Confessions of a Spaceship Pilot
If you fall off your horse...
- By Brian Binnie
- Air & Space magazine, July 2005
(Page 3 of 4)
The day after, on our way to play golf (yes, life must go on), Burt shared an anecdote he’d heard about a golfer who missed a two-foot putt that would have won him the British Open. Decades later, when the golfer was asked if he still thought about that putt, he responded, “Oh, I suppose 10 or 12 minutes may go by when I don’t think about it.”
This experience was threatening to haunt me the same way. I couldn’t believe that after surviving My Youth, Carrier Aviation, Desert Storm, and Rotary Rocket, this landing was going to define me. It was clear that whatever 2004 had in store, it wasn’t going to come easy.
By April, Doug Shane and Burt had waded through the Federal Aviation Administration’s launch licensing process and Peter flew the next powered flight, which reached 105,000 feet. It went straight and true and the landing was flawless. That flight was a huge morale booster to the members, who had been suffering stirrings of doubt after such a long down time. Next up was Mike, and in May he rocketed up to 210,000 feet. Mike never seems to go anywhere without at least a little excitement, and keeping the vehicle going in the right direction despite having lost the primary flight display was gutsy and full of that enviable flight test quality I had lost.
Next, in June, was the coveted flight that would crown the world’s first private astronaut. It was an event that was going to go to either Pete or Mike; by then, I was settled into my new role as White Knight bus driver. Mike got the nod, and on June 21, 2004, off he went into the history books, if only by the slimmest of margins. The vehicle, which had been stripped down to its leanest fighting weight, just managed to sneak past the 100-kilometer mark by some 400 feet. That was about 0.1 percent over the requirement. Exciting stuff again, and signature Mike by this time in the program.
Next up would be the X-Prize flights, with their $10 million carrot. The foundation required 60 days’ notice, and we needed the time and something other than a quick fix for our performance problems. Once again, the propulsion team came to the rescue, finding a way to turn up the wick on our trusty hybrid and giving us the confidence that we could get back up to 100 kilometers—but this time carrying all 600 pounds of required payload. Peter was slated for the first X-Prize flight, or X1, as we called it. However, nagging health issues disrupted that plan, so once again the reins went to our tried-and-true guy, Mike. Mike blasted out of the atmosphere with color and character, this time with all those famous rolls after rocket motor burnout. Twenty- nine, in fact, on the way up and just for good measure, one more on the way down.
Over these last couple of months, I had found myself in a new alliance, one that had given me a glimmer of hope. Mike had taken me under his wing when we had gone off together to NASA’s Langley center in Virginia in August on a Proteus deployment (Proteus was White Knight’s predecessor). Upon returning, we modified the canopy on Mike’s Long-EZ airplane (which was designed by Burt) to mimic the field of view in the SS1, and were using it as the SS1 landing trainer. In fact, at Mike’s urging, I flew anything I could get my hands on, and when I wasn’t flying I was in the simulator. I would drag Peter with me and together we spent hours comparing notes on how to fly the vehicle during boost, particularly in the capricious and unforgiving end game as you’re leaving the wispy atmosphere.
But now I ask you: With just one more flight to go to claim the holy grail of flight test, to pass Go and get the $10 million, to ensure the company’s future with a brand-new investor, Richard Branson, looking on, and to maintain Scaled’s sacred safety record, do you go with the tried and true, or do you toss the keys over to the spaceship crasher? Well, the race isn’t always won by the fastest horse, but that’s the way you tend to bet. And while I wasn’t going to be caught unprepared, I held out little hope of getting that second chance to jump-start my dreams.
Mike’s harrowing X1 flight had taken place on a Wednesday, and in true Scaled fashion the lights burned late that night as the team analyzed the roll problem. Incredibly, by the next day, we thought we understood what was going on and how to modify the trajectory to avoid the rolling departure. Burt liked what he heard, and with his penchant for promotional impact, thought that a flight on the following Monday, the 47th anniversary of Sputnik’s launch, would be an appropriate capstone to the program. All that was needed now was a pilot.