Witnessing humanity's first private manned space flight on June 21st, 2004

NEW: Photos of the first Space Ship One space launch from Gerry Liang

NEW: Photos of the first Space Ship One space launch from Gerry Liang

(click on each smaller image to see a larger one.)

The crowd numbered over ten thousand space enthusiasts, aviation fans, scientists, engineers, parents, children, pilots, aircraft builders, dreamers, visitors from Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Europe and points afar. All converged at the Mojave Airport for the scheduled 6:30 am public launch of Scaled Composites' White Knight carrier aircraft and SpaceShipOne space rocket-glider.

White Knight taxies to the South end of the runway carrying SpaceShipOne under belly....

then takes off smoothly and easily along with some chase aircraft.

White Knight with SpaceShipOne tucked underneath as it orbits the field gaining altitude.

Starship follows White Knight and SpaceShipOne up.

Just Starship.

Contrails from Starship chasing White Knight as it carries SpaceShipOne up to altitude were visible intermittently as the sun glinted off the rising aircraft. The craft rose for one hour as various checks were heard over the radio of altitude and other flight parameters. Drop altitude was around 50,000 feet.

A "level 2" check, including oxidizer tank levels, heralded the nearing of separation and launch of the rocket. Time checks were called at a few minutes before launch and a "three, two, one" second count preceded the release of SpaceShipOne from White Knight. Pilot Mike Melvill armed the rocket then fired it just a few seconds after the drop.

Melvill had to contend with unprecedented ninety degree rolls to left then right after firing the engine. As with prior flights, new glitches happened once again but the highly experienced test pilot corrected and flew through them challenged but undeterred. Melvill reported status along the way, calmly indicating that various flight parameters were within operational ranges as he piloted the craft into space then back through the transitions into atmospheric flight. Of particular early concern was his ability to recover and re-trim the craft out of those initial large rolls, which he succeeded in doing.

I could take no pictures of the drop and launch of SpaceShipOne since it was done in the direction of the rising sun. The Sun lit up the white smoke trail from the rocket engine through a huge vertical arc of sky as pilot Mike Melvill guided the craft out of the atmosphere and into space. The flight was towards us from the Southeast-rising Sun and slightly to the right, generally on a Westerly course.

To give an idea of the extent of the visible rocket trail, by the time of rocket firing the Sun had risen two hours above the Eastern horizon. The rocket fired off horizontally below the sun then pitched up, climbing to nearly straight overhead. Certainly it was not a view typical of either rocket or aircraft launches. Aircraft don't go that visibly high or vertical for that long, and rockets don't usually start horizontally or that far off the ground. The planned 80 second rocket firing produced 3 vertical Gs. This tiny craft reached high into the sky then coasted upwards through and beyond most of our atmosphere.

A picture may or may not be able to show this. The angles were unusual and "you had to be there" to really appreciate the novelty of what we were seeing in terms of the unprecedented portions of sky being traversed by a horizontal-launching and horizontal-landing craft.

Around apogee Melvill experienced about 3 minutes of weightlessness before transitioning the wing into the high-drag configuration. This belly-first angle to the atmosphere was created by tipping the tail assembly up at supersonic conditions. Coming back down through much of the upper atmosphere at a high angle of attack results in high drag to slow the craft, and the tipped-up wing configuration has repeatedly proven to be stable under various flight conditions. We heard two gentle sonic booms on the ground during this phase, indicating the controlled return of the craft towards Earth. Melvill and the craft experienced about 5 times the force of gravity during this steepest part of the descent, before tipping the wing back down into its glider configuration.

Now configured as a glider, SpaceShipOne circled back down to the field for about 20 minutes, chased by Starship and Extra. The chase aircraft took a close and careful look at the craft to check it and confirm its condition. SpaceShipOne is the small white triangular shape on the right. Extra is the smaller dark aircraft near SpaceShipOne. Starship with a large wing in back and small canard wing up front, trails both of them.

The three chase aircraft celebrate their participation in the history-making event. From top of the picture: Extra - aerobatic trainer which can pull 7 Gs and is used to prepare pilots and passengers for the flight, Starship - exotic-looking executive transport which is a Rutan design with twin pusher props and a canard front wing, AlphaJet - higher relative power and rate of climb makes it the faster chase craft.

Whiteknight makes a solo pass and does a victory roll.

After landing, Mike Melvill was first greeted by Moon astronaut Buzz Aldrin. He was joined at a press conference by designer Burt Rutan and funder Paul Allen. 500 members of the news media attended the event along with most of the major broadcast networks and organizations. Melvill was presented the first astronaut wings to a private pilot by a representative of the FAA who also designated Mojave Airport as the world's first inland commercial spaceport.

Humanity's first private astronaut rides victorious atop his spacecraft, carrying a sign reading: "SpaceShipOne, GovernmentZero". Thus begins the era of commercial human space flight.

Read more at Scaled Composites' official web site, and space.com's coverage of the event. Many other web sites have sprung up about the event, including some good photos by Bill Hunt.

Discovery Channel and Vulcan Ventures are filming these events. I look forward to seeing their video, which ought to include some great chase camera footage, views from cockpit and tail cameras, interviews, etc.

Camera was a Canon S410 with 3x optical zoom. It did an admirable job for a small digital camera. It saw better than I in some cases.