Our SpaceFlight Heritage: SpaceShipOne – Small step
Flight 15P does not have much of a ring to it. In fact, Flight 15P was similar to missions NASA carried out under the X-15 program that ran from the late 1950s through the late 1960s. However, Flight 15P marked the first time that a privately-funded spacecraft carried an astronaut, one not trained by a government, to sub-orbit. On June 21, 2004, SpaceShipOne, carried aloft by the WhiteKnightOne carrier aircraft, sent Mike Melvill into the black – and into the history books.
The fourth flight under Scaled Composites’ Tier One program was a full altitude test of SpaceShipOne. While itself not a flight under the Ansari X PRIZE, it helped to pave the way for Scaled Composites’ eventually winning the contest.
The 15P flight took off from Mojave Airport Civilian Flight Test Center lasted some 24 minutes – but it was a watershed moment in terms of space flight. Up until that point, many groups had touted the emerging space tourism industry, but few had at that time – and even fewer have since made the same progress that Scaled Composites has made.
For Melvill, it meant that he would go down in history as the first commercial astronaut in history and the 434th person overall to be honored with that title. Melvill would go on to fly the 16P flight, the first competitive mission Scaled Composites conducted under the Ansari X PRIZE.
Scaled Composites would go on to work with Sir Richard Branson who added Virgin Galactic to his Virgin Group organization. This new company has gone on to develop the methods proven during the race for the Ansari X PRIZE to produce the SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo vehicles.
While the task of suborbital space travel is something that has been accomplished by some industrialized nations for more than half a century, it is a relatively new experience that private organizations have accomplished and is destined to be only the first among many accomplishments meant to allow private citizens to travel to orbit – and it gained traction, took its first major step, on this date in space flight history.
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.