Editor's Note: After this article went to press in the autumn of 2004, SpaceShipOne climbed to 367,442 feet and won the $10 million Ansari X Prize. Brian Binnie was at the controls. After landing, he told a reporter from Space.com that the flight "couldn't have been any smoother."
A test pilot's job is simple: climb into an unproven flying machine, flip on the engine, and wait for something to go wrong. The first time Brian Binnie flight-tested SpaceShipOne – the only reusable civilian spacecraft ever to make it out of the earth's atmosphere – he ran into trouble right from the start.
A specially built jet carries SpaceShipOne to its launch altitude of 48,000 feet, then drops it, and as soon as Binnie started falling, he couldn't get control of the vehicle. The ground crew had only half-filled SpaceShipOne's oxidizer tank – it was just a short test flight, after all – and the nitrous oxide had begun sloshing around, throwing the flyweight plane off balance. Then, when Binnie hit the red ignition switch to fire the rocket, he discovered that the horizontal stabilizers, which are preset to force SpaceShipOne into an immediate climb, were set too steep. With 15,000 pounds of thrust kicking him from behind, he was suddenly hanging onto the stick for dear life...and that only pulled the plane into a steeper climb. Nearing the sound barrier, Binnie thought, Why is this bull so angry at me, and why am I here?
Things didn't get any better on the descent. When he touched down at the Civilian Flight Test Center in Mojave, California, part of the landing gear broke off, sending the little craft screeching off the runway into the desert dirt.
At around 3,000 pounds, SpaceShipOne weighs the same as a Honda Accord. It looks like something built from spare parts in your garage, a kid's version of a spaceship. The kid, though, is 61-year-old Burt Rutan, one of the world's greatest aircraft designers. His company, Scaled Composites, has produced a string of unconventional birds over the last two decades, including the Boomerang, an asymmetrical turboprop that Rutan still flies himself, and the feather-light Voyager, the first plane to circle the globe without refueling. He also works on military prototypes, including an unmanned, carrier-launched stealth drone and an astronaut escape capsule for the International Space Station.
With the financial backing of Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, Rutan was a natural contender for the Ansari X Prize, the $10 million purse promised to the first piloted, privately funded spaceship that gets 62 miles above the earth and back, then repeats the trick inside two weeks. Despite a harrowing test flight earlier that summer (during which the pilot, Mike Melvill, experienced some unexpected rolls), Rutan announced that his company would attempt to win the prize with back-to-back space shots. One of the pilots on board was Brian Binnie.
Binnie joined the navy in 1978, after finishing Ivy League degrees in aerospace engineering, fluid mechanics and thermodynamics, and aeronautical engineering. He flew attack jets, and like most navy pilots he considered an assignment to the space shuttle the highest calling. "You're not going to beat a shuttle ride," he says, "in terms of harnessing all that energy and being responsible for a national asset." But after the loss of the Challenger in 1986, opportunities began to dry up. "The handwriting was on the wall: Even if you were fortunate enough to get in, there may not be much going on." So he applied to Navy Test Pilot School.
A navy test pilot has two options: go operational and fight wars, or move to the acquisitions side and evaluate new weapons. Binnie did both. He signed up for the Gulf War. "I thought that was going to be tough to beat, operationally." As a strike team leader on the first night of the war, he flew one of 350 allied aircraft. "It was unforgettable how that country woke up once it realized it was under attack. All these bright colors are coming up" – that would be anti-aircraft fire – "and everything looks like it has your name all over it. It was pretty disconcerting."