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Confessions of a Spaceship Pilot

If you fall off your horse...

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THE PROGRAM TO DEVELOP AND TEST Burt Rutan’s spaceshipone (ss1) had many different demands, but I can safely say the one that made the pilots uniformly uncomfortable was the hour-long wait in SS1 while the White Knight carrier aircraft dragged it up to release altitude. During this time, there is little to do and the mind is somewhat free to wander.

For me, what first filled the void was a nagging hint of anxiety, which, over the course of the laboring ascent, began to slip down the slope into fear. And there is nothing quite like fear. Its demons will stalk you until they’ve conjured all kinds of trouble. I know; I lived with it for years while struggling to land the unforgiving A-7 Corsair aboard aircraft carriers at night. There’s something much worse than fear, though. That’s having your dreams taken away from you. And I know all about that too.

One of Burt’s dreams was to put the Tier One program (the code name given to keep the project secret early on) squarely in the national limelight by celebrating the centennial of the Wright brothers’ first flight from Kitty Hawk with the first powered flight of SS1 from the Mojave Desert. No matter which coast you were on, December 17, 2003, was to be a glorious day.

For Scaled Composites, the company Burt started in 1982, the flight was the culmination of months of hard work by a small team of dedicated, smart, and seriously focused individuals. I will remain forever awed by the talent that resides within the unassuming facilities that make up Burt’s fun factory.

The Tier One program comprised two stages: White Knight, the carrier-launch aircraft, and SS1, the vehicle that would take us to our 100-kilometer (328,000 feet) altitude. The goal of Tier One was to win the $10 million Ansari X-Prize by accomplishing two privately funded, manned spaceflights, above 100 kilometers, within 14 days.

In the five weeks preceding the centennial, we had completed two envelope-expansion glide flights in the vehicle and a qualifying ground run of the flight-configured, hybrid rocket motor. Modifications by Burt, along with engineers Jim Tighe and Matt Stinemetze, included enlarged tails and esoteric details like strakes and stall fences. Pilot and engineer Peter Siebold was running what seemed like a 24/7 simulator operation, contributing misery and challenges to the rest of us as we tried to keep up. Finally, rocket motor integration details had been pounded into submission by Scaled engineer John Campbell and the SpaceDev team (which provided critical components for the hybrid rocket motor). It was a stunning exhibition of pure willpower to make it all happen by December 17, so the Christmas holidays could be enjoyed in peace.

By December, we were about as smart as we were going to be without throwing all the various elements together and seeing how they really behaved. Some of the features we were interested in learning more about were the rocket motor ignition at altitude, pilot reaction to the energetic impulse of that motor waking up, the acoustic environment (could you hear the radios?), and the structural environment (would the displays even be readable with the motor vibrations?). Oh, and there were the basics, of course, like performance: Did we have the right stabilizer trim setting to get the vehicle flying around the corner—the transition point from horizontal to near-vertical flight? Not enough trim and you could overspeed it and watch parts start to shed. Too much and you drive the angle of attack into regimes where the handling qualities become suspect. And speaking of handling qualities, there was the whole matter of accelerating to supersonic airspeeds within 10 seconds.

There was considerable uncertainty as to whether we should fly the vehicle conventionally as an airplane first, transitioning to electric trim as the control forces became overwhelming, or go with the trims straight out of the gate. The beauty and excitement of flight test is that it is the sword to the Gordian knot of all these details.

Burt has often been quoted in the press as saying that we’ve lost the courage to explore new frontiers. Usually there’s a reference to NASA not too far away. We need less government, the freedom to follow our dreams, and the courage to exercise that freedom. After 20 years with the Navy, I have an affinity for flag and apple pie, and I love that kind of talk. Burt can challenge anyone in the risk/reward business because his flight test safety record is second to none, and he’s achieved it while ferreting out the truth on a remarkably diverse number of aircraft over three decades. You might say Burt, Doug Shane (Scaled’s new-business director and chief test pilot), and Mike Melvill (Scaled’s general manager and senior test pilot) have collectively put together a safety record to die for.

I was thrilled to have the opportunity to fly that first powered flight on December 17. Some might surmise that pulling it off took nerves of steel and other parts made of brass. I didn’t see it that way. Expectations were low; just getting the motor lit would have been considered a success. Plus, any troubles during boost would be chalked up to the difficulty of the task. From a piloting standpoint, it was really a no-lose situation.

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