How SpaceShipOne Works

White Knight

The White Knight launch aircraft carries the spaceship (followed by Bob Scherer's Starship chase aircraft).
The White Knight launch aircraft carries the spaceship (followed by Bob Scherer's Starship chase aircraft).
Photo courtesy Scaled Composites, LLC

As we learned from Matthew, SpaceShipOne can't make a journey to the stars alone. It requires the help of a carrier ship called the White Knight. One of the greatest expenses and dangers in space travel comes from launching spacecraft from the ground. Just the cost of the fuel needed for a ground launch is extraordinary. In order to streamline the process, SpaceShipOne launches from the belly of White Knight at an altitude of around 50,000 ft.

The White Knight, which made its debut in April 2003, is a high-altitude, twin turbojet research plane. Its primary job is to serve as an aerial platform to launch SpaceShipOne into space.

White Knight takes off like a plane from a normal airstrip, with SpaceShipOne attached to its belly. The two ships fly together under White Knight's power to a predetermined altitude. Then White Knight releases SpaceShipOne and drifts away. Once clear of White Knight, SpaceShipOne begins its journey to sub-orbital space.

In the interest of efficiency, White Knight also serves a second, very important function. The White Knight is designed with the exact same cockpit, avionics, electronic control system, pneumatics, trim servos, data system, and electrical system as SpaceShipOne. That makes White Knight perfect for training pilots to fly SpaceShipOne.

To add additional realism to SpaceShipOne pilot training, the White Knight was designed with a high thrust-to-weight ratio and powerful speed brakes. These features help to simulate space flight maneuvers.

As an airplane, White Knight is a remarkable craft all on its own. According to Scaled Composites, White Knight's unique design also makes it well suited for "reconnaissance, surveillance, atmospheric research, data relay, telecommunications, imaging and booster launch for micro-satellites."

In the next section, we'll take a look at the SpaceShipOne craft.