WSU alumnus part of historic privately financed space flight

3:42:26 PM CDT - Friday, June 18, 2004

By Melissa Lacey

A Wichita State University alumnus and McPherson native is part of a team planning to launch the first private spacecraft into suborbital altitude on Monday, June 21. If the team is successful in exiting the Earth's atmosphere, it may also win a $10 million cash prize. The test flight will be broadcast live at 8:30 a.m. CST on CNN. It is expected to last about one hour and 20 minutes.

Matt Stinemetze and SpaceShipOne

Matt Stinemetze stands next to the SpaceShipOne
rocket attached beneath the White Knight carrier air-
craft. Stinemetze, a 1998 WSU graduate, is project
engineer for SS1 in Mojave, Calif.
Photo credit: Scaled Productions 2004 |
All Rights Reserved |
Courtesy of Scaled Composites LLC |

Matt Stinemetze, a 1998 WSU aerospace engineering graduate, is project engineer on a high-altitude rocket called SpaceShipOne (SS1). As project engineer, Stinemetze is responsible for the construction and testing of the ship. The program is headquartered in Mojave, Calif., at Scaled Composites LLC.

"We're starting out where NASA started," says Stinemetze. "Sometimes it's hard for me to believe we're doing this. I'm super excited and I hope other people get excited, too."

For Stinemetze and his team, the privately funded SS1 program has significance for all.

"What this means is that space travel does not belong to government alone," he said. "We're trying real hard to kick down the door and open up an avenue to make space travel a reality for everyone."

Monday's launch brings the Scaled team one step closer to winning the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million private prize aimed at jumpstarting the space tourism industry. The winning team must privately finance, build and launch a spaceship to 62 miles (100 kilometers) in altitude, which is the internationally accepted boundary to outer space. The ship must be capable of carrying three people and the launch must be repeated within two weeks. The June 21 goal is to reach the 62-mile mark with a pilot only. Subsequent flights will add weight, per X Prize requirements, to simulate passengers.

These X Prize teams get no money from the government they're visionaries," says Scott Miller, professor and interim chair in WSU's department of aerospace engineering. "They're people like Mr. Piper, Mr. Cessna and Mr. Beech," he adds, referring to local founders of aircraft companies.

Working on a novel program like this is not without risks, Miller says.
Both planes in flight

During a test flight, the White Knight turbojet carrier
aircraft climbs over the Mojave Desert with SpaceShip-
One attached below.
Photo credit: Scaled Productions 2004 |
All Rights Reserved |
Courtesy of Scaled Composites LLC |

"Whenever you work with rockets, there is high probability something can go wrong," he says. "It's dangerous, but it's classic engineering." Team members know the risks, and they exercise reasonable prudence and precaution in order to be safe, he added.

There are 26 teams from seven countries registered for X Prize competition. Scaled Composites is the favorite to win, having already reached 211,400 feet (40 miles) during a recent test flight.

SpaceShipOne is a second-stage research rocket. The SS1 will first be carried to about 45,000 feet for an airborne launch by the White Knight, a manned, twin-turbo jet aircraft. Since he is also a flight test engineer for the White Knight, Stinemetze is responsible for releasing the SS1 during test flights.

Scaled was founded by famed aircraft designer Burt Rutan in 1982. The SS1 project is funded by Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft.

Stinemetze credits his Kansas grassroots values and WSU education for enabling his unique career.

Matt preps for flight

Matt Stinemetze suits up and prepares for a test flight
in the White Knight at the Mojave Civilian Aerospace
Test Center in Mojave, Calif.
Photo credit: Scaled Productions 2004 |
All Rights Reserved |
Courtesy of Scaled Composites LLC |

"WSU was a perfect school for me to get the skills I needed for working out here," he says. Hands-on projects and support from aerospace engineering professors fostered the outside-of-the-box thinking that is necessary in his line of work, he says.

Stinemetze says he hopes future perceptions of space travel will be changed by the SS1 flights.

"It would be great for kids to grow up thinking about being an astronaut and going into space again," he says. "Anybody can do this. This is real. We're doing it."

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