Alan Boyle: Cosmic Log
Rocket plane's designer sheds light on 'wild ride'
• Oct. 2, 2004 | 5:15 p.m. ET
Why SpaceShipOne spun: The high-resolution video of SpaceShipOne rolling during its first X Prize flight certainly could set your head spinning — and led some to wonder whether the SpaceShipOne team would schedule the second, prize-winning flight so soon after Wednesday's "wild ride."
Even the rocket plane's designer, Burt Rutan of Mojave-based Scaled Composites, said he wouldn't commit to Monday's tentative date until data about the roll had been analyzed.
Just a day later, Scaled told X Prize officials that it was sticking with the Monday launch date, and on Friday, Rutan shed additional light on the decision in a Web posting. The statement doesn't fully address the cause of the roll — whether it was pilot error, an aerodynamic anomaly or some combination of those and other factors — but it does explain why the tilt-a-whirl ride wasn't considered serious enough to delay Monday's launch.
Rutan noted that the roll began just as pilot Mike Melvill was leaving the atmosphere, and thus couldn't be corrected by using the plane's control surfaces. Instead, Melvill put the craft's tail booms into their "carefree re-entry" feathered mode, then used the thruster system to counteract the spin rates.
"When he finally started to damp the rates he did so successfully and promptly," Rutan said.
Rutan put a positive spin on the unexpected roll, saying it provided additional data about how the thruster system and the shuttlecock-style, bendable-tail system work.
"As seen on the videos of the flight, the ship righted itself quickly and accurately without pilot input as it fell straight into the atmosphere. No other winged, horizontal-landing spaceship (X-15, Buran, space shuttle) has this capability," Rutan wrote.
Rutan promised to detail the "complex reason" for the roll in a later report, but said he was providing his preliminary view to counteract "incorrect rumors about the rolls that have been seen in various news stories and Web discussion groups."
As for the second launch, takeoff is scheduled at 7 a.m. PT (10 a.m. ET), with the midflight rocket launch an hour later. The last time around, the pilot's identity was not made known until the morning of the launch, but it's hard to believe Monday's pilot would be anyone other than Melvill, the only astronaut who's flown a private spacecraft.
Meanwhile, the Canadian government has issued a license for the da Vinci Project's two X Prize-level launches, with a Nov. 1 deadline. Da Vinci team leader Brian Feeney says he intends to go through with those launches whether or not SpaceShipOne takes the $10 million — so the next player in the space-race drama is already waiting in the wings.
• Oct. 2, 2004 | 5:15 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the Web:
• 'Nova' on PBS: 'The Perfect Pearl'
• Online tour of Dilbert's Ultimate House
• New Scientist: Robots in the blood
• Archaeology Magazine: Where's Nefertiti?
• Oct. 1, 2004 | 8 p.m. ET
Real-life rocket tales: The story behind the $10 million Ansari X Prize, and the SpaceShipOne rocket plane that may well win it three days from now, will be told and retold in the weeks and months ahead, on television and in text.
The first behind-the-scenes saga begins unfolding Sunday night, when the Discovery Channel airs the first part of its SpaceShipOne documentary, "Black Sky: The Race for Space." The second part, with the conclusion of the X Prize chase, is on the schedule for Oct. 7.
On Wednesday, just after the first X Prize flight, SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan noted that the show's producers seemed to be planning in advance how and when the X Prize saga would end. “I’d like to review the film now so that I know,” he joked.
Then there’s the authorized book about the competition, titled “The X Prize: Inside the New Race to Space.” The authors are Irene Mona Klotz, who has written about the private space race for Discovery.com and United Press International; and Peter Diamandis, who is the X Prize Foundation’s founder and president. The book, which will include profiles of the rocket contest’s competitors and 16 pages of color photographs, is due to come out in January.
Yet another book is being done specifically on SpaceShipOne and the team behind it, with Rutan’s cooperation, but details about the publication timetable are not yet available.
As previously reported, there’s a book in the works about the da Vinci Project, the chief Canadian contender for the X Prize. “Zero Gravity,” by da Vinci team leader Brian Feeney and Toronto Star reporter Scott Simmie, should be out in fall 2005.
If you’re looking for a classic about the first space race that also gives you a feel for California’s Mojave Desert, the current epicenter for the second space race, you’ll want to read (or reread) “The Right Stuff” by Tom Wolfe. I couldn’t help but think of SpaceShipOne pilot Mike Melvill as I read this reference to the rocket jocks at Edwards Air Force Base:
“My God! — to be a part of Edwards in the late forties and early fifties! — even to be on the ground and hear one of those incredible explosions from 35,000 feet somewhere up there in the blue over the desert and know that some True Brother had commenced his rocket launch … and to know that he would soon be at an altitude, in the thin air at the edge of space, where the stars and the moon came out at noon.”
Prose like that earns “The Right Stuff” a nod as this month’s selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club, which highlights books with cosmic themes that should be available at your local library or secondhand-book shop.
For further suggestions, check out this “Rocket Reading List,” and feel free to send in your own recommendations for space-race reading.
• Oct. 1, 2004 | 8 p.m. ET
Bluetopia vs. Redtopia redux: Now that the first presidential debate is out of the way, don’t forget to send in your submissions for our political science-fiction contest. You could win a prize that would go a long way toward buying your own election-year screed, or perhaps even one of the space-race sagas mentioned above. The deadline for entries is next Tuesday. Click here to refresh your memory on the rules and the reward.
• Sept. 30, 2004 | 5:30 p.m. ET
The space road ahead: Hollywood stars, space agency officials and rocket entrepreneurs were watching alongside retirees and children when SpaceShipOne hit its first mark in the two-part quest for the $10 million Ansari X Prize – and most of the onlookers couldn’t help but think about what the future will hold.
Top NASA officials were out in force at the Mojave Airport, even though SpaceShipOne’s designer, Burt Rutan, has been critical of what he sees as NASA’s slow-motion, high-cost approach to spaceflight. NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe said the SpaceShipOne team exemplified the spirit of past aviation pioneers as well as future explorers.
"We at NASA applaud their terrific achievement today, as well as the spirit of competition behind the Ansari X Prize,” O’Keefe said in his statement.
Standing near O’Keefe was former astronaut Bill Readdy, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations. Readdy — who borrowed your humble correspondent’s binoculars to watch SpaceShipOne’s landing — thought the mission was just “fantastic.”
“This is what the private sector ought to be doing,” Readdy said.
He noted that Rutan’s company, Scaled Composites, was involved in a consortium that would be conducting space exploration studies for NASA — and said that would serve as a model for NASA’s future plans to send humans beyond Earth orbit.
“It’s not going to be the same traditional industry partners,” Readdy said, referring to aerospace giants such as the Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin.
Companies such as John Deere and Bechtel could play a role in planning for future lunar settlements, for example, and “there will also be the second-, third-, fourth- or fifth-generation private sector,” he said.
One of those new-generation companies may well be SpaceDev, which helped develop the rocket engines for SpaceShipOne and recently announced it would be working with NASA’s Ames Research Center on new concepts for space transports.
SpaceDev’s founder and president, Jim Benson, hailed the way NASA officials have streamlined their procedures for having companies submit proposals on space projects — including a greater emphasis on quick-turnaround “Broad Agency Announcements.”
“I think they’ve turned a corner,” Benson said.
Benson said he wrote the names of his three grandchildren on the exterior of SpaceShipOne’s engine — and hoped that would remain as a family legacy long after the rocket plane is retired.
“Titanic” producer and would-be astronaut James Cameron had a nice long chat with SpaceX founder Elon Musk, and later said Musk had the right idea about SpaceShipOne’s significance. “This reduces the sense of impossibility for the average person,” Cameron said.
However, Cameron wondered whether SpaceShipOne’s technology could be scaled up to the size required for orbital flight.
Perhaps Benson’s Dream Chaser, or Musk’s future Falcon rocket, or some other rocket concept will win out over Rutan’s space-age analog to Charles Lindbergh’s “Spirit of St. Louis” monoplane. Perhaps what X Prize founder Peter Diamandis calls the “personal spaceflight revolution” will get bogged down in government regulation or turn out to be just too costly.
But for an optimistic view, you can’t beat the perspective of Jenny Pyle of Palmdale, Calif., who had been waiting since midnight with her husband and four children alongside the runway to watch SpaceShipOne’s takeoff and landing, far from the VIP section.
“When you get older,” Pyle told her 9-year-old son, Seth, “this will be an everyday thing.”
• Sept. 30, 2004 | 5:30 p.m. ET
More afterglow from the X Prize:
• Space Race News: Da Vinci Project's leader speaks
• Futron: Business outlook for space tourism
• New Mexico Business Weekly: New frontier for space biz
• Seattle P-I: The final profiteer
• Sept. 28, 2004 | 5:30 p.m. ET
Lining up for space history: One lone van was sitting in front of the parking lot at the Mojave Airport at midday today, with the first X Prize spectator sitting inside. Sixty-five-year-old Kent Howard, a retired business owner from Genesee, Wis., was waiting to be let inside at 5 p.m. for an overnight stay — and looking forward to a glimpse of space history.
The SpaceShipOne rocket plane is due to shoot into outer space Wednesday morning above California's Mojave Desert, on the first of two flights aimed at winning the $10 million Ansari X Prize for private spaceflight — and if Howard plays his cards right, he should have one of the best seats in the house.
This event — known as "X1," as opposed to the "X2" flight tentatively scheduled for next Monday — has attracted far lighter advance crowds than June's historic SpaceShipOne flight. But Howard felt he had to be here in Mojave for the start of the prize run.
"It might be something that changes the way we travel," Howard said as he waiting inside his comfortably furnished van. "I might not see it in my lifetime, but my kids might."
Howard said he had started out from Wisconsin a week earlier on a vacation, and was taking in the sights along the way. "I've always been a science-fiction fan and a 'Star Trek' fan," he said. But his wife isn't as enthusiastic about outer space — so that's why he's driving solo.
He looked forward to a future time when rocket jaunts will be as common as airplane flights are today.
"You could fly halfway around the world, say, to Sydney, Australia, in a couple of hours," he said. "I'd say it could revolutionize the way we travel."
• Sept. 28, 2004 | 5:30 p.m. ET
New X Prize sponsors: The X Prize has added two more sponsorships to its logo-laden placards: M&Ms and 7UP. X Prize spokeswoman Sarah Evans acknowledged that M&Ms decided to join the sponsorship list after SpaceShipOne pilot Mike Melvill threw a handful of the candy-coated chocolates into the air during the weightless phase of his flight — a gesture that was immortalized in video.
This time around, we'll be limiting our video coverage to edited highlights of the X Prize flights. For live streaming coverage of the launch attempts, click over to the official X Prize Webcast site.
• Sept. 27, 2004 | 3:30 a.m. ET
Orbital space prize proposed: Robert Bigelow, the millionaire behind Bigelow Aerospace and a plan to develop inflatable space modules for commercial use, is floating the idea of setting up a $50 million prize for the development of a new orbital space vehicle.
In this week's issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology, Bigelow is quoted as saying he'd be willing to contribute $25 million to the prize pool. Other partners, perhaps including NASA, would have to come up with the rest of the money. "America's Space Prize" would be patterned after the Ansari X Prize for suborbital spaceflight, a $10 million award that could well be won in the next week or so.
Bigelow's idea has been circulating on the space rumor mill for some time now, and I referred to the concept indirectly a couple of weeks ago. Orbital spaceflight is substantially harder to do than suborbital flight — just compare the estimates for SpaceShipOne's effort ($20 million-plus over roughly three years) and China's space program ($2 billion or so annually).
Some observers believe the commercial space travel market won't catch fire until private enterprise makes the leap to orbit. Others, however, are worried that a big-money orbital prize, offered with NASA backing, would merely encourage business as usual in human spaceflight. It'll be interesting to see if Bigelow's big idea actually flies, and how high. (Tip o' the Log to Space Race News and RLV News.)
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