Space Ship One

Hi Folks
I got this pilot debrief from a friend of mine. Most likely not all of you will be interested in this level of pilot detail, but since this historic event was the first commercial venture into space by some really capable people, I thought you might be interested in a pilot’s eye view of what went on that day.

I just had the extreme pleasure of speaking with Mike Melville yesterday, the pilot of SpaceShipOne’s first two flights above the Kerman line of 100 km.MSL, and with his wife. He gave a 45 minute presentation to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association conference in Long Beach on Thursday, and got a several-minute standing ovation. I was able to speak with him for a short while after his talk.

Since he was speaking to pilots, he didn’t have to translate for the “general public” or pull many punches. He spent almost half of his time going over the flight controls and the entire cockpit layout inside of SpaceShipOne, explaining how it is flown. I think this is the first time this has been explained publicly in such detail, and it was amazing. There are actually four separate flight regimes, and each is flown differently. Just after launch, it flies like a piper cub, using a joystick and rudder pedals with mechanical linkages to the controls (no hydraulic assists). When it goes supersonic, the aerodynamic forces are too high to be able to move the stick, and the controls are subject to flutter. So they use an electrically powered trim system, flown using the “top hat” switch on the joystick and a couple of grips on the arm rest of the pilot’s seat. (There are backup switches to the left of the instrument panel, which had to be used on one flight.) This moves the entire horizontal stabilizers, not just the elevons on the trailing edges. Eventually, they get high enough and the air gets thin enough that they can again use manual controls, although the response is totally different than lower down. But that goes away as they exit the atmosphere; the Reaction Control System nozzles are then used for maneuvering in space. Coming back down, the pilot has to reverse the sequence. There is no automated switchover of control systems; the pilot has to remember to move from one system to the next at the right times.

The rudder pedals are not linked. Each controls one of the two vertical stabilizer rudders separately. You can push both rudder pedals at the same time, and get a fairly effective speed brake, with both rudders canted outward. Push both fully forward and they engage the wheel brakes. But these are not very effective and are only really useful for steering input during rollout. The real brake is on the nose skid: a piece of maple wood, with the grain aligned down the centerline of the airplane. He said it was the most effective braking material they could find.

We talked about G forces on Tuesday, and I got some of it wrong. He says that he gets hit with about 3Gs kicking him backwards as soon as he lights the rocket motor. He’s supersonic within about 9 seconds later. But he immediately starts to pull up into an almost vertical climb. So he also gets over 4.3Gs pushing him down into his seat just from that maneuver. The combined force is “very stressful” and Mike says it’s “important not to black out” at that point. He’s going 1880 knots straight up within 70 seconds. On re-entry, the aircraft goes from being absolutely silent while in space to generating a deafening roar as it hits the atmosphere again. He’s going about Mach 3.2 by that time, and has to survive about 5.5Gs for over 30 seconds, and lesser G forces for longer than that, as it slows back down. It sounds really intense, both as he explains it and on the radio.

A couple of interesting side notes: SpaceShipOne has a standard “N” registration number; but it is licensed as an experimental “glider”. Apparently the huge bureaucratic hassle trying to license it as a rocket powered spacecraft, which they just sidestepped by calling it a glider. I asked him if it had a yaw string; he laughed and said that would have burned off. By the way, the registration number is N328KF, where 328K is the number of Feet in 100km. (White Knight is N318SL – Burt Rutan’s 318th design.)

Mike says that the flight director system (called a TINU) was developed completely in-house by a couple of 28-year-old programmers, and is absolutely fantastic to fly. That’s why they don’t need a yaw string. But I had heard over the radio that Brian Binnie had re-booted the TINU just before the landing approach during the X2 flight, and it took quite a while for it to come back up. So I asked Mike what that was about. He says that during re-entry, the TINU loses its GPS lock. So it keeps trying to go back to catch up, re-interpolate and compensate for the missing data, and this keeps it a little behind in its actual position calculations. The pilot has no straight-ahead vision at all, so they have a real issue landing: they can’t see the runway! The way they do it is to fly directly down the runway at 9000 feet; then they do a (military style) break and fly a full 360 degree pattern right to the landing. The TINU gives the pilot a “blue line” to follow and a target airspeed (which produces a given rate of descent). If the pilot follows the blue line, right to the break point and through the two 180 degree turns, it will put him right onto the runway at what ever touchdown point he selects. But the TINU has to be absolutely current when this is going on. So at something above 15,000 feet they reboot the TINU and get it re-synched with the GPS satellites again before setting up for the landing!

He also talked in detail about the rocket motor, and had photos of its insides after firing. The nozzle throat actually ablates as the motor burns, enlarging the interior throat diameter as the burn progresses. He described the problem they had on the June 21 flight: The rocket motor nozzle was skewed by about ? degree to one side. This generated a surprisingly high lateral torque trying to turn the aircraft. If it had been up or down pitch rather than lateral, the controls could have handled it; but the lateral yawing forces were too great for Mike to compensate as the atmosphere thinned. The result was that he was pretty far off course. Mike says he reached apogee, rolled the spacecraft over, and was surprised to see the Palmdale VOR directly beneath him. That was 30 miles away from Mojave and a long glide home. He says its amazing how fast a relatively small deviation can produce large distances when you’re going Mach 3!

For one of the static burn tests, they had fire and safety crews all standing a mile away, ready to duck if anything went wrong. In the middle of the test, Mike and Burt Rutan walked up to the front of the motor assembly and felt the pressure vessel that contains the N2O. Mike knew he was going to have this same thing strapped onto his back soon, anyway, and he wanted to know how much it vibrated, how hot it got, and how loud it was. It was deafening, literally. It turns out that, with the nozzles they use at high altitudes, it’s actually not that noisy inside the spacecraft. But he still wears hearing protection.

Scaled Composites seem to have fabricated quite a bit of the rocket motor themselves, including the N2O tank (which is also the structural core of the spacecraft) and the nozzle casings. It would be interesting to hear from Michael’s friend exactly what parts SpaceDev designed and what they manufactured.

Source: Joe Gattuso, President of Shelter Cove Airport Association, (a Chapter of California Pilots Association). Shelter Cove Airport Association manages their airport.

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