The New Right Stuff

Burt Rutan's test pilots have pushed the envelope all the way into space. Meet America's new astronaut corps--highly skilled, gutsy and ready for takeoff.
Burt Rutan with a Long-EZ, one of his earliest kitplane designs. John B. Carnett

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.”

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.

Melvill came to Mojave in 1978 after building one of Rutan’s kit planes, a Long-EZ, and flying it halfway around the world just to show it off to its designer. Impressed, Rutan hired him on the spot as a business partner and brought his wife, Sally, on as an administrative aide. Melvill remains a part-owner of Scaled Composites and has flown every aircraft Rutan has designed. He is one of Rutan’s oldest and closest friends, and the bond of trust they share is unbreakable. When Melvill had his second incident in May of this year–during a powered flight to 211,400 feet, his instrument display went out, but he continued on when many pilots would have cut the motor and returned to the airport–Rutan defended him against criticism he received. “Mike flew to the actual powered goal even though his guidance system had quit,” Rutan says. “In some places, that would get a test pilot fired. In this case, I thought it was a positive, that Mike could hang in there and press on.”

It was, Rutan says, one of the main reasons he chose Melvill for the first suborbital flight in June. That flight cemented the viability of Rutan’s vision, as well as Melvill’s street cred. When the ship hit the top of its 300,000-foot arc, Melvill experienced three minutes of weightlessness. He admired the view of southern California, and popped out a handful of M&M’s that he had placed in his pocket the night before. They floated in front of his face until the ship began its nearly vertical plunge back into the atmosphere. With the wings feathered up, the sound and fury became intense. “I was flabbergasted by the acceleration into the atmosphere,” he says. “It felt like a hurricane. It was the most frightening part of the flight. There’s a lot of creaking and groaning, and the ship was vibrating so badly that I couldn’t even read the displays.”

Melvill’s voice is brusque and deep, in a manner that reflects his confidence as much as does the precision of his actions in the cockpit. It’s what you’d expect from a seasoned test pilot of this caliber. But what you don’t expect is his disarming willingness to admit fear, or the thinly veiled tenderness with which he approaches his wife’s increasing trepidation about his profession. Before each flight, Sally pins a tiny silver horseshoe–a gift she received from Mike when she was 16–to his flight suit for luck. “She’s been absolutely terrified during these flights,” he says. “The last two really freaked her out. But it’s only a lack of knowledge that causes that fear, and you can’t fix that. There’s no way I can explain it all to her.”

Melvill’s selection as the pilot for the first and most historic suborbital flight was not unexpected, given his experience. But it was still hard news for Binnie and Siebold. “If someone said they weren’t disappointed at not being selected, they’d be lying,” says Siebold, a 33-year-old aeronautical engineer and father of two young children. “We’re in competition, whether we like it or not. The fact is that we all would love to be doing these flights, but there are only a limited number of them, and three pilots.”

At Scaled, Siebold has been allowed to meld his two greatest passions–flying and computer technology–into a career. He’s an avid child of the computer age, and it was he who led the development of the elaborate flight simulator for SpaceShipOne, the first one Scaled has ever designed and built from scratch, as well as the avionics software for the actual vehicle. Sitting in a darkened room just off Scaled’s main hangar floor, the simulator is a full-scale mockup of the cabin–with a carbon-fiber seat, instrument display and full array of porthole windows, each one outfitted with a monitor to display realistic views. It has been used as both a training device and an engineering tool, a way of testing and verifying design changes to the actual spaceship.

I climb into the cockpit while Siebold sets up my flight. As he taps away at a computer keyboard behind me, I wonder out loud about the disorienting array of windows (multiple porthole windows help to strengthen the fuselage) and about how a pilot can possibly keep his bearings with such a jigsaw puzzle of views. Siebold assures me that your brain pieces everything together and that you get used to it. It was through one of these windows that Siebold watched Binnie’s landing back in December when he was the pilot of White Knight, which has a cockpit almost identical to that of SpaceShipOne (a deliberate measure Rutan took to help with pilot/astronaut
training). “I was in a turn over the airport and saw the whole thing,” he recalls. “All I could do was imagine how I would have felt in that situation. Test pilots are made out to be superhuman, with superior piloting skills. We’re doing our best, but there are still things that are out of our control. We hope that our training has covered them and that our instinctual reaction is the right one. But it isn’t always.”

He climbs into the back of the simulator to talk me through my flight. As we ascend, clouds pass slowly below us. It’s peaceful, hanging there beneath White Knight. But with the push of a button, Siebold drops me. The nose tilts down, and the screens fill with brownish terrain seven miles below. I pull back on the stick and fire the rocket motor. Suddenly the ship pitches up. I struggle to keep it on something resembling a straight line, but I quickly tumble out of control. Siebold resets the simulator, and I do it again, with marginally better results–I manage to last until the engine cuts out at 160,000 feet, from which I coast to more than 250,000 feet, where the screens become black, with stars visible and Earth’s horizon below. I feather the wings, reenter the atmosphere, and glide back to Mojave, where I crash into the dirt after overshooting the runway. I have only a few hours of flight training, but I know enough to recognize an extreme challenge when I see it. Add
sustained G-forces and violent buffeting, and I might be able to appreciate how hard this thing is to fly.

Siebold’s simulator has been critical to all three pilots’ training in the past two years, and it remains so as the two X Prize flights approach. But the simulator can’t help with landings, which must be rehearsed in an actual aircraft because so much is dependent on the motion of the vehicle and the presence of real ground cues. Practice flights in SpaceShipOne are not an option–it costs several hundred thousand dollars for each flight, eating into the X Prize take-home money–so the pilots train in other aircraft.

The challenge is enormous, and the tension is ratcheting up as the prize deadline approaches. The atmosphere in Mojave is somewhat reminiscent of the days leading up to NASA’s manned Mercury flights, when the original seven astronauts were vying for the title of first American in space. And as in 1961, if anything goes wrong, it will be in front of a huge audience. “The whole project went totally differently from what I expected,” Siebold says. “There [is] a lot more emotion than I ever thought there could be.”

There is also a lot of danger, and perhaps that’s why Rutan’s test pilots remain comrades as well as competitors. In the final weeks before the prize flights, Melvill helped Binnie practice his landings by taking him up frequently in his Long-EZ plane, which nearly perfectly simulates the descent rate of SpaceShipOne on its final approach. The two pilots even created a template for the cockpit that simulates the spaceship’s restricted field of view.

“I’ve been out with Mike in the Long-EZ, and flying White Knight to stay acclimated to the cockpit and the systems,” Binnie says. “There’ve been a lot of signs of encouragement from everybody–you know, don’t despair.”