L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 291, October 3, 2004
"The traffic jam at the spaceport was almost nonexistent"
Exclusive to TLE
It is September 29, 2004 and Mike Melvill in SpaceShipOne has, once more, punched through the limits of the Earth's atmosphere to outer space. The Scaled Composites team will do it again, scheduled as of now for 5 day hence, on October 4, to win the Ansari X-Prize -- the trophy and a check for ten million dollars.
How about that?
It was cold and windy in the pre-dawn of the high desert as I rolled into Mojave for the second space flight of Mike Melvill in SpaceShipOne -- as he started to win the Ansari X-prize. I was worried about the weather, as too much wind would delay the launch. That was not to be, as, like the previous historic shot into space in June, the desert's strong night wind died down as dawn approached and was almost flat calm when the ships took off near 7 a.m.
The crowd of well-wishers was smaller that the first flight, so the traffic jam at the spaceport was almost nonexistent. As this is the first of two required flights to win the prize, I was not very suprised at the moderate turnout. There were a few thousand people present by my estimate from the middle of it all, instead of the tens of thousands in June. I expect that the number will be much larger for the second and prize winning launch, as that one will be the final achievement of this stage in the conquest of the new High Frontier.
I intend to be there for that one, too!
The take-off and climb of the White Night and his burden, SpaceShipOne, along with the three chase planes, was much like the previous mission in June. One by one they took off and circled the spaceport for the hour-long climb to the 47,000 foot altitude where White Night would drop SpaceShipOne for the climb to space above one hundred kilometers.
The weather aloft was dry, so there was no contrail from any of the airplanes. That made it hard to follow them as the white ships gained altitude and tended to disappear against the light and blue of the sky. It was sometimes embarrassing to be looking one way and have my neighbor point to the ships in another, far off direction. All of us got the usual kinks in our necks and wore-out our arms as we did what in now called "the Rutan Salute", shading our eyes from the sun and turning our gaze straight up.
When the voice of mission control gave the five-minute warning for launch-release there was some consternation in the crowd as people tried to find the White Knight and Beech Starship, lost in all that infinite blue with no contrails to guide us. At the one-minute warning the noise level of the crowd increased as those who had made visual lock-on pointed others in the right direction. Then the Knight released the space ship and the rocket's smoke trail started to pull away from the White Knight and pulled up to the vertical, again lining-out for space!
Once more, I watched that thin, white line ascend the heavens; as Mike Melvill rode the flame into history again.
It's not what it is. It's what it means.
There was wind aloft and the rocket's smoke trail was twisted around as the ship ascended. I could not see the actual ship, even at ten-power magnification, as it was just too high for that. I could only follow that beautiful line as it grew straight up at an ever-increasing rate. SpaceShipOne was accelerating at four gravities, after all! There was a little twist in the smoke trail just before it stopped at the end of the rocket burn, but I did not know that the ship had begun to spin at that point. Mike said after the flight that the ship did a victory roll -- and he wished that he had planned it, but thought that he had actually over-controlled while working hard near the end of the acceleration. I don't know if the smoke twist was the ship spinning or just the wind blowing it around behind.
After the engine shut down and the smoke no longer guided our eyes, I lost visual contact -- along with everybody else who did not have high-powered optics on a firm mount. We all waited for news from mission control of what was happening. The Voice Of Mission Control on the public address system told us that Mike had feathered the wing, ... ... topped out on his trajectory ... ... and was descending toward re-entry into the atmosphere. We did not yet know, at that point, if he made the winning altitude. We had to wait until later for that information, as the data had to be checked first.
The ship came down with the wing feathered in that high-drag configuration, reentering at about mach 3, until nearing 50,000 feet of altitude, where Mike lowered the wing back to regular flight configuration and began the long 20 minute glide back to the spaceport. After the reconfigure the Beech Starship took up the chase again and we on the ground could find the space ship by using the larger Starship as a beacon. At least, that is, those of us who could find the Starship at that high an altitude!
Astronaut Mike Melvill circled the field on the way down, entered the landing pattern, flared out as smooth as you please on ground effect, and greased another perfect landing, just like last time, to roll-out to the north and the VIP-press area.
We all screamed our heads off as he wooshed by!
After SpaceShipOne landed, the chase planes and the White Knight made victory passes over the field, the Knight doing a half-looping 180 degree turn, almost vertical and on afterburners, from south to north.
After the usual speeches, questions and answers, and such-like stuff, at the VIP-press area; the pickup truck, with Burt Rutan sitting on the tailgate next to (I think it was...) Paul Allen, towed the space ship -- with Mike Melvill standing on top -- over to the public viewing area where we all were, for a big "thank you", many "well dones" all around, and some more pictures.
As the truck towed the space ship back up the runway to the Scaled Composites hangar, I was able to get this picture [top of article] taken by another "rocket booster" of your humble author, rumpled, windblown and happy -- with the important folks in the background. The hard part was getting that grin off of my face long enough to eat lunch!
Thus ended the first, and successful, flight in the first attempt to win the Ansari X-Prize -- of a gorgeous trophy and ten million dollars.
I will leave commentary on the meaning of this historic flight and its implications for another column after the next (and, I am sure, winning!) X-Prize flight on October 4, 2004.
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