On this date in 2004, Mike Melvill lit the candle on SpaceShipOne as soared into history as the first astronaut to fly a privately-built spacecraft to space.
Fourteen years. It seems like only a lifetime ago.
I was on the flight line that day (I’m the guy with the video camera) not far from where I write this today. The excitement and optimism of that day — that feeling that a new era of spaceflight would soon be upon us — was palpable. The future was within our grasp.
The last 14 years have been a lot like the movie, “Groundhog Day.” Not in the sense of the same day being repeated endlessly, but the same old promises being made over and over. And still, space tourism remains just out of our grasp.
What went wrong? It’s a question I’ve pondered as I’ve watched the setbacks and the tragedies unfold here in Mojave. The answer is complex, but in its simplest form it can be summed up as follows:
Although SpaceShipOne winning the Ansari X Prize was an enormously inspiring event, it produced immature and poorly understood technology and bred a dangerous overconfidence in its builders that contributed to two fatal accidents. Government oversight regulations ignored safety lessons learned in decades of human spaceflight.
There are no shortcuts in this business. And the moment you think you’ve got it all figured out is when you need to be most on guard. These are lessons we seem doomed to learn anew over and over again.
As I said, the truth is more complicated. Below are some stories I’ve written over the years exploring what went wrong.
Pete Siebold and Mike Alsbury heard the sound of hooks disengaging and felt a sharp jolt as SpaceShipTwo was released from its WhiteKnightTwo mother ship. Relieved of a giant weight, WhiteKnightTwo shot upward as the spacecraft plunged toward the desert floor.
“Fire,” Siebold said as the shadow of one of WhiteKnightTwo’s wings passed across the cabin.
“Arm,” Alsbury responded. “Fire.”
The pilots were pushed back into their seats as SpaceShipTwo’s nylon-nitrous oxide hybrid engine ignited behind them, sending the ship soaring skyward on a pillar of flames.
How to Make a Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, An Epic Race, and the Birth of Private Spaceflight by Julian Guthrie Penguin Press, 2016 Hardcover, 448 pages ISBN 978-1-59420-672-6 US $28/Canada $37
Reviewed by Douglas Messier
On Sept. 8, I arrived home at about half past noon to find a package sitting on my doorstep. It was a review copy of a new book by Julian Guthrie about the Ansari XPrize and SpaceShipOne titled, How to Make a Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, An Epic Race, and the Birth of Private Spaceflight.
I laughed. The timing was perfect. Ken Brown and I had just spent five hours in the desert — most of them in the rising heat of a late summer day — waiting for WhiteKnightTwo to take off carrying SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity on its first captive carry test flight.
It was the first flight in nearly two years of a SpaceShipTwo vehicle since Unity’s sister ship, VSS Enterprise, had broken up during a Halloween test flight, killing co-pilot Mike Alsbury. Ken and I had been there on that day, too.
For nearly a dozen years, Virgin Galactic has used the number of individuals who have flown into space as a target to shoot for once the company began suborbital space tourism service. Virgin promised to double the number, which was around 500 when the company launched in 2004, within the first year of operation. That year was originally targeted for 2007 in the confident days after the success of SpaceShipOne.
That goal has long since faded away, and it’s unlikely Virgin will double the number of space travelers during the first year. In any event, the number of space travelers cited by Virgin has always been a bit misleading. The company’s well heeled customers, who are paying upwards of $250,000 per flight, will actually be joining a much more elite group on their suborbital flights.
Mike Alsbury’s day began with a 3 a.m. wake up at his home in Tehachapi, Calif. He showered, dressed and ate a breakfast that likely consisted of an apple and a granola bar.
Alsbury rarely awoke at so early; but this Oct. 31 was a flight test day. That meant a lot of people were getting up early for the latest milestone in the Tier 1B program. At least that’s what they called it at Alsbury’s employer, Scaled Composites. The rest of the world knew it as WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo – the foundation of Sir Richard Branson’s suborbital space tourism program. Scaled built and tested the vehicles for the British billionaire’s spaceline, Virgin Galactic.
One Year Ago, the Ansari X Prize Turned 10 It Was an Uncomfortable Birthday
By Douglas Messier Managing Editor
The planes kept coming and coming. One after another, they swooped out of a blue desert sky and touched down on the runway at the Mojave Air and Space Port. By mid-morning there were at least a dozen private jets stretched along the flight line running east from the Voyager restaurant toward the control tower. And even more were on their way.
And to what did Mojave owe this ostentatious display of wealth by the 1 percenters? They had come to the sun-splashed spaceport last Oct. 4 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Ansari X Prize. A decade earlier, Burt Rutan and his Paul Allen-funded team had won $10 million for sending the first privately-built manned vehicle into space twice within a two-week period.
“2014 will be a fun ride. We welcome you to get onboard, strap in and hold on!” Stu Witt CEO & General Manager Mojave Air and Space Port Jan. 9, 2014
Stu Witt had a lot of reasons to be optimistic as 2014 began. The Mojave spaceport was on a roll. On Jan. 10, Scaled Composites conducted the third powered flight of SpaceShipTwo in less than 9 months. XCOR was making steady progress on the Lynx and a new hydrogen engine for ULA, Stratolaunch was busy building the world’s largest aircraft, and other tenants such as Masten and Firestar had successes over the past year.
Ten years ago today, Mike Melvill made the first of two suborbital flights aboard SpaceShipOne required to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize. It was a wild flight as the vehicle got into a rapid roll on its way to space.
Brian Binnie made the second suborbital flight on Oct. 4, 2004, to win the Ansari X Prize. The requirement was to make two flights into space within two weeks.
Burt Rutan, Paul Allen and Richard Branson are among those who will gather at the Mojave Air and Space Port on Oct. 4 to mark the 10th anniversary of SpaceShipOne winning the $10 million Anari X Prize, Parabolic Arc has learned.
X Prize Foundation Chairman and CEO Peter Diamandis will preside over the invitation-only event, which is expected to draw hundreds of guests. The foundation sponsored the prize for the first privately-funded vehicle to fly into space twice in two weeks.
Ten years ago, I was right here in Mojave — not far from where I sit writing now — watching Mike Melvill make history. He flew Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne to just over 100 km, becoming the first private astronaut of the Space Age.
After gliding to a landing at the Mojave Air and Space Port, Melvill stood triumphantly atop SpaceShipOne before a cheering crowd holding a sign that one of the spectators had made that read: “SpaceShipOne Government Zero.”
On June 21, 2004, Mike Melvill stood atop a vehicle in Mojave that he had just piloted into space holding up a sign that read, “SpaceShipOne GovernmentZero.” Thousands cheered not only for Melvill having become the first private astronaut in history, but for the new era he had just helped to launch. Soon, people would be flying into space every week or so, and private entrepreneurs would put dinosaur space agencies like NASA out of business.
A decade later, the future just ain’t what it used to be. But, that’s not going to stop the folks in Mojave from celebrating the past.
Melvill will be speaking about his historic flight on the anniversary of it on Saturday, June 21, at the Mojave spaceport. The talk will take place at 11 a.m. in the meeting room located inside the airport administration building. Get there early; there’s limited seating.
This month’s Plane Crazy Saturday will feature Virgin Galactic and the Spaceship Company officials accepting resumes, a large fly-in of experimental aircraft, and a talk by one of Mojave’s resident astronauts, Mike Melvill.
So, if you want to work for a space company, see some really interesting flying machines, or just to meet an astronaut, find your way to the Mojave Air and Space Port this Saturday, April 20. The airport’s monthly open house, run by the Mojave Transportation Museum, goes from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Melvill will be speaking at the Mojave Air and Space Port board room at 11 a.m. He became the first private astronaut when he piloted SpaceShipOne on a suborbital flight on June 21, 2004. Melvill flew again in September of that year, completing the first of two spaceflights to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize.