‘I’m very proud’ – Grass Valley man linked to private space flight | TheUnion.com

‘I’m very proud’ – Grass Valley man linked to private space flight

John Rutan was leading the cheers in Grass Valley Monday morning when an innovative rocket plane designed by his nephew soared above Earth’s atmosphere in the first privately financed manned space flight.

“I’m very proud,” he said from his home. John Rutan was kept from the Mojave Desert test site by a recent back injury. “I would have been there otherwise. This is history.”

SpaceShipOne pilot Mike Melvill sailed 62.21 miles above the Earth’s surface, then glided to a soft landing at Mojave Airport at 8:15 a.m., about 90 minutes after he was carried aloft under the belly of the jet-powered White Knight.

Both vehicles were built by Scaled Composites, the company of innovative aircraft designer Burt Rutan, who gained fame in 1986 with his design of Voyager, a light airplane that flew around the world nonstop on one tank of gas.

Voyager was piloted by Burt’s brother Dick, who visited Grass Valley in April to help raise money for the Golden Empire Flying Association’s scholarship fund.

Their proud uncle gives much of the credit for their success to his brother, George Rutan, a retired dentist who watched the successful flight in person.

“(George) has really dedicated his life to his sons, letting them do those things and helping them financially,” John Rutan said. “He was a flyer who encouraged his sons to try it.”

A venturesome spirit seems to be part of the family’s genetic code. John Rutan said the family first came west in covered wagons and that a niece is also an aviator. John Rutan packed up his family in 1960 and headed for Costa Rica, driving the Pan American Highway in 45 days.

He and his wife recently retired in Grass Valley after deciding it was too dangerous for Americans to live in Colombia.

However, he admits he’d love to take a ride in one of his nephew’s rocket planes.

“I wouldn’t miss the chance,” John Rutan said.

SpaceShipOne employs a novel design in which its twin tail booms and the back half of each wing rotates upward to create drag for a brief time. The tail booms and wings then return to normal for the long glide back to Earth.

The craft is the leading contender for the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million award to the first privately financed three-seat spacecraft to reach 62 miles and repeat the feat within two weeks.

The three-seat requirement demonstrates the capacity for paying customers; the quick turnaround between flights demonstrates reusability and reliability.

The project was financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who would only describe the cost as being in excess of $20 million.

Melvill, 63, said seeing the curvature of the Earth was “almost a religious experience.”

“It was really an awesome sight,” he said. “It was like nothing I’d ever seen before, and it blew me away.”

Promoters hope that Monday’s milestone and others will lead to a future where tourists will pay perhaps $20,000 to $100,000 for the opportunity to soar above the Earth’s atmosphere, float in zero gravity and take in the sights.

“The door to space is finally open to the rest of us,” said George Whitesides, executive director of the National Space Society, which wants to see space travel opened to people from all walks of life.

He said the team members “have proven that human spaceflight is no longer the realm of governments alone.”

By contrast, Alan Shepard soared to an altitude of 115 miles in 1961 when he became the first American in space. That flight lasted less than 15 1/2 minutes.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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