Historic 2004 SpaceShipOne Flight Starts a New Space Era

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WASHINGTON — With Mike Melvill at the controls, SpaceShipOne made history June 21, 2004, when it became the first privately developed and privately owned rocket to cross the edge of space.

It has been compared – though not without controversy – to mankind’s first foray into powered flight by the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1903.

Melvill would later say that piloting a prototype rocket plane to an altitude of just over 100 kilometers above the Earth’s surface did not frighten him, but he admitted that coming back down was a little scary.

SpaceShipOne was lofted to altitude by the carrier plane White Knight. Both vehicles were built by Space Composites LLC of Mojave, Calif., founded by aerospace designer Burt Rutan. Melvill was the vice president and general manager of the company and also one of its owners.

Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, financed SpaceShipOne for $20 million through his company Mojave Aerospace Ventures.

The June 21 flight was the forerunner of two later flights that would win the Ansari X Prize, which was awarded to the first privately owned vehicle to climb to the internationally recognized boundary of space twice within a two-week span.

The Scaled Composites team achieved that milestone with flights Sept. 29, 2004 and Oct. 4, 2004, winning the $10 million competition.

SpaceShipOne underwent a series of inflight control problems during the June 21, 2004 flight.

Just after ignition, the craft rolled 90 degrees left. “It has never ever done that before,” Melvill said later.

After gaining control, Melvill said he experienced balance problems while climbing, which he corrected on his descent to the landing strip. But also during the climb, he said he heard a loud bang coming from the engine area where a fairing holding the craft’s nozzle buckled.

Despite the control problems Melville was elated: “You really do get the feeling that you’ve touched the face of God when you do something like this, believe me.”

He became the first person to qualify for Federal Aviation Administration-issued commercial astronaut wings and was congratulated by Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin.