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SpaceShipOne Flight 15P photo D Ramey Logan.jpg
Type: Experimental airplane
Design country:

United StatesUnited States United States


Scaled composites

First flight:
  • May 20, 2003 (with carrier aircraft)
  • August 27, 2003 (gliding)
  • December 17, 2003 (with engine ignition)
Number of pieces:


The SpaceShipOne (also Scaled Model 316 ) was an experimental aircraft with a rocket engine from the Scaled Composites company for private or commercial, manned, suborbital space flight up to an altitude of about 100 kilometers .

History and commitment

The spaceplane was developed by Scaled Composites as part of the Tier One project in order to win the Ansari X-Prize competition of the X-Prize Foundation . This promised ten million dollars for those who would be the first to use an aircraft next to the pilot to carry two people or equivalent ballast to an altitude of more than 100 kilometers and to do this again with the same aircraft within 14 days. The developer of the aircraft was Burt Rutan . The project was funded by Paul Allen , a co-founder of Microsoft .

The first flight of the machine took place on May 20, 2003, whereby it remained firmly attached to the carrier aircraft during the entire flight. The first gliding flight followed on August 27, 2003, the first flight with an engine on December 17, 2003, during which Mach  1 was exceeded. SpaceShipOne broke the sound barrier as the first privately owned aircraft to be built without public funding. On April 8, 2004, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a one-year approval for the aircraft. It was approved as a non-self-launching glider with auxiliary propulsion.

First manned private space flight

Space ShipOne in flight, September 29, 2004

On June 21, 2004, the White Knight carrier aircraft took off at 3:47 p.m. CEST (6:47 a.m. local time) in front of thousands of spectators from Mojave Air & Space Port in the desert of the same name in the US state of California and initially brought SpaceShipOne to a height 14.3 kilometers where it was released. Thereupon the pilot Michael Melvill ignited the rocket motor, which was supposed to accelerate the aircraft up to three times the speed of sound when climbing, in order to then reach an altitude of around 109 kilometers in parabolic flight .

However, some technical difficulties arose. Part of the aircraft fairing was deformed with a bang that was also heard by the pilot. An error occurred in the attitude control system, whereupon the aircraft began to taxi uncontrollably . After activating a safety system, the flight path could be stabilized again without having to abort the flight for a short time. Since the rocket engine was only ignited for 76 seconds instead of the planned 80 seconds, and SpaceShipOne thus achieved a speed lower than the planned speed, it deviated from its course and remained below the originally planned altitude.

Nevertheless, on the historic flight, the height of 100 kilometers - the limit of space defined by the FAI  - was just exceeded. The flight is the first private manned space flight in history.

After the engine was switched off at a height of around 55 kilometers, the spaceship followed a parabola in purely ballistic flight, during which the pilot was able to experience weightlessness for about three and a half minutes .

Ansari X-Prize

On September 29, 2004, the spaceship reached a height of just over 100 kilometers. The flight over the Mojave Desert in California lasted from 7:11 am to 8:39 am PDT ( 2:11 pm to 3:39 pm UTC ). At 8:09 a.m., the aircraft was released from the carrier aircraft at an altitude of 14 kilometers.

During the ascent, there were minor problems that manifested themselves in violent rolling movements of the aircraft. According to the statements of the pilot Michael Melvill, these were possibly due to an operator error on his part. The supply to the rocket engine was then switched off - eleven seconds earlier than planned. Due to the impulse, however, the aircraft gained altitude and finally reached 102.9 kilometers above the ground.

With the successful second flight within two weeks, SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X-Prize on October 4, 2004. The pilot on the second flight was Brian Binnie .


Space ShipOne at the National Air and Space Museum

SpaceShipOne is on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC . It has found its resting place in the same building as Burt Rutan's Voyager , John Glenn's Mercury landing capsule and the Apollo 11 command module .

A copy of the SpaceShipOne hangs over a flight of stairs in Google's headquarters, the Googleplex in Mountain View . Google co-founder Larry Page is an avowed space fanatic.

Commercial suborbital space flights

After the success of SpaceShipOne, SpaceShipTwo was developed as a successor model, the much more powerful White Knight Two serves as a carrier aircraft. SpaceShipTwo's first gliding flights took place in 2010. It was originally supposed to complete its first space flight at the end of 2013. SpaceShipTwo is designed for two pilots and up to six passengers. Furthermore, SpaceShipThree is a concept for suborbital point-to-point flights, but its implementation is questionable.


SpaceShipOne is not designed for flights into Earth orbit , as its maximum speed is only about a seventh of the first cosmic speed required for this .

Scheme of the hybrid rocket engine

The spacecraft reaches speeds of up to Mach 3.5 with the engine burning for up to 84 seconds. It has a hybrid rocket engine built by the US company SpaceDev , the combustion chamber of which contains the solid propellant hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene (hydroxy-terminated polybutadiene , similar to tire rubber). Liquid laughing gas (N 2 O, nitrous oxide) is added from a tank as an oxidizer and the combustion is started via an electric arc, after which the solid burns off from the inside. The Laval nozzle has a classic design and can be reused together with the tank; only the fuel insert needs to be replaced.

When taking off, the aircraft, like the singer , is carried by a carrier aircraft such as the White Knight to an altitude of around 15 kilometers and released there. The SpaceShipOne rocket engine then ignites and propels the vehicle on a ballistic trajectory for about three and a half minutes until it reaches the upper layer of the atmosphere at an altitude of about 100 kilometers, where space officially begins. At this height, space already appears as black space and the earth as a blue glowing sphere.

The re-entry into the atmosphere is supported by a folding mechanism, which folds up the wing and tail surfaces and lets the spacecraft go into a spinning descent. Based on the natural model of wind-flying plant seeds such as the maple , this phase is called "feather configuration". Control is only possible to a limited extent in this flight phase. Due to the relatively low speeds of suborbital flight, the thin air when reaching maximum speed and the low rate of descent, the thermal loads remain low, so that no expensive materials or heat shields are necessary.

At a height of around 20 kilometers, the wings are again aligned parallel to the fuselage and a classic controlled gliding flight begins. Landing is conventional; The landing gear consists of two main landing gear legs equipped with single wheels with tires under the central fuselage and a sliding plate under the nose of the fuselage. It is unfolded by a spring mechanism and cannot be retracted again during flight.

Start list

SpaceShipOne flights with engine ignition
Flight number. date Maximum
altitude (km)
11P December 17, 2003 Mach 1.2 20.700 Brian Binnie
13P April 8, 2004 Mach 1.6 32.000 Peter Siebold
14P May 13, 2004 Do 2.5 64.400 Michael Melvill
15P June 21, 2004 Mach 2.9 100.124 Michael Melvill
16P September 29, 2004 Mach 3.0 102.900 Michael Melvill
17P 4th October 2004 Mach 3.25 112.000 Brian Binnie

Technical specifications

Parameter Data
crew 1 pilot
Passengers 2
length 8.5 m
span 5.0 m
height 2.7 m
Wing area 15 m²
Empty weight (last flight) 1,200 kg
Maximum weight (last flight) 3,600 kg
Maximum engine burn time 84 s
Maximum speed Mach 3.09 (3,500 km / h)
Approach speed 259 km / h (140 kt) IAS
Landing speed 194–204 km / h (105–110 kt) IAS
Glide ratio in normal flight 7 (landing gear retracted)
4 (landing gear extended)


  • Dan Linehan: SpaceShipOne. An Illustrated History. Zenith Press, Minneapolis MN 2008, ISBN 978-0-7603-3188-0 .

Web links

Commons : SpaceShipOne  - collection of images

Individual evidence

  1. Virgin aims for first space launch within a year. AFP, September 15, 2011, accessed September 20, 2011 .
  2. ^ Dan Linehan: SpaceShipOne . 2008, p. 156 .
  3. ^ Dan Linehan: SpaceShipOne . 2008, p. 53 f .