License to Thrill
Meet the first commercial rocketship pilots.
- By Michael Belfiore
- Photographs by Chad Slattery
- Air & Space magazine, March 2009
In the old days it was straightforward enough. The planet had two corps of astronauts, Soviet and U.S., and to join one, you had to be a military test pilot. But now the rules have changed. You don’t have to be an American or a Russian anymore, and you don’t even have to be a government employee.
In 2004, Burt Rutan and his small company in Mojave, California, Scaled Composites, broke the government monopoly on human spaceflight. The company built SpaceShipOne using the same carbon fiber molding techniques used by airplane homebuilders everywhere, at the ridiculously paltry cost of $25 million. At the controls on its first flight into space sat not a steely-eyed missile man forged in the cold war but a 63-year-old high school dropout from South Africa. “I’m just a guy,” Mike Melvill exulted after SpaceShipOne’s inaugural flight into space. “An old guy!” The implication was inescapable. If he could drive a spaceship, so could anyone.
Of course, Melvill wasn’t just any guy. He had spent the previous 25 years studying at the school of experience, flying one quirky experimental airplane after another. During his tenure with Scaled and its predecessor company, Melvill had made the first flights in nine other airplanes, among them the California Microwave, a reconnaissance aircraft designed to fly equally well with a pilot or without; and a self-powered sailplane called the Solitaire, with a propeller and engine that could retract into the fuselage to reduce drag.
SpaceShipOne’s next pilot, Scottish-American Brian Binnie (see “Confessions of a Spaceship Pilot,” June/July 2005), followed a more traditional route to space. As a boy, Binnie had been inspired by the Apollo moon landings to aim for the stars himself. Alas, after aerospace engineering school at Brown University in Rhode Island, test pilot training at the Navy air station in Patuxent River, Maryland, and 20 years as a Navy pilot, he found that a career at NASA was not in the cards. But by the time he retired from the Navy, in the late 1990s, another option had opened: commercial spaceflight. The first Mojave space startup Binnie joined, Rotary Rocket, went bust before reaching space, but by then he had made the acquaintance of Burt Rutan (Scaled Composites had been a contractor for Rotary). Rutan needed pilot-engineers, and Binnie signed on.
The engineers and dreamers had known all along that private enterprise could send people into space, and after SpaceShipOne made three spaceflights in 2004, the financiers knew it too. Sir Richard Branson, the British airline tycoon who had dreamed of space since seeing the 1968 movie Barbarella, had registered the name “Virgin Galactic” in 1999, and in SpaceShipOne’s design he finally saw a ship worthy of the name. Now Virgin Galactic is racing to be the first company to put paying passengers into space—six at a time with the Scaled-designed, corporate-jet-size SpaceShipTwo. Virgin has already sold more than $20 million in tickets for rides on SpaceShipTwo, which it plans to begin flying next year. Like its smaller predecessor, the spaceplane will drop from a jet-powered mothership at an altitude of 50,000 feet, where the pilot—this time assisted by a copilot—will fire a hybrid rocket motor and pull back on a stick to pitch up for a 3- to 4-G, Mach 3-plus run out of the atmosphere, and then four or five minutes of weightless flight in space.
That’s right, a stick. Like its predecessor, SpaceShipTwo will feature no computer controls, not even a fly-by-wire system. The pilot will have to wrestle the ship through its boost phase and possible off-center thrust (caused by a tendency for the rocket motor’s solid fuel to burn unevenly), using manual controls attached by rods and cables directly to the rudder and elevons. Those control surfaces will become immovable when the ship transitions through supersonic flight, at which point the pilot will have to keep the ship on course with electrically operated trim controls. Even those will become increasingly ineffective as the air around the ship thins to nothingness, at which point only the reaction control system’s bottles of compressed air will enable the pilot to change the ship’s orientation. “It’s hard to fly,” Melvill said at a 2005 talk of piloting SpaceShipOne. “The airplane does take a little bit of fooling around with to keep it going straight. You’re working rudder pedals, you’re working stick, you’re working trim.” The spaceship’s all-carbon-fiber construction lacks the strength to survive sustained supersonic flight in the atmosphere, making the pitch-up maneuver mandatory. “If you did not make the turn and you kept flying level, it would come apart,” said Melvill. “The dynamic loads on the vehicle would be so high, it would crush like an eggshell.”
To stay on course, the pilot will rely on a screen displaying the ship’s trajectory superimposed on the ideal flight path. “Normally our display works very well, and you just keep the green circle around the red circle,” said Melvill. “But on one of my flights the display went out, and so I had to [resort] to looking out of the windows.” With help from mission control, this was not as difficult as it sounds, said Melvill, “because I was able to see the horizon out of the corners of my eyes through two of the side windows. By keeping these horizons equal, I was able to maintain vertical flight.”
After coasting through an apogee of 360,000 feet, well past the 62-mile Kármán line demarcating space, SpaceShipTwo will reenter the atmosphere. The ship’s hinged tail booms, devised by Rutan to swing upward while in space and to automatically right and slow the ship as it reenters, will leave the pilot with little to do but strain to stay conscious during the 6-G deceleration. After lowering the ship’s tail by pushing forward a lever located between the pilot’s and copilot’s seats, the pilot will glide the spaceship back to a dead stick landing at the airport from which he had taken off some two and a half hours earlier.