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.
The space shuttle Columbia glowed brightly as it streaked across the predawn skies of the western United States on Feb 1, 2003. Decelerating from an orbital speed of 28,165 km/hr (17,500 miles/hr) at an altitude of 70,165 m (230,200 ft), the shuttle and its seven crew members were enveloped in super heated plasma as they descended deeper into the thickening atmosphere on their return from a 16-day science mission.
Three observers on the ground who were filming the fiery reentry suddenly noticed something odd. There was a sudden flash on the orbiter, and then bright objects streaked behind the ship and burned up.
“Look at the chunks coming off that,” one shouted. “What the heck is that?”
For 8-year old Werner Doehner, everything about the airship that floated over the field at Frankfurt looked humongous. The Zeppelin before him stretched 245 meters (803.8 feet) from nose to tail – longer than some of the ocean liners that sailed the North Atlantic. Even the propeller blades on the airship’s four reversible Daimler-Benz diesel engines and the rubber tires on the control car looked enormous to the young boy.
Six months into a new century in an age already known for astounding technological progress, a strange cigar-shaped vehicle slowly rose from a shed on Lake Constance in southern Germany and began to move forward.
Stretching 128 meters (420 feet) from bow to stern, the LZ-1 (Luftschiff Zeppelin, or “Airship Zeppelin”) consisted of a cylindrical aluminum frame covered in fabric with two gondolas suspended below it. Lift was provided by 17 gas bags made of rubberized cotton that contained 11,298 cubic meters (399,000 cubic feet) of flammable hydrogen. The LZ-1 was propelled forward by a pair of 11 kW (14 hp) Daimler engines.