Manufacturing

Tech Trends: Rocket Science

1 Jan, 2005 By: Arnie Williams

Ashlar-Vellum Cobalt helps pave the path for commercial space travel.


One hundred and one years ago, a couple of enterprising brothers made two attempts at flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, that changed aviation history forever—in fact, you could say it marked the beginning of aviation history. On the first attempt, which took place on December 14, 1903, Wilbur piloted the craft and Orville ran alongside to steady one of the wings. The plane achieved such speed on its 80-foot monorail runway that Orville couldn't keep up. That, combined with a rudder error by Wilbur, sent the two-winger's nose up and then immediately down with a thud, but not so the spirits of the two stalwart inventors who knew they were onto something monumental. Just two days later, with patches in place, Orville took his turn in the pilot's seat and enjoyed a successful launch to a height of 120' and a flight that lasted about 12 seconds.

 Figure 1. The White Knight turbo jet, seen here in flight over the Mojave, California, area, is SpaceShipOne's launch aircraft. (Photos courtesy of Scaled Composites, LLC.)
Figure 1. The White Knight turbo jet, seen here in flight over the Mojave, California, area, is SpaceShipOne's launch aircraft. (Photos courtesy of Scaled Composites, LLC.)

Now flash forward to September 29, 2004. Pilot Mike Melvill detaches SpaceShipOne from the White Knight turbo jet that carried it aloft (figure 1), ignites a rocket for a little more than a minute and becomes the first person in history to earn his commercial astronaut wings. The shaky flight results in about 29 rolls ascending and Melvill just barely makes his target altitude of 62 miles, passing the universally accepted barrier of space. Less than a week later, on October 4, Brian Binnie takes his turn in the pilot's seat, ignites SpaceShipOne's rockets for 84 seconds, this time avoiding the ascending rolls, and reaches a record altitude of 72.5 miles at Mach 3, becoming only the second person in history to earn commercial astronaut wings.

 Top-down view of White Knight. (Photos courtesy of Scaled Composites, LLC.)
Top-down view of White Knight. (Photos courtesy of Scaled Composites, LLC.)

In addition to breaking the altitude record for an aircraft of 67 miles set by Joseph Walker in a military X-15 back in 1963, this second flight by Binnie, combined with Melvill's flight a week earlier, garnered the $10-million Ansari X Prize (www.xprize.com) for the American Mohave Aerospace Team, the developers behind SpaceShipOne (figure 2). The feat also opens the door for commercial space flight just as the Wright brothers opened the door for commercial aviation a century earlier.

Figure 2. SpaceShipOne makes a safe return after a history-making flight. (Image courtesy of Scaled Composites, LLC.)
Figure 2. SpaceShipOne makes a safe return after a history-making flight. (Image courtesy of Scaled Composites, LLC.)

SPACE TRAVEL FOR THE REST OF US

Mojave Aerospace Ventures is funded by one of the most famous names in the computer world, Paul Allen of Microsoft fame. In September, Sir Richard Branson of the Virgin Group announced that his company had entered an agreement to license Mohave Aerospace technology for a new company that will be called Virgin Galactic. The company plans to open for business in 2005 and offer commercial space travel by 2007 in a spaceship to be named the VSS ENTERPRISE. Space travel won't come cheap, requiring at least three days of preflight training and a ticket price of just under $200,000. It will be suborbital flight, but will afford early passengers the experience of zero-G flight and the thrill of re-entry into the atmosphere.

As if to underscore the reality of such a dream, the United States Congress passed the Space Tourism bill in early December. According to a press release by the Ansari X Prize Foundation, the legislation will "promote the emerging commercial human space flight industry by putting it on a more solid regulatory footing." It says further that the bill will "make it easier to launch new types of reusable suborbital rockets by allowing the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) to issue experimental permits that can be granted more quickly and with fewer requirements."

OUT-OF-THIS-WORLD DESIGN

SpaceShipOne was designed and built by Scaled Composites, LLC (www.scaled.com) an aerospace and specialty composites development company located in Mojave, California. The company was founded in 1982 by Burt Rutan, an aircraft designer best known for Voyager, the first plane to fly around the world without stopping or refueling. It specializes in designing and building research-oriented aircraft, the details of which are guarded with utmost secrecy until the aircraft are ready for testing. The company enjoys a spotless safety record, and Rutan plans to be very much involved in the Virgin Galactic venture to help ensure the safety of future space travel.

CAD software also played a role in the development of SpaceShipOne, although Scaled Composites has adopted a "no interviews" posture regarding details of design and development. Even so, according to Robert Bou, head of Austin, Texas-based Ashlar, the company's software figured prominently in the design of SpacShipOne (www.ashlar.com). "We've worked with this group since the founding of our company back in 1990," says Bou. "They started with us when we were primarily wire frame drafting and have moved into 3D modeling and have been a customer ever since."

Bou says that Ashlar-Vellum Cobalt was used throughout the body design of SpaceShipOne (figure 3). But in the spirit of full disclosure, Bou also notes that the company uses CATIA software for its milling operations and SolidWorks for landing gear design.

Figure 3. A rendering by Ashlar staffers shows what some of the design elements of SpaceShipOne might have looked like in Cobalt 3D surface and solid modeling software.
Figure 3. A rendering by Ashlar staffers shows what some of the design elements of SpaceShipOne might have looked like in Cobalt 3D surface and solid modeling software.

Bou describes Scaled Composites as a small "work-all-the-time company" that lives to get the job done. "They have about 30 licenses of our software," he says, "which they use at work and at home. They pretty much work around the clock."

Bou says that Cobalt is a natural program for the kind of design required on the SpaceShipOne project. As a hybrid surface and solid modeling tool, its 3D on-demand parametrics, assembly tools with constraint management and advanced surface analysis features, combined with an easy-to-use interface, free up designers to concentrate on final design goals, rather than getting bogged down in interface issues.

COMMERCIAL SPACE HISTORY HAS BEGUN

Although Binnie and Melvill are civilian test pilots embarked on aviation research, these early experiments are sure to usher in realistic space travel for the public within a few short years. Chances are that the comparison between what the Wright Brothers did and what research groups such as Paul Allen's American Mojave Aerospace have done through Scaled Composites, and soon, Virgin Galactic, will be even more dramatic than it seems today at first glance. The notion that you have to belong to an exclusive all-military elite to experience space travel has been laid to rest forever. Suborbital space flight is much closer than any of us might have imagined even a few months ago.

Arnie Williams, former editor-in-chief of Cadence magazine, is a freelance author specializing in the CAD industry. E-mail Arnie at awilliams@grandecom.net


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