Commercial Space Flight and the Connection Between the X-15, the Rutan Voyager and the SS1

Good morning fellow ECAHF’ers.  Twenty years.  That’s a long time.  While a few of us may live longer, 20 years is a fourth or less of most of our lives.  And how far we’ve come in that time.  Twenty years is indeed a long time, but then again, it’s not that long.  The past 20 years have quickly flown by for me…too quickly…and perhaps they’ve flown by for you, too.  And 20 years ago today, an epic event in aviation and in space occurred that I had forgotten about.

According to a 2014 article on the website, “[Today in 2004] SpaceShipOne and pilot Mike Melvill blasted just past the Earth’s atmosphere into space, marking the beginning of commercial spaceflight. The Paul Allen-funded project successfully became the first privately-financed human spaceflight, and after its success it seemed that commercial space travel was just around the corner.”

And according to, “On June 21, 2004, SpaceShipOne became the first privately owned spacecraft to reach an altitude of 100 kilometers, or about 62 miles, above the earth, the generally accepted point at which ‘space’ begins.

SS1 Courtesy of the

“Pilot Mike Melvill, the sole crew member, took SpaceShipOne, or SS1 for short, to an altitude of 100.124 kilometers, just past the invisible boundary line, before beginning the long glide back to earth. When he landed at what is now the Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, California, he had become the first commercial astronaut in history. The flight lasted 24 minutes.

SS1 went on to claim the $10 million Ansari X Prize, awarded to the first private company to send a reusable spacecraft capable of carrying three people past the edge of space twice within a two-week period. The winning flights took place on September 29 and October 4, 2004.

“The SS1 was built by Mojave-based Scaled Composites, a company founded by the noted aircraft designer Burt Rutan. Rutan had already gained fame as the designer of the Rutan Voyager, which in 1986 became the first airplane to fly around the world without landing or refueling—a feat that took nine days.

The Rutan Voager. Courtesy

“Like the Voyager before it, the SS1 was constructed of lightweight composite materials. Rather than launch from the ground, it was carried aloft by a larger jet and then released at about 47,000 feet to fly under its own rocket power, much like the X-15 hypersonic jets that played a key role in the early days of the U.S. space program.

The X-15. Courtesy NASA

“The SS1 retired after winning the X Prize and now resides at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., also home to the Voyager.”

Onward and upward!

Barry Fetzer

ECAHF Historian