 10-million-dollar prize aimed at launching a new era of space tourism. "What we finally have here, after 40 years of waiting, is the beginning of the personal space flight revolution," said Peter Diamandis, president of the X Prize foundation.

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