A tiny blue-and-white rocket plane glides 44,000 feet above the Mojave Desert. Test pilot Brian Binnie, wearing a helmet and a navy blue flight suit, is focused on the cockpit’s digital instrument display, stealing only quick glances out the vehicle’s 18 little round windows. With the flip of a switch, he fires the rocket motor, igniting nitrous oxide and rubber. The effect is instantaneous and violent: Binnie gets slammed with four Gs as his craft shoots forward like a Sidewinder missile.
In the mission-control center, engineers study flight data on their monitors. Outside, friends and family members stare at a small, white streak of rocket exhaust in the sky. The engine is barely audible, a remote blap-blap-blap-blap-blap—but faster, like someone blowing a raspberry into a megaphone some distance away.
The force of the 15,000-pound-thrust rocket motor cranking a 4,500-pound vehicle jolts Binnie six inches up from his seat (the seatbelt arrangement is inadequate, the engineers later realize), causing him to inadvertently yank on the control stick. The force also sloshes fuel to the rear, pushing back the center of gravity. The result is a frighteningly aggressive climb that threatens to put the vehicle on its back. Binnie uses slight trim adjustments to nudge the nose down—any stick inputs would be excessive at this speed—and the rudder pedals to minimize rolling. Suddenly, silence. The powered phase of the 18-minute-long flight lasts only 15 seconds, just long enough to test the engine before gliding home.
When the motor shuts down, Binnie, a former U.S. Navy test pilot who can land a fighter jet on an unlit aircraft carrier in the dead of night without breaking a sweat, is relieved that it’s over. But it’s not. The decelerating vehicle goes through another cycle of whip rolls and bucking.
Binnie endures that, but the worst is yet to come. Adrenaline still coursing through his veins, he glides down to Mojave Airport, lines up on the runway, and drops the landing gear. The wings start wobbling, and Binnie’s instincts tell him that the plane is about to roll over. He releases pressure on the stick to try to stop the rolling, but that causes him to drop faster. When he tries to flare before touchdown, it’s too little, too late. He hits the runway, hard, and the left gear collapses. SpaceShipOne skids down the runway, veers into the sand, whips around, and comes to rest sideways in a giant, distinctly unglamorous cloud of dust.
That was December 17, 2003, the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ breakthrough at Kitty Hawk and a fitting day for SpaceShipOne’s first powered flight. Designed by visionary aerospace engineer Burt Rutan, SpaceShipOne is the key component of a $25-million space program financed by Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen. It is the leading contender for the $10-million Ansari X Prize, which will go to the first civilian team that can launch a three-person vehicle into suborbital space twice within a two-week period. Not only is Rutan’s radical spaceship the first viable private spacecraft, but the men he’s chosen to fly it constitute the world’s first private astronaut corps—veteran test pilots who are grappling with an exceedingly challenging vehicle on its first running starts toward suborbital flight, and experiencing all the drama you’d expect in an experimental program of such ambition.
After the landing, Binnie unhooked himselF From his seat, his parachute and his radio gear, popped off the
cockpit door, and climbed out, his feet sinking into the sand. It’s a place aircraft don’t belong. The marvelous, hard-working SpaceShipOne deserves the firm support of tarmac, with an uneventful landing as the reward for a tough flight. And the pilot deserves a triumphant, though nonchalant, walk-around inspection of the vehicle.
Instead Binnie stood there in the blistering sunlight, surveying the damage to his once-pristine ship, collecting his thoughts while he waited for the emergency vehicles and support trucks to drive down the runway. In the sky, two chase planes circled, along with White Knight, the mothership that had carried SpaceShipOne aloft. All were flown by Binnie’s fellow test pilots, including two other would-be astronauts: veteran Mike Melvill, a supremely confident South African who is considered one of the best pilots in the world, and Peter Siebold, a young aeronautical engineer who never imagined he would one day be poised on the verge of spaceflight. Binnie was lucky the damage to SpaceShipOne wasn’t worse, and that he wasn’t injured, but still he struggled with the implications. How did this happen? Would it
jeopardize the program? And the inescapable question: Did he, in full view of his respected colleagues, just lose his chance to become an astronaut?
“It was devastating,” Binnie, a 51-year-old father of three, recalls. “But Burt was the first to get to me. He dusted me off, looked at the ship, and said, 'That’s no problem. It’s a plastic airplane! We can fix that in a few weeks.' He tried to lift my spirits at a time when they really needed lifting.” Rutan’s reassuring words were true—the damage was minimal, requiring just a few weeks for Scaled Composites, Rutan’s company, to repair—but in the race to pilot the key X Prize spaceflights, Binnie lost points that day. While the event was downplayed publicly, its effect on the program was tremendous. First, it caused tension among the pilots. Most of them, and many engineers at Scaled, felt that the accident resulted from an understandable misinterpretation of new flying qualities, generated by modifications made to the vehicle prior to the flight. Melvill, though, was vocal with his opinion that Binnie’s landing trouble was pure pilot error. “He flat didn’t fly the airplane,” he says. “He just flew it straight into the ground, like what you would do when flying an F-18 onto the deck.”