The sky was bright on September 29th, 2004. Azure. Crystalline. Through the lenses of the television cameras down on the ground, it had a flavor of indigo. High up in the air, Mike Melvill was ready to do it again. The countdown had begun. Here he was, strapped into the tiniest, oddest-looking hunk of hardware to ever boom its way to a hundred kilometers straight up. SpaceShipOne. A polished white football with a couple of thick wings slapped on, designed by the legendary Burt Rutan. He was strapped in like all the crazy test pilots back at Edwards, back when some tub would haul you and your badass rocket up to 20,000 or 30,000, cut you loose, and then you would hit the switch.
Nose in the air, ass towards the ground, dials spinning like records on the console. 60,000 feet, 70,000 feet, Mach 1, 1.2, 1.4, up, ever up, g-forces turning your body to lead. Further up, faster and faster. Mach 2, 2.3, 170,000 feet, 180,000. The earth falls away so fast, you can see so far, and then you can see the curve. That’s how high you are. The horizon breaks into bands of color and you can see that flat land you were just walking on ain’t so flat after all, it’s round. You’re already so high the air starts to go away, the stars shine through in the middle of the day, and just as the craft is oh so close to space, everyone before Mike Melvill who hadn’t hitched a ride on a NASA rocket, not something you can really fly, had to turn back. Not Mike Melvill.
There he was, just three months after flying, not riding, but flying this vehicle into space for the first time, ready to do it again. This time vying for the big prize. The X Prize. Ten million going to the team that could put the same craft into space twice within two weeks. No governments, no departments, space centers, or 10,000 gassed-up worry-warts ready to scrub a mission at the sound of a car backfiring. This was, even though he was flying top of the line hardware, “gloriously low-rent,” as Tom Wolfe would write.
Was he nervous? He was ice. He was a pilot. Twenty-four years in flight-test. Over 7,000 hours in over 130 aircraft. And when he was cut loose...
Nose in the air, ass to the ground. Up, up, and up, faster, faster, and faster. Then the damnedest thing happened. The craft started to roll. He was punching it as hard as it could go, and the damn thing starts spinning like it really is a polished white football. The hell with that. Mike Melvill was one of only a handful of men on the planet capable of shooting this thing into space, and there was a reason for that. Down on the ground were the onlookers, the press, everybody staring through their cameras or binoculars, and they all must have been thinking the same thing. My God! Here we go. He’s lost it. Pretty soon there’s going to be a smoking black mark in the middle of the desert, all that’s left of intrepid Mike Melvill. He should have known better than to try to fly that tiny little thing into space. Only massive government bureaucracies with billions of dollars to piss away can put a person all the way up there. What fools they were to try, and what fools we were to trust them.
Inside the football, tracing a spiral ever upwards at Mach 2.7 and rising...ice. Not a care in the world. That thing spun all the way through its rocket burn. Seventy-six seconds, a little shorter than planned due to Melvill’s high-speed pirouettes, but still just enough to get over the top.
When Melvill reached the top, he snapped a few photographs out the window. He still hadn’t bothered to bring the ship out of its spin. He was having too much fun. Down on the ground, there couldn’t have been a single person jittery about the flight to begin with who wasn’t feeling sick. How much longer was it going to be before the football started coming down to the ground, out of control, tumbling end over end, like a squib kick, experiencing that very unique flight condition known as ‘inertia coupling’? Any minute now and people would be speeding out towards the smoking black mark. For some odd reason, they’d be in a hurry.
But up at the apogee, everything was just dandy. Mike Melvill was weightless, the view was fine, and after he feathered the football’s wings for reentry, he damped out the roll like it was an afterthought. The drift down to landing was textbook. All in all, on ascent, the football spun around a total of twenty-nine times. People said it was pilot error. Mike Melvill said later he “thought it was kind of cool.” It was Melvill’s second successful flight into space in three months. Five days later, on the 4th of October, Brian Binnie took the football into space to secure the X Prize, becoming only the second person ever to earn commercial astronaut wings after Mike Melvill.
Just the other day, astronaut Stephen K. Robinson hauled on a spacesuit, hooked his legs onto the end of a robotic arm, and spent the next six hours and one minute of his life moving in tiny increments, back and forth, back and forth, getting into just the right position to grab two little pieces of cloth sticking out of the bottom of the shuttle Discovery. Two little pieces that gassed-up worry-warts back in Houston thought could doom this flight.
Discovery is the name of the shuttle, but this flight was only about one thing: no more dead astronauts. For the last two and a half years, mission accomplished. No flights, therefore, no dead astronauts. Funny thing, though. NASA is expected to put birds in the air occasionally, so up Discovery went, with one objective. No. Dead. Astronauts.
NASA’s people have always known, if their equipment gets dinged a little too much on the way up, there’s really no way to fix it, and all of a sudden there’s seven funerals being broadcast on CNN. That’s what did in Columbia two and a half years ago. The only sensible solution to this latest dead astronaut problem, then, is stopping the dings. Two and a half years they tried. Two and a half years and they throw a ten billion dollar piece of equipment (a thousand times costlier than the prize won by SpaceShipOne), with seven souls on board up into space with one overriding mission objective, and now they’ve got astronaut Robinson (doctorate in mechanical engineering) hanging his ass out in space picking shit out of the undercarriage. Fantastic.
Down here on earth, the press is having a grand time. They don’t say it, but they drop plenty of hints. Those vultures in the casualty vampire bureaus are just waiting for another shuttle to go streaking across the Texas sky, raining scorched pieces of astronaut all over the panhandle. Everybody already knows the tragedy that is NASA. Our shuttles aren’t safe anymore, if they ever were. A little foam, combined with an insane amount of airspeed, and it’s around the clock coverage of a national tragedy.
The calls have already begun from NASA and from the press: mothball those lemons! Break out the Saturns and capsules and all that other old stuff that hasn’t killed any astronauts since poor old Gus Grissom and let’s get this show back on the road.
Well, maybe it is time to mothball the shuttles, build another wing to display them at the Smithsonian, but not because they aren’t safe. Mothball the shuttles because NASA spends far too much time and money fooling around with foam than it does exploring space. Then when the shuttle finally gets to go into space, the crew become nothing but glorified mechanics, fixing this satellite or that space station. It’s been a generation since there was any meaningful human exploration of space. There hasn’t even been any cause to leave low earth orbit for the entire existence of the space shuttle program.
If the stars are truly our destiny, we aren’t going to make any progress with organizations like NASA the way they are today. The fire that drives people to take risks is long gone from Houston and Cape Canaveral. Make no mistake, anybody who rides or flies a rocket into space is an enormous risk taker with profound courage, but there has been no courage in the planning of NASA’s missions for decades.
After the Columbia disaster, NASA was lambasted for not being diligent enough when it comes to safety — a very legitimate concern. It also appears they lack vision. It could be that the realities and complexities inherent in pushing men and materiel into space has tempered any grand imaginings of what the future holds for NASA’s people, and that is unfortunate. It’s not possible to plan for exploring the stars without a grand imagination. Imagination, creativity, gigantic brains, and importantly, courage, got us to the moon — what is generally regarded as the greatest engineering feat in the history of mankind. But that was thirty years ago. Timidity in the face of today’s engineering difficulties while foregoing the future is no way to lead our people into that boundless universe up there. If NASA can’t regain their ability to actually send people somewhere and put boot prints on alien soil, it will be people like Burt Rutan and Mike Melvill that undoubtedly will. Their drive wasn’t born of a cash prize. It was born of a desire to explore, and frustration at NASA’s unwillingness to do so.