Confessions of a Spaceship Pilot

If you fall off your horse…

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So imagine my delight when the motor lit and the little-spaceship-that-could scooted around the corner like a bat out of hell. No matter that I was about half a mile behind it. After 15 seconds the motor shut down and SS1 coasted (upside down!) to a modest apogee of 68,000 feet, where Burt’s magic feather system removed any further need for piloting skills. The feather system allows the pilot to literally break the vehicle in half—raising half the wing, both tail booms, and tails to nearly vertical. This configuration is extremely stable, and allows the ship to reenter the atmosphere safely without pilot input. I call it the “angel’s wings,” and it’s a part of Burt Rutan’s genius. All’s well that ends well, and that boost had been a blast.

On the glide back down there isn’t much to do but enjoy the ride, and I admit to thinking we had set the bar pretty high (so to speak) for the Kitty Hawk boys. Paul G. Allen, our reclusive bazillionaire benefactor, had made a surprise appearance that morning and planned to announce officially to the world his sponsorship of the program. So there was considerable horsepower on the ramp to help celebrate what was shaping up to be a rather fine morning, not to mention several hundred people who had guessed Burt’s plans and were camped out at the airfield to watch the show.

The SS1 landing pattern had been a surprising source of trouble for the program. Flying a low-performance glider, without spoilers, to a consistent point on final had taken some experimentation, but we finally had a method that was working well for us. With good airspeed and energy I rolled out “in the groove” and lowered the gear. Mike Melvill, who was now on my wing as low chase, offered early congratulations with a clever “Cleared to land.” Up in White Knight, Cory Bird, lead engineer for that vehicle and the one who had released me 15 minutes earlier, was heard to say to pilot Peter Siebold: “Well, that’s that.” All the pieces of the puzzle had fallen nicely into place, and it looked like the good guys had once again prevailed over the forces of evil and darkness.

That is, until I crashed SpaceShipOne.

A funny thing about people: You can build a hundred bridges, but get a little dirt (okay, a lot) on a plastic spaceship and they won’t call you Brian the Bridge Builder. Burt put his best spin on the day’s events, but when all was said and done there was no escaping the awful impact of seeing the damage: the torn gear and everywhere the miasma of that dirty desert dust. It was a sore sight, and whoever was responsible clearly lacked that important ingredient, that oh-so-necessary quality in test flight known as the Right Stuff.

It seemed like I missed Christmas that year. I spent the holidays dutifully writing a test report, trying to salvage some meaning from that day’s events. I even wandered back into the hangar during those days off, hoping to see proof that somehow my personal nightmare was just a dream. But there it would be, the brave little spaceship with so much promise. Broken. Its sad appearance a slap to the senses.

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.

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