What does it feel like to rocket 62 miles above Earth? Realistically speaking, most of us will never know. So we asked Mike Melvill, test pilot for SpaceShipOne and the first guy to hang out in suborbit without government support, to tell us about his historic trip in June. The experience followed the emotional trajectory typical of any serious amusement-park ride: boredom, gut-wrenching fear, awe, more gut-wrenching fear and, finally, relief. Still want to spend your life savings on a joyride to space? Tickets to board a Rutan-designed commercial spaceship could go on sale as soon as 2010.
1. TAKEOFF AND ASCENT Mojave Airport, 6:47 a.m.: Carrier craft White Knight totes SpaceShipOne up to 50,000 feet. Melvill: “There’s little for me to do, so it’s a pretty lonely time. At 43,000 to 44,000 feet, we start going through the checklist. We make sure that the cabin is properly pressurized and that the specific trim settings are ready.”2. SEPARATION 7:50 a.m.: SpaceShipOne detaches from the mothership, Melvill fires its hybrid rocket motor, and the craft climbs skyward. “The motor lights flick on and I get three horizontal G’s, followed by four vertical G’s. It’s very disorientating. You feel like you’re falling on your back. You’re near Mach 3, faster than an M-16 rifle bullet, and you feel like if you do anything wrong, you might really hurt yourself. Even if a good pilot got in that thing, without training he’d be dead when he lit the rocket.” 3. HANGTIME 7:52 a.m.: Near the top of the boost stage, Melvill runs into serious trouble when a trim motor fails. “I lit the motor, and the spaceship rolled 90 degrees to the left by itself. I stomped on the pedal to correct the motion, and then it went 90 degrees right. I really thought it was all over, but luckily I popped out of the atmosphere. After that, I took out some M&Ms and just let them float in front of my face.
I could see the curvature of Earth, and the low clouds over Los Angeles looked exactly like snow on the ground.”4. REENTRY AND LANDING 7:57 to 8:15 a.m.: With the plane’s wings feathered upward for stability, Melvill drops down to 61,000 feet and then glides it into a smooth horizontal landing. “I was afraid on the way down. The noises are different. The breeze going by at Mach 2.9—3,100 feet per second—sounds like a roaring hurricane. I was holding the controls centered and hoping that the damn thing wouldn’t fall apart. I was so glad to set down without breaking anything.”TAKE IT HIGHER? SpaceShipOne’s Mach 2.9 maximum speed may seem fast, but the craft will need to hit Mach 25, or 17,500 miles an hour, to reach orbit. The extra push will require a more powerful fuel system than the one that now boosts SpaceShipOne. And keeping the ship from incinerating during reentry will require a pricey heat-resistant shell.