When I saw the press release from Scaled Composites inviting the public to the first private manned space launch I just knew I had to be there. The FAQ on their web page said private planes wouldn’t be allowed to land, but the Mojave Airport web page said aircraft with prior permission could in fact land. I called them up two weeks ahead of time and got permission to arrive on Sunday afternoon, it was painless. I had PPR (Prior Permission Required) number 12. In the event I think about 50 PPR numbers were issued.
My own plane was in the shop for her annual inspection and between one thing and another couldn’t be finished in time for the trip. This was a great excuse to get checked out on the brand new 2003 Skylane (N119AZ) for rent at Tradewinds. After more than 150hrs flying Skylanes, the checkout went smoothly. It mainly focused on the fantastic avionics package in the plane, Auto-Pilot, IFR GPS, Multifunction Display and great Radios. The leather seats and new plane smell were a bonus. On the other hand, the Lycoming fuel injected engine is a pain in the butt. 5 less horsepower than my Continental and a finicky to start. The short 3-bladed prop had pretty crappy climb performance compared to my 1980 Skylane with its big noisy 2-bladed prop. Cruise performance was about the same, but the new plane burned about 2 gallons more per hour. They call this progress ?
A friend from work and fellow pilot/space nut came with me. We filed IFR and took off right on-time at 3pm on Sunday. The flight down was beautiful, I had my whole flight plan programmed into the GPS and from 1000′ I flew using the Auto-Pilot. What a difference! how can I live without these things. The plane basically flew herself all the way until the descent into Mojave. This has made me really hungry to get a new avionics package into my own plane – right now my Auto-Pilot is broken and my 1980 vintage radio’s are on their last legs. The wind was 270 at 30 knots, which is about standard for a Mojave afternoon. The landing was pretty good on runway 26 right on-time at 5pm. The tower had me follow a truck to a parking spot right in front of the terminal building. There was nobody around to sign in with so we didn’t have any special ID to show we had a plane on the ramp. I was worried that maybe security wouldn’t let us get back to the plane the following day, but in the event this was no issue.
Thanks to the foresight of my friend’s son, we had a hotel room booked for the night. We had dinner at Jerry’s which we were informed was the best (only?) restaurant in town. Food was good, service was friendly and they were all a bit bemused by the whole space launch thing. There wasn’t many people around, we got the impression that the town had been expecting a busy weekend, but in the event only the hotels saw much extra business – we were told they were booked solid. After dinner we headed back to the airport to wander around. There are plenty of cool planes to see at Mojave. My friend’s son had arrived from San Diego earlier in the day and actually called into the Scaled Composits building. They showed him White Knight but he couldn’t see SpaceShipOne because she was fueled up and stored separately for safety. He also got an invitation to the after-launch party – this turned out to be very cool indeed.
We got up at 2:30am and were out of the hotel and across the road in the 24Hr gas station buying coffee by 3am. There was already a huge back-up of cars to get into the airport. It took us 30 minutes to drive the couple of miles to the airport, pay our $10 entrance fee and get parked. We setup in the public viewing area and watched some planes come in just before the Temporary Flight Restriction took effect at 6am. I had my handheld aviation radio and we listed to the tower traffic. Later on the radio turned out to be a great idea because we were able to listen to the ground control / SpaceShipOne communications real time (on 123.375Mhz).
After taking one picture I realized that my camera batteries were flat and my spare batteries were back in my flight bag in the plane. So I decided to walk back and get them. This turned out to be a great idea. Only one Cop stopped me on my walk back. I whisked out my Pilots License and told him I was going to my plane. He took a quick look at the license and then asked me in a stern voice “You’re not planning to take off, are you ?”, I assured him I wasn’t and he let me pass. Life and liberty protected once again by our boys in blue. Once I got to the ramp, I could see White Knight just down the ramp outside the Scaled hanger so I decided to hang around as this seemed to be where all the action was and nobody seemed to care I had just walked in from the outside. I watched the Extra300 chase plane taxi past me and followed a little later by White Knight and then the Starship chase plane. Funny a Starship chasing a mere Spaceship.
I headed up towards the control tower and the VIP viewing area. The Extra300 and Starship both took off as I walked. I was waiting for someone to say – “Hey you, where is your ID badge ? What are you doing here ?”. But they never did. Some people were wearing badges of one type or another, but nobody seemed to be checking them. I had just reached the VIP area when White Knight took off. A beautiful sight. She made a climbing right turn and started the long assent to 50,000′. After a little while the Starship joined her and they spiraled up together. It got pretty hard to see them after a while. I decided to head back to my friends in the public viewing area to watch the landing.
I arrived back about 10 minutes before they launched SpaceShipOne. My friend had found out the radio frequency the control center was using to communicate with SpaceShipOne. They were just running through the final checklists. Boy the excitement started to build. Nobody knew exactly where in the sky they were located. We heard 3 minutes to launch – I shouted it out the the people around us who couldn’t hear the radio. We heard them order the ship to drop. Then it 10 seconds to launch, as if on queue we all spotted a set of three contrails in the east, right next to a blinding bright sun. One the radio, “Three Two One Fire!” I shouted it out as I heard it. Then another contrail appeared – the rocket was there – everybody cheered and it shot upwards. It seemed to twist a bit to the right and then straighten out. For about a minute it climbed and climbed to almost directly overhead and then disappeared. SpaceShipOne was on its way to space.
We listened to the radio. I missed whatever was said during the rocket launch, everyone was shouting and cheering. Then a heart stopping moment. We heard:
“Ground to SpaceShipOne”, silence in return.
“Ground to SpaceShipOne”, still silence.
“Ground to White Knight, contact SpaceShipOne”.
“White Knight to SpaceShipOne”, silence, then “SpaceShipOne to Ground” – he was OK, but I aged a few years!
We listened in as he started to descend. It was hard to work out exactly where he was from the radio. But I heard “Passing through 200” and then later “45”. I think we caught sight of him around about 15,000 feet. We could hear on the radio that one or more of the chase planes had him in sight, but they were using the pilots names instead of the plane names so I couldn’t tell which planes had him in sight. The SpaceShipOne pilot was complaining about some pitching and lateral movements and the ground controllers where helping him fix the problem. There were also talking about a trim problem, which we later found out had caused a big problem when the rocket first fired and was the reason the it seemed to twist to the right at the start of its flight. I heard them talking about some loud bangs the pilot had heard. They were worried about damage to the landing gear. The Extra300 chase plane was told to move in close and inspect the gear and try and determine if anything else was wrong. We heard him report that the cowling under the rocket exhaust was buckled, but everything else looked good. We watched SpaceShipOne spiral down over the airport, then make a right turn for a right downwind entry for runway 30. All three chase planes were around him. He seemed to be last in line to land, but at the last second he dropped down and made a lovely landing. The chase planes flew overhead. Everyone was cheering and clapping – what a moment!
The three chase planes made a beautiful formation flight down the runway and then broke left to come in and land on runway 26. Then White Knight did the same making a really steep almost 90 degree bank as she turned. We started back towards the ramp to go to the Scaled Hanger. Nobody bothered us on the way until just before we got to the hanger when we were asked for our invitation. It was great, White Knight was already back and parked inside. Burt Rutan was running about. I’m sure there was a bunch of famous people there that I didn’t recognize. There was also cold soft drinks and food which was really welcome. We watched as they towed SpaceShipOne back inside and Mike Melville the pilot arrived. I was standing next to him as he hugged one of the guys in a yellow Scaled shirt. I heard him say “I though I wasn’t going to make it when I heard those bangs”. He looked relieved and happy – who could blame him. I saw then bring up an old gentleman wearing a NASA baseball cap and introduce him. I bet it was one of the original astronauts, but I didn’t know who he was. I saw Burt walk over to SpaceShipOne and stick his head inside the rocket exhaust for a look – I wish I had caught than one on camera. Pretty soon all the main players headed into a conference room for a debrief and I guess to give the press conference. It was kind of annoying, we were right there but we still didn’t know if they had made the 100km altitude an actually got into space. One guy said he heard 330,000′, later another guy said 328,500 which turned out to be right.
We talked to a bunch of people, one turned out to be a State Senator, nice guy, but he sounded like a Republican. But he was also a Pilot so he couldn’t be all bad. We hung out until about 10:30am on the rumor that they would tells us some details about how the flight had gone. Finally it appeared that that wasn’t going to happen so we decided to call it a day. Before we left, I took the opportunity to get my picture taken beside SpaceShipOne. It was roped off, and a guy came over and gave out to me afterwards, but I still had my picture.
I was pretty tired and hungry so we had lunch at the Voyager Restaurant in the Airport Terminal. It was busy, but not too bad all things considered. The food was good. The flight back was pretty easy. The wind had died away to nothing so we took off from runway 8 and made a downwind departure. This gave me some extra time to climb to altitude before crossing the mountains West of the airport. I got in touch with Joshua Approach on the climb-out over the airport. Mojave is located in a Military Operations Area which can be active on weekdays so I wanted to be sure I had flight following. I didn’t bother with IFR, I was tired and the extra effort wasn’t worth it. I hand flew the plane over the mountains, then pretty much put a direct-to RHV flight plan into the GPS and then let the auto-pilot take us home. Have I mentioned I love these things. Two hours later we were back San Jose – a hell of a lot better than driving!
So, what a day it was. There was a real sense of history being made. Even if the world doesn’t realize it yet, I believe in the years to come this day will be looked upon like Lindbergh’s trans Atlantic flight or Beriot’s cross channel flight. What the 125 folks at Scaled have done is exceptional. They embody the very best of what America is all about. After the pretty crappy last few years since 2001 – and especially the last few months with the problems in Iraq, this event shows what makes America a great place to live and what is special about the people here.