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British tycoon Sir Richard Branson (left) and maverick aerospace designer Burt Rutan are racing to put the first paying passengers into space — at $200,000 per 2 1/2-hour flight. (MICHAEL BELFIORE)

License to Thrill

Meet the first commercial rocketship pilots.

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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.

Virgin has already begun recruiting spaceship pilots from among the commercial jet pilots of its four airlines. With the rules of the game still being written, the only stated requirements for a Virgin space pilot is 3,000 hours of flying time and ratings on multiple aircraft types. There are no weight, height, or other physical requirements. “Obviously, pilots will have to be healthy and fit,” says Virgin Galactic test pilot and Virgin Atlantic captain David Mackay, “but not necessarily more so than, say, military fast-jet pilots.” Ostensibly that qualifies all of Virgin America’s pilots, who all have twice the required number of hours. But it’s no accident that those on the short list have a lot of additional relevant experience.

Take Virgin America captains Rob Bendall, 44, and Rich Dancaster, 55. These two civilian-trained test pilots made the flights the Federal Aviation Administration required to get Virgin America certified. Bendall is a good-natured Canadian with dark brown hair and a quick smile who clearly loves his day job. Virgin America’s chief pilot, he has seven years of flight test experience with Nevada-based International Flight Test Group, as well as flying time in everything from small airplanes like Cessnas and Pipers to the big Airbus transports he pilots for a living.

Dancaster, Virgin America’s director of pilot training, grins when asked why he wants to be a spaceship pilot. “Once they said you go from like Mach .7 to about Mach 4 in 10 seconds, I said ‘I gotta try that!’ ” Dancaster, whose flying experience encompasses a broad range of aircraft, including the Boeing 747, the Airbus A320, and the Douglas DC-8, is fit and trim with close-cropped gray hair. He exudes the kind of quiet competence that passengers on the first commercial spaceflights will doubtless find reassuring. Bendall and Dancaster are, in fact, counting on their obvious competence to put potentially anxious passengers at ease during preflight briefings and during the flight to launch altitude. If necessary, the pilots might be able to get out of their seats to help spacesick passengers back into their seats before reentry, but once the spacecraft begins the 6-G reentry, a passenger having a hard time will have to cope on his own. Virgin Galactic hopes that centrifuge training will nip such problems in the bud.

Bendall, Dancaster, and fellow Virgin America pilot Brad Lambert will each spend 27 months on loan from their airline to train with Virgin Galactic. As we went to press, they hadn’t yet started their training—which will include flying simulators at Scaled—and so weren’t able to compare the spaceship’s handling characteristics to those of more conventional aircraft. But Virgin Galactic test pilot Mackay, who is already working with the pilots and engineers at Scaled, has had a taste of what the Virgin Galactic pilots are in for. “The obvious differences here to anything I’ve flown in the past,” he says, “are that [the ship] goes much faster, much higher, and into a new environment.” With structural changes made to the design after the flights of SpaceShipOne—mainly bringing the wings from atop the fuselage to below it to increase stability—the ship shouldn’t be quite as difficult to fly during the boost phase as its predecessor. “The change in the vehicle’s responses to disturbances or control inputs as it rapidly travels through the atmosphere makes it interesting,” says Mackay, “but, in practice, the boosted flight profile is quite simple.” As for gliding it home, he says, “in the landing pattern SS2 is quite agile, its field of view is good, and it has an excellent, versatile navigation system, meaning that, if necessary, pilots can be quite flexible in the approach they fly. I’ve flown flameout patterns in the AV-8B [Harrier jump jet] and Mirage III [fighter] and they were more demanding.”

Mackay came to Virgin in 1995 after serving in the Royal Air Force as a test pilot, most recently as chief fixed-wing instructor at the Empire Test Pilots’ School in Wiltshire, England. All told, he has more than 11,000 hours of experience in 100-plus aircraft types, including World War I biplanes, early jets like the de Havilland Vampire, and, of course, the airliners he flies now. Like Binnie, Mackay was inspired to become an astronaut by Apollo. “The only snag in my plan was that the U.K. was not sending people into space,” he says. It wasn’t until he reached his 30s that he realized he probably wouldn’t become an astronaut. “That was hard to accept,” he admits. So when Virgin and Scaled Composites offered a chance to become a commercial spaceship pilot, he jumped. Besides working closely with Scaled pilots Binnie and Pete Siebold (Melvill has retired from full-time duties at Scaled) in creating the flight test program, Mackay is helping to work out the training program for the Virgin pilots who will follow him into space.

As Mackay puts it, “The accuracy of the flight profile and the safety of the vehicle rest entirely in the hands and the flying skills of the pilot,” so future space pilots will need to spend time—lots of it—in Scaled’s spaceship simulator. But in preparing a pilot for the demands of flying a spaceship, the simulator can go only so far. Training will also include flying time in the White Knight 2, which has deliberately been designed with a cockpit identical to that of its daughter ship, as well as with the ability to duplicate the lift-to-drag ratio of a spaceship gliding to a landing. And, says Mackay, “all SpaceShip pilots will have to be in current practice in high-G maneuvers.” Mackay and his colleagues envision flying in aerobatic aircraft such as the Extra 300, in which the SpaceShipOne pilots trained. Weightless flight training is possible in conventional aircraft too, says Mackay, but “as SpaceShip pilots will remain strapped in throughout the flight, it is not currently as important as high-G training.”

If all goes well, Virgin Galactic expects to fly at least two spaceflights a day from each spaceport from which it operates—initially New Mexico’s Spaceport America, and then from other locations around the world. Since each flight will require four pilots—two in the spaceship and two in the mothership—the initial cadre of 18 pilots will get a lot of flying time.

Wanting to experience some of what a pilot (and passengers) will go through on a SpaceShipTwo flight, I visited the National AeroSpace Training and Research Center in Southampton, Pennsylvania. The NASTAR center has configured a centrifuge to exactly duplicate the G-loads of a SpaceShipTwo flight. The center’s parent company, the Environmental Tectonics Corporation, manufactures centrifuges, altitude chambers, and other flight simulation equipment, and it launched NASTAR in October 2007 to train fighter pilots as well as potential commercial astronauts. After checking out the facility, Virgin Galactic officials contracted with NASTAR in September 2007 for preferential treatment and pricing for Virgin Galactic passengers. “We worked very closely with the VG team to provide a complete VG branded experience,” explains NASTAR chief operating officer and instructor Glenn King. “This experience includes flights in our High Performance Human Centrifuge, now called our STS-400 [Space Training System], with the flight profile matched to the actual VG suborbital flight profile.”

The NASTAR center is the only non-government-operated facility in the world where civilians can undergo high-G training. I signed on for the center’s one-day “spaceflight lite” program, which subjected me to only half of the maximum G-loads of a SpaceShipTwo flight. The full-G, two-day program that Virgin Galactic offers as part of the price for a rocketship ride would have cost $5,800 and required a flight physical as well as an ambulance on standby at the center. Still, the light version was enough to give me a sense of what spaceflight would subject me to. After Brienna Henwood, director of commercial business, strapped me into the capsule—complete with projected images of altimeter, G-load, and Mach number gauges and a simulated view out the front and back of the spaceship—and secured the hatch behind me, an automated voice provided a countdown from the control room. The reassuringly professional voice talked me through the drop from the mothership (accompanied by a gentle rocking of the capsule), and then the rapid buildup of Gs as the rocket motor fired. As instructed by King in a classroom earlier, I tensed my legs and forced air through pursed lips to blow away the grayness creeping in on the fringes of my vision as the blood tried to drain from my brain.

King had shown me and a fellow student a video of himself in the fighter cockpit mockup, undergoing gravity-induced loss of consciousness. It wasn’t pretty. His eyes rolled back in his head, his head flopped forward, and his hand fell from the control stick in the centrifuge. Granted, at that point he was up to 9 Gs, but even SpaceShipTwo’s 6 Gs could knock out a pilot who doesn’t start proper breathing and straining maneuvers to keep the blood in his head well in advance of the high Gs. King explained that once the blood has drained from your head, it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to force it back up your neck. For commercial space pilots, high-G training will be essential.

To all the other qualifications of a commercial spaceship pilot, one might add that of company spokesperson. Former Air Force test pilot and NASA space shuttle commander Rick Searfoss is now chief test pilot for XCOR Aerospace, yet another spaceflight startup based at the Mojave Airport. He puts his experience as a professional speaker to good use during XCOR press conferences and public events like the rocket-powered airplane flights he made last summer for XCOR and the Rocket Racing League at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual Oshkosh, Wisconsin fly-in. Commercial space pilots will necessarily become some of their companies’ most visible representatives in selling the experience of spaceflight to potential passengers. Regarding a space pilot’s more formal qualifications, “obviously I’m showing my bias here,” says Searfoss, “but I believe it would be advantageous to have the disciplined, uber-professional training and background of a former military pilot, particularly a formal-course graduate test pilot, for any commercial spaceflight operations.”

XCOR’s planned one-pilot, one-passenger, jet-fighter-size suborbital rocketplane, called Lynx, will glide through its descent, since none of the craft’s kerosene fuel will remain after the boost to space. Lynx will take off on its own from a runaway and reach an altitude of about 200,000 feet. Although the craft is still under construction, Searfoss has flown XCOR’s rocket-powered technology demonstrators. “Imagine a small, light, experimental homebuilt like a Long-EZ, which flies very nicely to begin with,” he says. “It has light stick forces. It’s a nice flying airplane if you’re a fighter pilot. But then without a reciprocating engine...it’s just smooth as silk to fly.”

Searfoss says piloting a rocketplane is “all very much the case of just managing your energy.” With no fuel left in the tanks for a landing, says Searfoss, “it’s just a question of doing exactly what glider pilots do, exactly what a shuttle commander does...to just position yourself to get to the endgame: stopped on the runway safe and sound.”

So far, XCOR’s space pilot corps is a one-man show, but the company anticipates hiring more pilots after Searfoss flies the first Lynx flight tests to space, which it hopes will take place by next year. “We have a few in mind, not at liberty to say who, but they have military backgrounds as well,” says Searfoss. He and his colleagues haven’t yet worked out a program for training new pilots, but it will most likely include high-G training in acrobatic aircraft and time in XCOR-built simulators. There will not be much, if any, zero-G time.

As for me, I can breathe and strain with the best of them, but I’ll leave the piloting to the professionals. Besides, when I hit zero G, I want to be free to move about the cabin. 

Michael Belfiore is the author of Rocketeers: How a Visionary Band of Business Leaders, Engineers, and Pilots Is Boldly Privatizing Space and a forthcoming book about the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

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