On the beautiful morning of June 21, 2004, some 100 years after the first flight of the Wright Flyer, SpaceShipOne flew a short flight of less than 90 minutes into space 62 miles above the earth. It was one giant step for the entrepreneur spirit.

In 1903, the thought of people traveling in the air from city to city seemed impossible. Today space exploration, both private and public, is still just getting off the ground.

Rutan said, “today’s flight marks a critical turning point in the history of aerospace. We have redefined travel, as we know it. Our success proves without question that manned space does not require mammoth expenditures. It can be done by a small company with limited resources and a few dozen dedicated employees.”

Rutan, 61, a college educated aeronautical engineer, founded Scaled Composites in the early 1900s. He has a reputation for his innovative approach to aircraft design. His genius seems to lie in his ability to combine a number of unrelated innovations into one design.

His interest in airplanes started at an early age. He was a competition aero modeler as a teenager. Many people first heard of him when one of his designs, the Voyager, flew around the world nonstop on a 9-day flight. Dick Rutan, Burt’s brother piloted the plane in 1986.

SpaceShipOne started its flight attached underneath the belly of another one of Rutan’s unique planes he developed from scratch, named the White Knight.

Using a mother ship reduces the expense and danger of a rocket launch from the ground.

The White Night took off from a normal runway witnessed by thousands of spectators who lined the grounds of the Mojave Desert Airport. The two vehicles joined together looked like something out of a Buck Rodgers comic book.

The twin turbo-fan powered White Knight carried the SpaceShipOne up to approximately 50,000-feet altitude to start the space flight. At that altitude they are through about 85% of the earth’s atmosphere. (Note: Cruising altitudes for some jets is 35,000-feet).

The pilot of SpaceShipOne was Michael Melvill. Melvill was born in South Africa and later became an U.S. citizen. He has worked for Rutan for 26 years and has flown all kinds of airplanes.

When SpaceShipOne disconnected from the mother ship, it glided for about 10-seconds while Melvill trimmed the craft ready for the rocket boost. He then threw a switch that fired the rocket motor capable of generating 17,000-pounds of thrust that accelerated the craft to twice the speed of sound.

This unique rocket motor was designed from scratch by Rutan’s design team. They had never made a rocket motor before just as the Wright brothers designed and built their own original 12-hp engine for the Flyer.

The rocket fuel consisted of tire rubber as the fuel and laughing gas as the oxidizer. The laughing gas self-pressures at room temperature, eliminating the need for the complicated systems of pumps and pipes typical in rocket engines. This saves money and weight.

When the rocket motor fired, Melvill immediately commenced a pullout maneuver to point the nose vertically in order to fly straight up to sub-orbital space. The craft continued to accelerate straight-out for a minute or so until the rocket burned out at about 150,000-feet. At this point the craft was going twice the speed of sound, straight out and coasting. The pilot felt about 3-4 g’s.

From there it coasted another some 150,000-feet until it reached apogee, about 62-miles above sea level.

Unfortunately, during this phase a control problem developed. The Wright brothers also encountered control problems on December 17, 1903. They had great difficulty maintaining pitch control.

After motor ignition, Melvill’s craft rolled to the left and then rolled to the right and experienced trim problems as the craft hit horizontal wind shear. To make matters worse, he experienced a temporary failure of the left stabilizer trim motor. The failure was caused by the trim motor reaching the stop and blowing its circuit breaker, which automatically reset itself in 3 seconds.

He had to fight to stabilize the craft. He said later “It never ever did that before.” He said he thought, “he was going to be a squashed bug.”

He briefly considered aborting or trying a high-risk bailout. He quickly dismissed that thought because a bailout would have destroyed the craft.

Fortunately, the craft had built-in backup controls. He switched to them and was able to regain mastery of the controls.

Because of the control problem, the craft varied from its planned trajectory and the apogee occurred at 328,491-feet instead of 360,000-feet. It was still good enough to reach the threshold of space of 62-miles.

Just before apogee, the craft was reconfigured for the next phase. Melvill flipped a switch that started a very unusual and clever procedure. The switch activated pneumatic actuators that moved the tail and back half of the wing and reconfigured the craft into a “jack-knifed position” for re-entry into the atmosphere.

The transformation took 15-seconds and the back half of the craft moved up 65 degrees.

In this configuration the craft acts as a stable badminton shuttlecock as it follows a ballistic trajectory through the apogee and starts its fall back to earth. At this point the pilot has no control.

This hinged or “feathering” wing configuration is the most innovative feature of the craft’s aerodynamic design. It provided a rock-solid stability at supersonic speed.

As the craft passed through the apogee, it picked up speed from zero as it fell back into the atmosphere. Melvill experienced weightlessness for about 3 1/2 minutes.

He had smuggled a package of “M and Ms” on board. He opened the package and let them go. “They stayed there spinning like little satellites.”

The craft fell towards earth into denser and denser air. The “jack knifed” craft presents to the atmosphere its full whole belly and the tremendous drag it created slowed the craft as it fell.

He experienced about 5 – 6 g’s during the deceleration. Only an experienced pilot, like Melvill, could remain conscious at these g’s.

Melvill experienced another potential problem. He heard some disconcerting loud rumbling noises in the engine area and shaking during this phase.

During the fall, only moderate heat was generated from the graphite-epoxy composite materials of the craft. Some hotter sections were treated with trowel-on ablative thermal protection. The insulation material worked as designed to protect the craft from the 1,100-degree temperatures of reentry.

As Melvill neared 50,000-feet, he flipped a switch and the craft turned back into the normal configuration with a tail.

He dived out of that maneuver and began a peaceful ride, flying the craft as a normal glider. He was back at the airport for a perfect three-point landing in 10 to 15 minutes.

When Melvill got off the plane he said, “It was like nothing I’ve seen before. You really do get the feeling that you’ve touched the face of God.”

He wore a good luck charm in the shape of a horseshoe on the left side of his spacesuit. He had given it to his future wife when she was still a teenager. She gives it back to him to wear for every flight.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin of Apollo fame greeted him with “you have joined the club.” The FAA presented him with the first commercial astronaut wings.

SpaceShipOne is designed for sub-orbital flight that begins at 62-miles altitude. It holds three people, has a wingspan of 16.4-feet and is 28-feet long. The aspect ratio of the wings is 1.7. It utilizes elevons, which is a combination of ailerons and elevators, for control. The craft is less than ¼ the size of the Space Shuttle.

The craft uses its tail and wings to fly like an airplane during the ascent stage after horizontal launch from the mother ship and again during the gliding approaches and landing.

It cost $20 million dollars to build. Rutan claims that is about what it costs NASA to make a paper study. Investor and philanthropist billionaire Paul G. Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, is the major investor.

Samuel Langley had a government contract for $50,000 in addition to use of the resources of the Smithsonian and failed when his Great Aerodrome crashed twice on takeoff in 1903. The Wright brothers were successful a few days later using only $1,200 of their own money.

Rutan’s group will win $10 million if they can win the “X Prize.” To do that they must fly into space twice with the same craft within a two-week period carrying three people or equivalent.

There are 26 other ventures from seven countries that are also vying for the prize. One other team is reportedly close to attempting their first space flight.

The prize was established eight years ago for purpose of encouraging development of commercial space flight. A St. Louis group sponsors the prize. Erik Lindbergh, the grandson of Charles Lindbergh that flew from New York to Paris in 1927, is part of the group. SpaceShipOne’s flight is somewhat akin to Lindbergh’s pioneering flight that won the $25,000 Orteig prize.

The problems uncovered during the test program have been diagnosed and fixed. Rutan says they plan to fly again on September 29th followed by a second flight as early as October 4th.

One of the first commercial uses of SpaceShipOne will be for tourism. At first it will cost between $30,000-50,000 to experience the exciting ride and spectacular view. Melvill says it is a “mind-blowing experience.”

Rutan expects the cost to come down to around $12,000 with 5-6 passengers within about 15 years.

When the Wright brothers flew, there were few people who could imagine the impact that their flight would have on the 20th century. The commercial airplane industry and intercontinental flight seemed far-fetched. Even the brothers thought that governments would be their main customers because they were the only ones that could afford to buy their airplanes.

Rutan expects his efforts will spark the imagination of a new generation of explorers and new industry of privately funded manned spacecraft just as Orville and Wilbur opened the door to flight itself. The incentive of commerce will eventually lead to cheap access to space.

Up Date: Northrop Grumman buys SpaceShipOne Maker. A spokesman for Northrop Grumman said that Scaled will continue in its current operating model as a separate entity within Northrop Grumman and that Rutan and Scaled management will remain in place. The partner ship between Scaled and the Virgin Group, which seeks to begin  suborbital tourist flights in 2009, remains unchanged.

SpaceShipOne Flies Again

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Others

On Wednesday September 29th SpaceShipOne successfully flew again in the pursuit of the X Prize competition worth $10 million. One more successful flight and they will have won it.

Here is the criteria for the winning the prize: the winning team must privately finance, build and launch a spacecraft that can carry three people 62 miles above the Earth’s surface, return safely to Earth, and then do it again within two weeks. Some 26 teams from seven countries are vying for the prize. The 62-mile threshold is generally accepted as the point where the Earth’s atmosphere ends and space begins.

The SpaceShipOne team is planning on completing the second flight requirement on Monday October 4th, although they have until October 13 at 0834 to make the attempt.

On Sept. 29 at 0712 the SpaceShipOne rocket ship attached to the White Knight, the carrier airplane, left the Mojave, California runway before thousands of spectators. The White Knight with its payload climbed to about an altitude of 48,000 feet where SpaceShipOne detached from the White Knight and its rockets fired, sending SpaceShipOne roaring straight up for about 2 minutes. Its bright streak toward space could be seen from the ground.

Before reaching apogee the pilot, Mike Melvill, experienced some nervous moments as the spacecraft began to spin unexpectedly as it sped through space at nearly three times the speed of sound. Melvill said later that he figures there were at least 20 turns, with some of them at a high rate producing a corkscrew like flight path. “I’m not sure what kicked it off,” he said. “It was probably something I did.”

Rutan, the designer of the craft, didn’t think it was pilot error. Instead he suggested it was the result of the “dihedral effect” in which air buffeting the spacecraft at an angle causes it to roll.

The spin caused the worried flight controllers on the ground to advise Melvill to abort his ascent, but Melvill was close to the goal of at least 62 miles altitude and kept going a few more seconds before shutting down the engine eleven seconds earlier than planned.

He achieved 64 miles (337,500 feet). After landing at 0833 without further incident he said, “I did a victory roll at the top.” “You just cannot describe what a feeling this is. Maybe I’m crazy.”

The first test flight last June 21st also had control problems. In this instance, the craft unexpectedly rolled to the left and then to the right and developed trim problems as the craft experienced horizontal wind shear. That problem was fixed and a new engine was designed to provide 20% greater thrust.

Experiencing control problems with experimental craft is not new. The Wright brothers had their own problems with controlling the Flyer.

An interesting aspect of the flight is that employees of Burt Rutan’s company, Scaled Composites, contributed personal items to simulate the weight of two additional passengers to provide the 400 pounds required under the X Prize rules. All items were carefully weighed and sealed in boxes. The items included tools, toys, pictures of children, a prized watch and the ashes of Rutan’s deceased mother.

The X Prize is spurring private space flight. Just recently Sir Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Airways, announced the formation of a new company, Virgin Galactic, for the purpose of offering space jaunts in 2007. He plans to license the technology from Mojave Aerospace Ventures, a company founded by Rutan and Paul Allen, the billionaire cofounder of Microsoft and investor in the SpaceShipOne venture.

Tickets will cost about $208,000 for a 2-hour flight. They expect to fly 3,000 new astronauts in the first 5 years. Only a few civilians have flown into space and they paid much larger sums of money to ride on ships operated by the Russian government.

The biggest hurtle to space tourism may be legal and regulatory rather than technical. The House passed a bill earlier this year creating a licensing system. A similar bill is languishing in the Senate. A bill may not pass this year.

Melvill is scheduled to speak at the EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh on December 17th at a program observing the anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first flight.

Spacecraft Earns $40 Million

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Others

It took six years to develop, but for the second time in five days, a piloted reusable suborbital spacecraft, SpaceShipOne, flew into the fringes of space, nearly 70 miles (367,442 feet) above the earth, before gliding back to a safe landing in the Mojave Desert. In so doing it flew seven miles higher than the arbitrary line marking the beginning of space and won the $10-million Ansari X Prize and became the first privately developed plane to rocket into space.

The previous record for a space plane was held by the military developed X-15 that reached an altitude of 67 miles (354,200 feet) in 1963.

The X prize-winning flight on October 4, 1904 coincided with the 43rd-anniversary of the Soviet Union’s 184-pound Sputnik I that triggered the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Also sadly, it coincided with the death of astronaut Gordon Cooper, 77, who flew the last Mercury mission-Faith 7 on May 1963.

There was jubilation close to that of the Wright Brothers achievement when the spacecraft landed. Some people have called the achievement a new era in flight and have compared the feat to the Wright Brothers historic flight, calling the Mojave the new Kitty Hawk. One observer remarked, “It feels a little bit like Kitty Hawk must have.”

Unlike the Wright Brother’s flight nearly 101 years ago, which stirred little interest or press, the event was documented live on television and around the world, by many major news agencies, including CNN, ABC, Fox, Reuters, Associated Press, to name a few.

The X prize set requirements that included altitude (at least 100 kilometers), and vehicle reliability (the spacecraft flies twice within 2 weeks).

A piloted turbojet known as the White Knight carried SpaceShipOne to nearly 50,000 feet (above nearly 85% of the Earth’s atmosphere). There, SpaceShipOne fired its rocket for 84 seconds, climbing in a vertical trajectory at speeds of near three times the speed of sound. After reaching just under 70 miles above the Earth and experiencing several minutes of weightlessness, it coasted back into the Earth’s atmosphere where the pilot took over control and flew it as a glider to a landing at Mojave Airport.

It was a flawless flight in contrast to the two previous flights in which the pilot experienced control problems, but still completed the mission.

The X Prize foundation hopes to stimulate the same sort of proliferation of technologies and enterprise seen after the Wright brothers’ pioneering flight. Peter Diamandis, a businessman, established the X Prize eight years ago with the objective being to spur commercial space travel. He plans to present the $10 million dollar check to Mojave Aerospace Ventures in St. Louis on Nov. 6. Burt Rutan, the craft’s designer, and Paul Allen, Microsoft’s co-founder who provided some $20 million to support the project, founded the winning partnership known as Mojave Aerospace Ventures.

Anousheh Ansari, an Iran-born engineer who made a fortune in telecommunications provided most of the $10 million for the prize. The X Prize is modeled after the $25,000 Orteig Prize that was won by Charles Lindbergh in 1927 for flying nonstop over the Atlantic Ocean. Lindbergh’s grandson, Erik Lindbergh, is a trustee and vice-president of the X Prize Foundation.

Rutan says he will share the prize money with his employees at Scaled Composites, his company. The prize attracted more than two dozen teams from around the world.

The Wrights also privately financed their Flyer, although they weren’t millionaires.

Rutan has designed some of the oddest and innovative airplanes in the world over a career of 30 years. Like the Wright brothers, he is known for putting together known technologies into innovative ways to form new systems.

Rutan designed Voyager, a plane that flew nonstop around the world without refueling. He is considered by some as a national treasure.

The SpaceShipOne demonstrates two technological breakthroughs. One is a safer hybrid rocket engine, the first developed for human space flight since 1972. The second is the use of the ship’s movable tail section that folds up to serve as an airbrake as the plane descends.

After the prize-winning flight of SpaceShipOne, Rutan said: “Our success proves without question that manned space flight does not require mammoth government expenditures. It can be done by a small company with limited resources and a few dozen dedicated employees.”

In 1908, there were only 10 pilots in the world, including the Wright brothers. By 1912, after Wilbur flew in France in 1909, there were thousands of pilots. Many of the pilots must have said to themselves that if two bicycles makers can fly so can I.

Only 434 people have flown in space and they were trained and funded by governments. We now have two space pilots that have been awarded commercial astronaut wings by the FAA – Brian Binnie and Mike Melvill, the two pilots that flew the prize-winning flights. They are two of four pilots that have been trained to fly SpaceShipOne.

Binnie said after the second prize-winning flight, “flying this vehicle is literally a rush.”

Diamandis has announced the foundation of an annual X Prize cup to begin in December 2006 to maintain the momentum by sponsoring “space races.” The event aims to launch 50 space flights over a 10-day period with cash prizes given for such categories as altitude, speed and passenger capacity.

“We have to one winner here today, which is spectacular. But it’s insufficient to have a monopoly once again. We need to have a competitive market. We need to push the envelope to go higher, further and faster.”

The British billionaire tycoon and owner of Virgin Airlines, Richard Branson, has joined the effort by announcing that he plans to take tourists to space for a fee of around $200,000. He has formed a space tourism company named Virgin Galactic to license the technology from Rutan’s Mojave Aerospace Ventures and for Scaled Composites to build the first of five space-liners next year and fly paying passengers in suborbital flights as early as 2007. The first space-liner has already been named – V.S.S. Enterprise.

Branson plans to locate ships in several countries. He has already received 5,000 inquiries for tickets.

Profits generated will be used to develop a new generation of spacecraft capable of orbital flights capable of visits around the moon and space hotels.

Some critics have denigrated the use of SpaceShipOne as a vehicle for tourism. The Wrights, too, didn’t have a clear idea of how to use the airplane. The first uses were military. It took another 20 years for commercial travel by airplanes to become practical.

X Prize supporters hope to demonstrate that low-cost space travel is practical and profitable. Over time private ventures are expected to cut the cost of space travel through volume, innovation and attention to the bottom line. The first NASA space shuttle flew in 1981. It costs NASA over $1 billion for each launch of the shuttle.

Space flights are not without risk. FAA’s Blakey said, “There will be a bad day sooner or later. As long as potential passengers truly understand the risks, the government approach would be caveat aviator. This country was founded on people who are risk-takers.”

Rutan says he intends to build commercial craft that are at least 100 times safer than anything that has ever flown man to space.

Founder of the X Prize

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Others

It was an exciting moment on October 4, 2004 when SpaceShipOne completed its mission by flying seventy miles into space to win the X Prize.

The media contained pictures of Burt Rutan, the designer of the craft, the pilots Michael Melvill and Brian Binnie who flew the two flights, and Paul Allen who provided most of the funds. You had to look hard to find the short, smiling man who was responsible for the prize.

His name is Peter H. Diamandis, and he is an interesting story in itself. Diamandis became obsessed with space as a boy when he watched the Apollo moon landing. He too wanted to go there.

He decided to become an Aerospace engineer and attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he was active as a student in pursuing his interest in space travel.

His father was a medical doctor and his parents were not so sure he was pursuing the right career. His mother wanted him to be a doctor and follow in the footsteps of his father. To please her, after graduation from MIT he attended Harvard Medical School and earned his medical degree.

He now had two degrees but his passion was still space travel. In 1986, after the Challenger disaster, he concluded that the best and quickest way to open the space frontier was through the private sector.

From that time on he has dedicated himself to find a way to achieve the advancement of human spaceflight by making space travel accessible to everyone.

He had a vision, but how does one make it happen. He had supporters as well as many doubters. The break came when Greg Marynjak, a college friend and now the X Prize Foundation Director, gave Diamandis a copy of Charles Lindbergh’s autobiography “The Spirit of St. Louis.”

The aviation legend, Lindbergh, was motivated by the $25,000 prize that Raymond Orteig established for the first nonstop flight between New York and Paris. Lindbergh’s triumphal flight on May 21, 1927 opened the way for rapid commercialization of flight.

Diamandis wasn’t so much interested in Lindbergh after reading the book as he was in the idea of a prize to motivate innovation. He reasoned, why not create a space prize and get some St. Louis businessmen to back it just as Lindbergh had done. He decided to call it the X Prize worth $10 million.

In March of 1996, he followed Lindbergh’s script and invited a group of St. Louis businessmen for drinks at the historic Racquet Club, using the same table used by Lindbergh a generation before.

Diamandis told them that St. Louis could be a “gateway to the stars” while showing them old clips of James Stewart playing Lindbergh in the movie, “Spirit of St. Louis.”

It must have been quite a show. He picked up $25,000 from the seven businessmen in attendance. It was a great start.

On May 18th under the Arch in St. Louis, he announced the formation of the X Prize Foundation. The first privately financed team to fly a reusable spacecraft would win the $10 million dollar X Prize. Charles Lindbergh’s grandson, Eric Lindbergh, was there as a vice president and trustee of the X Prize Foundation.

Eric two years ago celebrated the 75th Anniversary of his grandfather’s famous flight across the Atlantic by duplicating the flight by himself.

Also in attendance in St. Louis was Burt Rutan, the ultimate winner of the first X Prize with his SpaceShipOne. He was also the first to register for the prize. Later he admitted that he didn’t think about designing a spacecraft until 1999. He begin a full development program two years later after Paul Allen agreed to provide most of the financing for the effort.

After the initial burst of enthusiasm, Diamandis found it hard to raise the prize money. The big corporations shied away because they were afraid that the mission would fail and they didn’t want their corporate name attached to a failed spacecraft.

Despite round the clock fund raising efforts by Diamandis, the X Prize Foundation was potentially looking at bankruptcy as 2001 began. Then by chance, Diamandis read a Fortune magazine article about a couple of Texan telecommunication entrepreneurs who were interested in space travel.

He rushed to Dallas and met Anousheh Ansari and her brother-in-law, Amir. Bingo! He received a commitment of more than $1 million. The X Prize race was still on, but now under the banner of the renamed Ansari X Prize and Anousheh Ansari became a board member of the X Prize Foundation.

In another interesting strategy by Diamandis, who is always thinking out-of-the-box, an insurance company will be the entity that actually pays the prize money. The X Prize foundation (Ansari) paid an insurance company, Bermuda-based XL Capital, for a special “hole-in-one” insurance policy in which the insurance company essentially bets against success. The insurance company lost and must pay the prize money.

The X Prize Foundation will award the X Prize at a ceremony in St. Louis on November 6th.

The X Prize, said Diamandis, is the beginning, it is not the end of space competitions. Twenty-six teams had registered for the X Prize and many plan to continue their effort to fly a spacecraft.

The one closet to launch is the da Vinci project. The team leader, Brian Feeney, hopes to try a launch by November 1.

Also, the X Prize Foundation has announced an annual X Prize Cup to be held in Las Cruces, New Mexico that will serve as an air show for spacecraft. Prizes will be awarded in categories such as: fastest turnaround time, maximum number of passengers per flight, maximum altitude, fastest flight time, and coolest ship. The event hopes to launch some fifty space flights over a 10-day period beginning in December 2006

SpaceShipOne was a suborbital achievement. The ultimate goal is for orbital flight. Robert Bigelow, who heads an aerospace company in Nevada, has announced a “Bigelow Prize” worth $50 million.

NASA Jet Sets New Speed Record

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Others

A small, pilotless NASA experimental airplane set a new speed of almost 10 times the speed of sound on Tuesday November 17, 2004. It comes 100 years, 11 months, after the Wright brother’s first controlled flight. The NASA airplane, the X-43A, reached about 6,600 mph during a short flight over the Pacific Ocean that demonstrated that hypersonic flight is possible.

Orville’s first flight on December 17, 1903 was capable of a speed of about 34-mph in still air. On that day there was a head wind of 27-mph so that the ground speed was much slower. Wilbur had no trouble running along side the Flyer, steadying it, while it traveled down the launching rail.

During the early days of aviation, increases of flight speed were relatively slow.

To put this in perspective, by 1909 the Wright airplane demonstrated an average speed of 42.6-mph during the Army flight demonstrations at Fort Myer.

One year later the Wrights built an airplane designed for racing that demonstrated a significant increase in speed. It was clocked at flying over 77-mph with a new eight-cylinder engine. It was the Wright Model R, nicknamed the “Baby Grand.”

Less than 24 years after the first flight at Kitty Hawk, Charles Lindbergh’s airplane, the “Sprit of St. Louis,” was capable of attaining a maximum speed of 125-mph on his solo flight to Paris.

The development of the jet engine resulted in rapid improvements in speed.

An historic breakthrough in speed came on October 14, 1947, when Chuck Yeager became the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound (supersonic flight) flying the Bell X-1. His record-breaking speed was Mach 1.06, or 700 mph, and proved that airplanes can fly safely in the mysterious aerodynamic zone around Mach 1 formerly known as a “sound barrier.”

The SR-71A Blackbird spy plane flew in excess of 2,200-mph, or Mach 3 in 1964.

NASA has been working for the last few years on hypersonic flight, or speeds greater than Mach 5. Among the technical challenges of flying this fast is the development of an engine that can stand the forces necessary to generate hypersonic speed. A conventional jet engine would fly apart at hypersonic speed.

Jet engines operate according to Newton’s Law, that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. That means that the faster the jet, the faster the exhaust has to be shooting out of the engine.

In a conventional jet engine the turbine blades that are used to compress air for combustion would fly apart.

The purpose of NASA’s research is to develop technology for a new type of engine known as a “scramjet” that can work at hypersonic speeds. Scramjet is an acronym for “supersonic combustion ramjet.”

A scramjet has no moving parts and achieves compression by sucking in and compressing air at supersonic speeds. It reaches rocket-like speeds, but unlike rockets, it does not need oxygen to ignite the fuel supply. Instead it takes oxygen from the atmosphere.

For a long time experts thought that it was not possible to ignite the fuel in a supersonic air stream. It would be analogous to “striking a match in a hurricane.”

NASA built and tested three unmanned vehicles containing the new engine. They tested three vehicles so that, like the Wright brothers, they could use the lessons learned from each succeeding flight to improve the next one.

Operational testing is particularly essential for the X-43A because, while the Wrights were able to effectively used their wind tunnel to design their Flyer, it is very difficult to test on the ground at hypersonic speeds. While the design of the engine is mechanically simple it is very complex aerodynamically.

The first test flight failed because of a booster rocket problem. The second test established a new world speed record of Mach 7. The last flight, on Nov. 17, broke the previous record by flying at a spectacular Mach 10.

Here is the sequence of events during the last test flight:

Scramjets start to work only at about Mach 6 and therefore must be given a boost. A modified Pegasus rocket provides the boost.

The 12-foot long wedge-shape X-43A, attached to the nose of the Pegasus rocket, was carried under the right wing of a B-52B aircraft to 40,000 feet. It was then dropped about 50-miles off the southern California coast.

The solid rocket motor took the stack up to mach 10 at 110,000 feet.

The motor burned out after 7-8 seconds and pistons pushed the X-43A forward away from the rocket and the higher density of the X-43A made it pull ahead of the Pegasus rocket.

The X-43A engine inlet was then opened and in 3 seconds the engine started firing using hydrogen fuel maintaining a speed of Mach 9.65 at 110,000 feet. This continued for 10-12 seconds. The inlet door then closed 8-9 seconds later for the rest of the flight.

The X-43A then descended while performing maneuvers to test its aerodynamic characteristics. The craft splashed into the ocean after an approximate total flight time of 14 minutes and 850 miles.

What now? Any near term applications of scramjets will probably be military because that is where the money is and NASA has not funded a continuation of the $230 million program. The Wright brothers also received a military contract in 1909.

One of the advantages of a scramjet rocket is that it doesn’t require a heavy, huge oxygen container. Rockets combine liquid fuel with liquid oxygen to create thrust. The larger the rocket the larger the oxygen container in a conventional rocket.

Without the added weight and space, cheaper and easier space missions are possible such as flights to the moon and space stations. Airplanes can cross the Atlantic in 40 minutes.

The U.S. Air Force is researching how to use the technology to create cruise missiles that could reach enemy targets at lightning speed.

Few people in the early days of aviation saw the potential of the airplane. The Wrights themselves didn’t foresee jumbo jets routinely flying across the oceans or space flight.

After World War II, the Dayton Wright Airplane Co., then owned by General Motors, decided to stop building and selling airplanes because they thought there was no longer a profitable future for airplanes after the war.

What the NASA X-43A has done for hypersonics is equivalent to what the Wright brothers did for subsonics 100 year ago. It is amazing what has been accomplished in such a relatively short time.