Long Beach, California November 11-13, 2010

How to fly to the edge of space

Looking back on his flight into space as pilot of SpaceShipOne, Mike Melvill finds the whole experience somewhat surreal. “As old as I was at the time, I didn’t think there was any way I’d be chosen to do that,” he said. “Dropping off the hooks, it’s like a bomb falling off an airplane. If anything’s loose in the cabin it floats up into the air.”

After release, he said, you unguard the rocket ignition switch and light the rocket as quickly as you can, to minimize altitude loss. “The acceleration was just staggering. A rocket motor doesn’t come on gradually like a jet; it comes on full tilt.”

Melvill, who was 64 years old at the time, trained in part by riding his bike and walking four or five miles every day. The space flight went from 0 Gs to 5 1/2 Gs and back to zero, a profile that Melvill practiced in an Extra every day for three weeks.

“The training is everything. You can train yourself, just like a parrot. Actually, doing it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be,” he said. While his first flight into space was pretty easy, another presented him with an uncontrolled, uncommanded roll that sent the aircraft out of controlled flight. “It took 29 more rolls before I got it back,” Melvill recalled.—Mike Collins

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