The pilot was last seen striding towards SpaceShipOne saying “Smoke Me A Kipper, I’ll Be Back For Breakfast”
Sunday afternoon, my wife and I piled into our car for the trek down to Mojave to see Space Ship One. The required items were verified to be present (folding chair, binoculars, absurd amount of water, sunblock, etc) and we hit the desert.
The official word was that the gates were going to open at 3 AM and the rumor had it was that the whole area would be backed up and quite crazy. So we opted to leave nothing to chance and arrive early so that if things did get backed up, we’d at least be in the queue to park and watch it in the best desert comfort. To properly prepare ourselves for this, we went to Marie Callender’s for some dessert comfort, then we ended up in Mojave, where the night is cold and windy.
It turns out that we overplanned. We ended up parking on the street and sleeping until about 1 AM, when my brother offered to scout out the entrance and we discovered that they were, in fact, letting folks in early. We got an early spot and, of course, phoned other visitors to let them know that the gates were opening early. Then we settled down to get some sleep.
I know, for a fact, that I wouldn’t have made a good test pilot for that sort of mission. I got a few hours of sleep here and there and that’s about it. And I was just there to see him fly. Somewhere after 4:30 AM, fortified by doughnuts, we made our way towards the edge of the audience area to watch the flight.
Mojave is an interesting place. It neighbors Edwards Air Force Base. It’s already billed as the US “Civilian Test Flight Center” because of all of the test flights they make there. And it’s also the airliner equivalent of the puppy pound. Airliners that are no longer needed by their airlines are flown to Mojave to be parked there. Some of them end up being purchased later and returned to service, but a lot of them end up sitting there for many years, until they are finally scrapped. Much of the action took place with old airliners with painted-over logos in the background. The rest of it generally had a wind turbine or a train as the background.
Everybody was waiting, most of them armed with cameras and binoculars. It was a slice of life, I’m sure. There was some sort of whacko Christian group trying to minister to the spectators through SpaceShipOne. There was the libertarians, with their “Space Ship One, Government Zero” sign (which Burt Rutan liked so much, he kept, apparently). There was even the tinfoil hat brigade. (I hopefully have pictures). At some point, I thought I heard that the flight would be canceled, but I must have misheard.
Eventually, the craft all taxied out, an Extra, a Beech Starship, and White Knight (With SpaceShipOne attached to the belly). The Extra took off first, followed by the Starship. I should note that the Starship is an incredibly beautiful aircraft on its own right, and is also a Burt Rutan design. Finally, with both chase aircraft in the air, White Knight took to the air.
In the flesh, I was struck by what an incredibly beautiful aircraft it is. The thing that continually amazes me about Burt Rutan’s designs is that they are all different, all very functional for their task, and all quite beautiful.
We waited as White Knight slowly circled the area, gaining altitude. In the meantime, on the ground, another chase aircraft, a Dornier Alpha Jet took off. We managed to sometimes catch the craft on binoculars or the telescope, a task that got easier when the aircraft started throwing off contrails.
After about an hour of climbing, they were ready to light the rocket (quite literally, burning rubber) We couldn’t really see much at this point, so it had become a radio program at this point. We heard the countdown to ignition and when they hit zero, you could see now the twisty exhaust trail in the sky. It flew in front of the sun and we could see it all of the way up.
At this point, I’ll break from the as-I-saw-it narrative and point out that they had some problems with some of the control surfaces that required some fancy piloting on the part of Mike Melvill. But we didn’t know this and they had the cockpit audio muted (most likely in case the pilot let out a burst of obscenities). I’d also like to note that, to celebrate, Mike let loose a bag of M&Ms in the cockpit, which I sincerely hope there will be footage available of.
Everybody cheered when they heard the shuttle-like double sonic boom. We managed to pick up SpaceShipOne in re-entry freefall, with the chase planes circling. I could see the Extra getting awfully close to SpaceShipOne to check out the underside. They began circling to land. The Extra checked out the runway, and SpaceShipOne set down.
White Night proceeded to buzz the audience at low altitude, before landing. Without SpaceShipOne underneath, that thing has an excellent thrust to weight ratio. Then, the three chase planes flew in a V over the crowd, with the Extra’s smoke generator on before they landed.
Finally, after an extended hug-the-VIPs session and press photos, they brought out SpaceShipOne, with Mike Melvill sitting on top, in front of the crowd. Eventually, we all got interviewed for German TV (although my brother managed to be able to string sentences together better than I, so I opted to keep my mouth shut)
Apparently, after we left, Mike was presented with his Astronaut’s wings, making him the first commercial pilot with an astronaut rating, in the entire world. Apparently he had Buzz Aldrin to welcome him to the exclusive Astronaut club.
It was an amazing day. And it was only 9:00 in the morning.
I think all of us felt that this was history happening, right in front of us. The large number of folks who showed up to watch, on a Monday, added to this. I think the best way to describe how I felt was that the last time I was this happy, it was my wedding day.
This really exemplifies what is good in the USA and the world, even today. NASA has been stuck with the shuttle since the mid 70s. America hasn’t launched any manned missions since the Columbia crashed in January 2003 (Soyuz flights don’t count). The Concorde, the only supersonic airliner and a beautiful piece of machinery, is no longer in service. This is what made me produce a piece of illuminated art entitled “The Death of Engineering”
I’ve talked with several folks about recent Science Fiction, and we’ve all stopped reading most of the new stuff. It’s awfully depressing. Kiki lost interest before Cyberpunk hit, I lost interest after Cyberpunk, etc. Instead, we’ve got Fantasy, which is good, but I miss good science fiction. Perhaps part of the reason for why we don’t have any good science fiction is because, until today, progress wasn’t looking especially fast or interesting.
And, to the rescue, comes Paul Allen with money and Burt Rutan with the brains, to make a low-budget mission in to space (albeit not quite as low budget as Armadillo Aerospace) that looks beautiful, does the assigned task for not much money. Couple that with a progressive set of de-regulation that has been allowing folks other than NASA to fly into space, and there’s something to actually be happy about.
Because, one of the reasons why the USA is a good country is not just the government, it’s the people who live in it. Just because we’ve got a government-funded space program, it doesn’t mean that we need to limit ourselves to that. Sometimes, we can fix these sorts of things ourselves and have a civilian manned space program that’s now better than most government manned space programs.
I’ve often stated that I’d like to fly into space while I’m still alive. This flight makes it closer, and my personal goal to fly once into space, plus the hope for humanity in general being able to explore the universe, makes me incredibly happy. And, like many great things, like the web, the Wright Brothers, Linux, the electric guitar, the world has changed, not because of a huge army of folks, but because of a small group of well motivated and intelligent folks. I’m hoping that today, the course of history changed in front of me. At the very least, I’m going to have these memories to treasure for the rest of my life, and hopefully relive every time I see SpaceShipOne in whatever museum it ends up getting a dignified retirement at.