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With the dawn of space tourism, the jet jockey returns

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 5, 2004



OAKLAND, CALIF.

After a ride of some 50 miles straight up, SpaceShipOne paused poetically in the weightless black above the Mojave Desert. Eight years of work and four minutes of chest-crunching thrust had led to this moment.

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At last, the $10 million Ansari X Prize had been won. At last, space had been symbolically claimed for the common man. The only thing more sweeping than the views from the cockpit portholes of SpaceShipOne, it seemed, were the dreams of what would come next.

In some ways, though, SpaceShipOne is perhaps better understood as a time capsule of the past. It is a throwback to the days of bomber jackets and jet jocks, when the limits of flying technology were only dimly understood and test pilots were sent off to find them in the thin air.

For the first time, SpaceShipOne has shown "The Right Stuff" in real time - as fascinating as it is frightening. Indeed, at the dawn of a new space age, engineers are essentially starting from scratch, and it will fall to a new generation of test pilots to turn garage-mechanic ideas into machines that don't crash and burn.

"This is like the old flight days at Edwards - it resurrects the Chuck Yeager era," says Howard McCurdy, a historian of human spaceflight at American University in Washington. "Push the machine to the edge of its capabilities and pull it back in."

Monday's flight appeared to be straight from the textbook. In soaring past the threshold of space, pilot Brian Binney claimed the $10 million X Prize for Burt Rutan, the engineer that created SpaceShipOne.

It was the ship's second flight to space carrying the weight of three people in a week - satisfying the requirements of the X Prize contest, and laying the foundations for what organizers hope will a new era of cheap, reliable access to space.

But at this early stage, even a flawless flight is not for the faint of heart. More than almost any other pilot, William Dana has an appreciation of what it must be like to ride in SpaceShipOne. As a test pilot in the 1960s, he flew the X-15 - a ship that many people consider the predecessor of SpaceShipOne.

In shape and size, the rapier-edged menace of the X-15 shares little with the bulbous belly of SpaceShipOne. But they are cousins in performance. Similar to SpaceShipOne's pilots, Mr. Dana rocketed to more than 300,000 feet at speeds that reached mach 5.1 and pressures that reached four G's.

"At that point, your heart is pushing on your chest wall and it's starting to get painful," Dana says. "A routine X-15 mission was more challenging than emergencies you get in other planes."

For the dawning space age, the concern is that test pilots will have to deal with emergencies at X-15 speeds. During SpaceShipOne's first test spaceflight in June, steering problems forced the craft far off course.

Last Wednesday, severe rolling caused him to cut short his engine burn - though SpaceShipOne still accomplished its goals, and Mr. Rutan dismissed the problem as minor.

"What they're doing is very radical - they're right on the edge," says Ed Solski, an instructor at the National Test Pilot School just across the runway from Rutan's shop in Mojave, Calif. "It's like back in the 1960s: See what it will do. If it breaks, we'll fix it."

In many ways, Rutan and his colleagues are resurrecting an ethic long gone. These days, fighter jets are no longer ciphers in steel, tempting eager pilots to press ever faster and higher in search of that invisible line between possibility and catastrophe. Designers know the limits of wing, intake, and flap so well that they could stake them out in the sky in concrete. Now, test pilots mostly test weapons and computer systems.

For current aircraft, which cost tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars, the mandate is not to push the envelope, but to seal the deal. "Today, you just can't tolerate the risks of losing something like that," says Mr. Solski. "Because of the cost ... [corporate and government officials] don't want pilots to take stupid risks."

To those who are setting out on a new generation of human spaceflight, the risks are much the same as they were 50 years ago, as untested technologies soar skyward. In his day, Dana says he knew of many pilots who got pressure from wives and children at home to quit - and some who did.

But he suggests that he couldn't live in fear of what might happen, and his wife supported him.

"I haven't experienced fear until I got into a dire situation," he says. And then, "In a dire emergency, time does slow down, giving you time to cope with things that you would not normally be able to do."

And the rewards were ineffable. Dana remembers looking over the earth from the window of his X-15 as the California coast curved beneath him from San Luis Obispo all the way to the Gulf of California, swathed in a translucent blanket of electric blue.

"It was a very pretty sight," he says. "The more you fly, the more you want to fly."

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