But the bigger problem was the kink it inserted in the team’s race toward X Prize victory. Now it was no longer just a question of whether the vehicle could do the job. It was a question of whether the pilots could, whether the team Rutan was creating—the modern counterparts of Alan Shepard and John Glenn, just as adventurous and accomplished, though without the shiny silver suits and the flashy Corvettes—could bring the plane safely home when it mattered most. Rutan and flight-test director Doug Shane, himself a test pilot in the program (though not of SpaceShipOne), had to contend with the fact that the clock was ticking on the X Prize, the cash component of which expires at the end of the year. If this were a longer-term program, Binnie’s landing would have barely mattered—incidents like this happen all the time in flight testing—but a similar accident could end the X Prize run.
In the months since Binnie’s flight, SpaceShipOne has been flown only four times: twice by Siebold, who has also had bumpy landings in the vehicle, and twice by the 63-year-old Melvill, who earned his astronaut wings on June 21 when
he became the first person without government backing to soar above Earth’s atmosphere.
As this article went to press, the team was scheduled to attempt the two X Prize flights on September 29 and October 5, but the decision about who would pilot SpaceShipOne still hadn’t been made. Rutan wants desperately to give Siebold and Binnie their astronaut wings, both because they have worked so hard on the program and because he needs more astronauts on his staff. Rutan’s space program is, after all, called Tier One, and if he has a Tier Two in the pipeline, which he undoubtedly does, he’ll need experienced astronauts onboard. Siebold and Binnie are much younger than Melvill, and thus more likely to be around when Rutan’s next-generation, possibly orbital, vehicle is ready. But the immediate reality was the $10 million at stake, and whether it would be more prudent to give one or both of the X Prize flights to Melvill, who has aced all his landings. With the risks Rutan took in designing SpaceShipOne about to pay off, he was now forced to decide how much risk he was willing to take in choosing the pilot.
The audacity of Rutan’s design is what draws these pilots in. SpaceShipOne is actually three vehicles in one—a glider, a rocket and a spacecraft. It uses different controls and configurations for each phase of flight, including a dramatic upward “feathering” of the wings to automatically position the vehicle for reentry, like a shuttlecock. The transition from one mode to another, as well as nearly every second of flight within each mode, requires extreme skill in an aircraft as twitchy as this, the kind of hands-on piloting that modern space shuttle commanders and Soyuz cosmonauts rarely experience during their mostly automated launches, orbital maneuvers, reentries and landings. Fortunately, Rutan has spent nearly three decades creating a small but exceptionally talented cadre of test pilots, men who have flown some of the most unusual vehicles ever created, from oddly configured high-
performance recreational airplanes and around-the-world record-setters to secret military projects and scientific research aircraft. Several of the pilots have flown experimental airplanes by riding on top of them, as if on a horse. They’ve been in deadly flat-spins, had vital components break off, and been completely out of control—but they’ve never been killed. None have even had to hit the silk, parachuting to safety as one of Rutan’s weird inventions blasts a smoking hole in the desert.
Now Rutan is making the huge jump from aircraft to spacecraft, tapping those who know his vehicles best to pilot them into a realm that is entirely new for Scaled. It’s the same approach NASA took at the dawn of the U.S. space program more than 40 years ago, when it recruited the Mercury Seven from military flight-test ranks. It was a time when flying was more seat-of-the-pants and less controlled by computers and bureaucracies than today. This new generation of private astronauts in many ways mirrors those test-pilots-cum-astronauts of the 1950s and ’60s: aggressive, highly skilled and competitive, but also deeply loyal to the mission at hand, and fallible.
SpaceShipOne, which is loosely modeled on the X-15—a rocket plane that flew to the edge of space in the 1960s, often with future astronaut Neil Armstrong at the controls—is an extreme handful even for an expert pilot. Binnie has thousands of hours of hardcore military flight-test experience, plus a
stint flying another would-be spacecraft, the company Rotary Rocket’s exceedingly challenging (and now mothballed) Roton, a giant traffic cone with rocket-propelled helicopter blades at the top. Although Binnie is one of the most recent additions to the Scaled team, having joined in 2000, he’s had more formal training than his colleagues, thanks to his military background.
He was chosen for the December 2003 test flight because he had the most experience with supersonic aircraft and had overseen the rocket motor’s initial testing. His problematic landing hasn’t detracted from his skills as a test pilot, proven over his long career and displayed in abundance in the 18 minutes leading up to the touchdown. But it was a bad place to get into trouble: 10 seconds from touchdown in an unpowered aircraft, with precious little room for correction. That’s not to say that Melvill and Siebold haven’t had major scares of their own in SpaceShipOne. They’ve just been luckier in their timing.
Melvill—the enthusiastic, bespectacled grandfather who has very little formal flight-test training outside Scaled but who rules every cockpit he’s ever been in—was in the pilot’s seat during an unpowered flight in September 2003. SpaceShipOne suddenly did a backflip in midair, tumbling out of control. To recover, he jammed the stick forward and attempted to trim the nose down, which made things worse. He had
forgotten that the vehicle’s tail is designed to keep the nose pointed down, exactly the opposite of a normal aircraft. It was a misjudgment equal to Binnie’s, but from which Melvill had plenty of time to recover. Rutan’s aerodynamics experts fixed the problem with a larger tail, which they tested by mounting it in front of a Ford F-250 pickup truck and racing down the taxiway at 90 mph.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.