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Confessions of a Spaceship Pilot

If you fall off your horse...

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.

And at about 4:30 on a Thursday afternoon, I was set free.

So as I was saying, easily the worst part of those flights was the hour-long ride underneath White Knight to altitude. In that time you get to live with who you are. And for me, it was strangely comfortable to be in the company of the fear demons once more. I welcomed them, for their presence meant I had my dreams back and the opportunity to realize them.

On October 4, 2004, Brian Binnie piloted SS1 to claim the world altitude record previously set by the X-15, and the $10 million Ansari X-Prize for investor Paul Allen and Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites of Mojave, California.

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