Rocketing Into History

  • Share
  • Read Later

SKYWARD: SpaceShipOne in flight

On Sunday, June 20th, a day before the launch of SpaceShipOne from the Civilian Flight Test Center in Mojave, Calif., the onlookers began rolling into the parking lot—a convoy of cars and RVs, hundreds of them, rumbling towards what some called the space enthusiasts' Woodstock. They came with children, dogs, bikes, Scotch, telescope, and barbeques—and with the hope of watching the first civilian rocketship arc into space.

"I've been to two goat ropings and a county fair, and I've never seen anything like this before," remarked Burt Rutan, the aerospace designer behind the rocketplane, his calm desert-worn face flanked by gray mutton chops and topped by a poof of hair. By his side stood Mike Melville, 63, the pilot and Rutan's best friend. A grandfather of four and native of South Africa, Meville wore large wire-rimmed glasses and a star-spangled SpaceShipOne jumpsuit, and with his down-turned eyes and low-slung baseball cap he looked profoundly shy."I'm very, very flattered to be chosen for this. I just got the luck of the short straw or the long straw, whatever it is," said Melville. "I'm hoping this will be an exact replica of the last flight"—on which he traveled to 212,000 feet—"just a little bit higher."

An all-night party ensued. When SpaceShipOne rolled down the runway in the pink dawn light, tens of thousands of noses pressed up against the fence, all hoping to catch a glimpse of history. SpaceShipOne looked fragile and elegant, a bullet-nosed bird with folded wings, not much bigger than a pickup truck. For takeoff, it was attached to the underbelly of a lanky twin-boomed airplane called the White Knight. Piloted by a former Navy test pilot named Brian Binnie, the White Knight would carry SpaceShipOne up to an altitude of 46,200 feet, at which point Melville would light his engine and careen out of the atmosphere into a black sky.

Still at ground level, Melville stuck his hand out of a small round portal window, waved and gave a thumbs-up. And then they just left, zip, no flames, no fanfare, just a whoosh down the runway and a slow rise off the deck, Binnie carrying the two up and over the Tehachapi Mountains, Melville wearing the lucky horseshoe he'd given his future wife when he was 16.

For an hour while they corkscrewed higher and higher, Melville did his best not to freak out—"It's a pretty lonely time," he'd later remark. "Not too many people talking to you, and you're sitting there with a lot of thoughts in your head." Meanwhile, down in the crowd, talk turned to the significance of the day's flight. The goal of SpaceShipOne was to reach space, defined as 100 km or 62 miles above sea level, not to orbit or the moon, meaning the rocket would only need to go 1/8th as fast as required to get, say, to the International Space Station, which hovers 240 miles above the earth. Some of the nerdier patrons discussed concerns pertaining to scalability and thermal protection (thermal protection failure led to the loss of the Columbia and its crew last year) and the more business savvy doubted that Rutan's design would lead to serious cost reduction in launching payloads to space.

But for most, focusing on those things seemed beside the point. Rutan designed SpaceShipOne for a specific purpose: to put a civilian in space, without government assistance. In the process he hoped to win the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million reward for the first team to fly three people to space and back twice within 14 days. Like pretty much all of Rutan's ideas, this one started as a drawing on napkin—or, to be precise, two. SpaceShipOne is napkin model #316, according to Rutan, and White Knight is napkin model number #318. (The napkins, he says, will be viewed only when SpaceShipOne resides in the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum.)

In 2000 Microsoft co-founded Paul Allen, a serious space enthusiast, invited Rutan to lunch to discuss the possibility of making an X Prize bid together. The two hit it off, and in 2001 Allen agreed to fund a $20 million program. Remarkably, very little changed from napkin presented at the Allen lunch through fabrication. White Knight's catamaran shape proved successful for high altitude flight and ferrying loads. Even more impressive, SpaceShipOne's transformer-like configuration worked as well, with its wings moving from a down-turned position for boost, to a feathered position for re-entry, and finally to a glider position for landing.

Around 7:15 am, nearly ten miles overhead, SpaceShipOne separated from White Knight. Melville broke the safety and lit the motor and, from the vantage point of the ground, zoomed up and past the sun. As he would later report, he felt a force of "three g's, eyeballs back, and four g's, eyeballs down," which he said was "kind of disorienting." He also unexpectedly rolled 90 degrees left, and in correcting that rolled 90 degrees right, and then he learned his primary trim controls had a malfunctioning motor, which caused him to shoot 20 miles down range and up at a less steep angle than he had wished. The backup controls worked, however, and at its apogee the rocket topped up over the 62 miles, though by only 400 feet.

Safely back on the ground, Meville took a few minutes to collect himself and then he emerged from SpaceShipOne's round portal door with two hands raised in victory overhead, giving warm hugs to Burt Rutan and Paul Allen, and shaking Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin's hand. He looked transformed, transported, by the experience; no longer just one of us. "It was a mind-blowing experience, it really was," he told the crowd, "an absolutely awesome thing." For twenty minutes he sat on top of SpaceShipOne, being towed up and down the runway, waving to the crowd. Like all the Mercury and Apollo astronauts, Melville would say he had "a religious experience." But in many ways what he pulled off, along with Rutan, was more like the Wright Brothers' early flights.

"Before Wilber went to Paris with his airplane, the Europeans thought he was lying," Rutan said. "Then they watched him do turns, and they watched him fly for a long time, and they watched him do multiple flights a day. I believe the significant thing is that they then all said, at the same time, 'I can do that, too, because these are just bicycle shop guys.'"

Weil is the author of ”They All Laughed at Christopher Columbus: An Incurable Dreamer Builds the First Civilian Spaceship.”