July 2004
© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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SpaceShipOne touches down on the Mojave Airport runway after a successful, if not prefect, flight to the edge of space. (image: space.com)

Editorial License - SpaceShipOne – A New Hope
by Ernest Lilley

Forty-three years ago I strained to hear the commentary from mission control over a transistor radio as Alan Shephard climbed into Freedom Seven for the first American suborbital flight in May, 1961. Now on June 21st, 2004, I'm squinting up into the bright Mojave sun waiting for Mike Melvill to push SpaceShipOne, humanity's  first civilian spacecraft, to the edge of space.

Listening to the details of Shephard’s flight there was much I didn’t know. The odds against catastrophe. Why “Spam in a can” isn’t a good thing. That modern rocketry was the child of Nazi scientists that we’d captured after they had built weapons to rain terror down on London. How Cold War politics would let us leap to the moon in less than a decade, then leave us earthbound by the weight of a massive bureaucracy, unable to leave, or often even attain, low Earth orbit. How dreams die.

Standing by the runway of the Mojave Airport watching the sun rise over the mountains I know all those things, but I dare to hope anyway. This time, I say to myself, this time…maybe we get to go too.

And if not us, then maybe my nephew, dragged out of bed at 4 am to drive here and stand among a crowd of 10,000 people from all over the world. And maybe, in his lifetime, if not mine, anyone who wants to can go. Maybe the odds are against it, but I know more than what a long shot it is…I know how brightly a dream can burn.

Driving into Mojave the day before the flight was driving into a town in the middle of nowhere at the crossroads of yesterday and tomorrow, but one that leaves open the question – which tomorrow?

Mojave is an old horse town of the jet age. Rode hard and put away wet, though wet isn’t a word that fits well with the more dust than rust you see as you drive through the streets by the airport. Trailers and cinderblock shacks line the roads, and a closed library looms just off the main street. Out at the airport there are rows and rows of mothballed jetliners, the legacy of downsized airlines and the rising cost of fuel. A squadron of jet fighters from the 50s sits corralled inside a chain link fence, their wings stacked nearby and their windshields pitted by windblown sand.

Off in the distance the mountains are lined by tall white windmills feeding into California’s thirsty power grid, promising that if we can only control our demand for power, they can crank out the kilowatts to feed us as long as the sun burns. Rockets? You’re kidding us, the windmills taunt. We beat that old man of La Mancha once, and we’ll do it again.

The town has less than 4000 people in it, and tomorrow’s launch will clog its roads and block Highway 14 for miles. The organizers are hoping for Woodstock, but they’re more likely to get an SF convention, though one with more press, beautiful alternative people, and aerospace talent than any Con could ever attract. Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven are here, and a number of SF Screenwriters have driven the three hours up from LA, but despite the fairly good turnout, and the sellout of souvenirs at 6 am on launch day, most of the world is still in bed at home, unaware.

I’ve met the folks running the Ansari X Prize, the $10 million trophy for the first civilian craft that can reach space with three passengers twice in two weeks. SpaceShipOne was built by Scaled Composites (135 people that came from everywhere to the Mojave Desert just to build weird airplanes) and designed by experimental aircraft legend Burt Rutan. Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft commissioned the space plane with 20 million of his own money, twice the size of the X Prize. But it isn’t about the prize: it’s about the dream.

The night before the launch the National Space Society threw an all-night rocket rave. Mobile homes were circled to make a windbreak for the mixed tribe of engineers, new wave socialites, and reporters dancing to a techno DJ wearing neon lights that made him look like an extra from “Tron” and behind a bank of mixing gear that unconsciously echoed the mission control panels of an earlier space age. The wind gusted over fifty miles an hour and drove fine grit into everything. Dancing in the face of wind, we readied ourselves to invoke fire and ascend from earth to air…and beyond.

At dawn the wind pauses, the windmills slow, and the conditions for a launch are at their best. So at daybreak I find myself in the middle of a forest of telephoto lenses watching the weirdly insect-like White Knight mothership roll down the runway with SpaceShipOne slung beneath it to lift gracefully into the quiet desert air. It soars above mountain ranges and rises to its launch position 47,000 feet above us. A tanned news anchor from LA pumps the air with his fist as it goes by, even though the camera is following the space plane. I hear stories about how people had to fight for the assignment, many of them long time space boosters suddenly in danger of being sidelined by the first string…but not if they could help it. Soon all we can catch are brief glimpses of white dots in the air, but everyone cranes their necks and searches the sky.

An hour later the control tower grants SpaceShipOne permission to land (which he’s committed to after release) and White Knight drops the craft to soar on its own. Mike Melvill pushes the dual engine start buttons. We listen to the blow-by-blow between the ground control and the space plane, but what we really care about is the white streak that suddenly appears in the sky, crossing the face of the sun and heading towards the deepest blue.

On board the craft, Mike was correcting for sudden rolls to the left and right, considering an early shutdown if he couldn’t get the ships attitude to stabilize and switching to the backup trim controls when the primary controls failed in hypersonic flight. Civilian hypersonic flight. Mach 3 plus. 4 G’s. To the edge of space. Totally the right stuff. 100% Spam Free.

After narrowly breaking the 100 km mark, the craft goes into descent configuration. The wings fold up to make it look like more shuttlecock than space shuttle, and it glides to a perfect landing. The VIPs cheer. The public cheers. The press section buzzes with the whirring of cameras and the clicking of shutters. We are cheering too, but being press means that you can’t just stop and clap.

After the ship rolls to a stop and the pilot gets out to hug Allen and Rutan, everyone with a free hand applauds. As the airport manager walks by I asked him to tell Burt “Thanks” for all of us. On the way back he told me that Rutan nodded, but he wasn’t able to talk right then. If anyone tells you that men have no feelings, or that they can only destroy, they weren’t there to see the look on his face after the flight. Melvill was ecstatic, Allen was pleased and happy, but Burt Rutan looked as if he knew how it feels to breathe lift back into a dream

Children of my generation were told a story about humanity’s future in space. We didn’t know about the political agenda of economic revitalization of the south and propaganda victories over the Russians; we believed in the vision. Four decades later we’re as grown up as we’ll ever be. The old, cold war is over, though new wars have been begun. It’s time to stop wondering why the promise of space wasn’t fulfilled by the government, and to remake that promise to the generations to come…and this time, to keep it.

Ernest Lilley - Editor, SFRevu

© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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