SpaceShipOne’s Race for the X Prize

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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 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.”

Binnie’s interest in exotic aircraft was rekindled soon afterward, during a combat night patrol over the Persian Gulf. On the horizon, in what was supposed to be a no-fly zone, Binnie saw an unidentified aircraft streaking high and fast toward him. He pulled his F/A-18 into a vertical climb to track the thing, but despite having one of the best long-range radars in the business, he couldn’t get a lock. This meant the plane was at extremely high altitude, and as it disappeared over the horizon, moving much too fast to be any kind of stealth fighter or bomber, Binnie watched it go through all the colors of the rainbow – a sign that it was near the outer edge of the atmosphere. He saw the same thing the following night, so he asked around the fleet. He got no answer, and his best guess is that he was seeing one of the long-rumored and top-secret Aurora spy planes, a hypersonic jet thought to have replaced the old Blackbird series. “It gives me confidence,” he says, “that there’s bigger and better stuff out there that we don’t know about.”

After the war Binnie was entrusted with all the flying on a $10 billion “dark project” at Point Mugu Naval Base, but when the nineties tech boom hit he hooked up with a start-up called Rotary Rocket, which was trying to develop a reusable manned spaceship for launching telecom satellites. Rotary’s idea was to build a big, conical spaceship for two pilots that would reenter the atmosphere with its fat tail down and then unfurl big helicopter blades from its top. The blades would have no engine – they would simply start spinning as a result of the downward drag and eventually slow the vehicle. Minutes before touchdown the pilots would fire tip rockets on the blades and bring the ship in for a soft landing.

The chance to fly a brand new, utterly revolutionary vehicle was like a dream come true to Binnie, and it was a way to finally get into space. Binnie quit the navy and flew the Rotary prototype, piloting the world’s first – and probably last – 60-foot-tall conical helicopter. When Rotary ran out of money, Burt Rutan stepped in and offered Binnie his next dream job.

The three big challenges of space flight are getting off the ground, reentering the earth’s atmosphere, and landing. NASA’s space shuttle needs gargantuan booster rockets to do the first part – the very ones that exploded in the 1986 Challenger disaster – and its reentry speed of 17,800 mph requires the heat-shielding tiles that failed in last year’s Columbia tragedy. SpaceShipOne has a more limited mission: It goes only to the edge of space, not into orbit, and it seats only three. But that doesn’t make it any less ingenious. After SpaceShipOne reaches its target altitude and starts falling back to earth, the pilot pulls a lever to fold the back half of its wings into what Rutan calls a “feathered” position. Simple aerodynamics flips SpaceShipOne into a belly-first, nose-up fall, with so much drag that the plane floats down slowly, like a badminton shuttlecock, without heating up. Once back in the atmosphere the pilot returns the wings to their normal position and lands SpaceShipOne like a glider.

After so many years in the world’s most sophisticated jets, Binnie finds it ironic to climb behind the joystick of a flying a vehicle with fewer electronic components than the X-1 in which Chuck Yeager first broke the sound barrier in 1947. Binnie says, “If somebody had told me when I was in graduate school, ‘Brian, in 35 years you’ll get a chance to fly the first commercial spacecraft with no computers,’ I’d have said, ‘I don’t think so. People are not going to be that stupid.’ “

SpaceShipOne is a shockingly simple machine. The pilot steers with a stick and foot pedals, and most of the flight control surfaces – the wing and tail flaps – are manually driven, using rods and levers. Even bailing out of SpaceShipOne is not complicated: Release nose cone. Climb through hole. Jump.

On September 29, 2004, just three days ahead of the only other close competitor for the X Prize, it will be time to “mount that bull and guide it through the gates,” as Binnie says, demonstrating to the world that Scaled Composites has a reliable reusable civilian spaceship, open for business. Once Binnie climbs into that cockpit and tucks his feet into the nose cone, he’ll be thinking what he says every test pilot thinks: “Oh, dear God, please don’t let me screw up.”

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