White Knight and SpaceShipOne Achieves the (first) X Prize

Last modified 29 December 2009 01:15 Eastern Time

First X Prize flight

On the morning of 29 September 2004, Scaled Composites launched its aircraft White Knight with a payload intended to go into space. The payload was named SpaceShipOne, and was the first private space craft to succeed to escape from Earth’s atmosphere. What follows is a set of pictures and short clips trying to illustrate what happened. If you view the picture info, note that all times are Eastern time, as I neglected to adjust the camera to Pacific time.

I was located outside of the XCOR Aerospace hanger, using a Canon PowerShot S500 “Digital ELPH” 5MP camera. The uses I had in mind for this camera were largely beyond its capabilities, as it only has a 3x optical zoom, and almost all of the action happened well beyond a reasonable distance from where I was standing. I should have brought my Nikon N80 with the 70-300mm lens, but I didn’t, so you’ll all just have to live with what I had. On the other hand, the S500 can take short movies, which feature I used a bit. Note that any such movie clips may contain fairly loud sound, so you may want to lower your volume settings before clicking anything which says it’s a movie clip.

AVI clip to set the stage

To set the stage, this is a clip of the area I was looking at. On the left are a group of F-4 Phantom II fighter planes, well past their prime and being converted into drones. Behind the F-4s is a set of airliners awaiting some kind of work, most likely refurbishment of some kind. In the middle to right distance is an aircraft boneyard, mostly occupied by old airliners, which are being parted out. There’s a small private plane right in front of me, which gets in the way of later events a little. I expect its owner wasn’t any happier than I was, as that parking space was far from everything. On the right, there’s a Boeing 737 undergoing some kind of work.

White Knight and Space Ship One taxi by

A bit after dawn, the White Knight and SpaceShipOne moved from their preparation hanger to the take off point. I wish I’d used more zoom, but once it starts taking a video clip, the S500 won’t change its focal length. Yes, I tried. I guess Canon still has improvements to make.

nameless other Scaled Composites craft taxies by This is the Rutan-designed Beechcraft Starship taxiing by.

Here’s a group of stills I’ve prepared from the morning of 29 September 2004, the morning of the first flight.

Thanks go to Aleta Jackson (shadow) for corrections to the names of aircraft.

Second X Prize flight

I came back to XCOR the afternoon of 3 October 2004 for the “night before launch” party. It was a good time, with a number of people there one might recognize, including Aleta Jackson, Karen Anderson, Henry Vanderbilt, Jerry Pournelle, Larry Niven, and Herbie Hancock. Herbie Hancock got to fire the Tea Cart Rocket, which is shown in the set of pictures I’ve posted.

For a time, I “worked” as the door ward to the XCOR hanger, to keep people out and aim them at the Burning Man party down the way. Seems some Burning Man staff brought in some buses with a live band and an open bar. I would have gone but I had to watch the door. That was my task. Hey, it beats paying for a hotel room, and I did manage to get some sleep. I’m a dreamer. That’s why I’m here in the first place.

People started showing up around 05:30. I didn’t let ’em in, but I was not the only person there. So we made coffee. We opened up as of 05:45. Stuff started to happen.

White Knight and SSO taxi by

This is the White Knight with SpaceShipOne taxiing by on the morning of the second flight.

White Knight and SSO part company: launch!

This is the White Knight with SpaceShipOne parting company, in other words, the actual launch as seen from the ground via the contrails, and the whole period that the rocket was firing on SSO. This video is fairly hard to see and is over 16MB in size. Note that the contrails during the first launch weren’t as obvious as this except when the rocket itself was firing. Trying to track air/space craft at 45,000ft from the ground by eye is impossible! Only the contrails made it happen this time. The voice which says it’s clearly Mike Melville’s voice in SSO is mistaken. We found out later that Brian Binnie was piloting SpaceShip One and Mike was flying White Knight. The pilot of SSO was unknown to us at the time this video was made.

SSO comes to a full stop

SpaceShipOne completes its landing. It’s in the distance, sliding to a halt in front of the boneyard. Keep an eye on the center of the image. By the time this video was taken, we’d found out the name of the pilot. You can see the first of the ground vehicles which went out to SSO coming in from the right as the video ends.

SSO is towed by with Brian Binnie riding on top

SpaceShipOne is towed by on its way back to its hanger. Brian Binnie is on top with the US flag!

Here’s a group of stills I’ve prepared from 3-4 October 2004, Sunday evening/Monday morning of the second flight.

I’ll probably just keep updating this page as I add things. If you want to contact me, you can e-mail me at this address. All text and graphics here are copyrighted Howard S. Shubs, 2004. Contact me at the e-mail address below if you’re looking for permission to copy, or publish. You may link to me if you like.