Launch Trip Report: Scaled Composites flight of Spaceship One into space

June 21, 2004
Mojave, CA

My Photos  (My web site is full, so I had to really compress these .jpg images to get them to fit.  Unfortunately they don't look very clear now.  I'll go back and clean these up as I clear out more space.)

Boris Kaganovich (MN Space Frontier Society, UofMN Students for Space Exploration, and IEAS) and I arrived at LAX Monday morning at 12:15pdt after our Sun Country flight (only $262 round trip) was an hour and a half late, rented a sporty red Pontiac Sunfire ($18 at Alamo!) and drove up to Mojave by about 3:15am. The day before leaving I had received a call from Ky Michaelson who was attending as a VIP in recognition of his recent unmanned spaceflight, and Ky invited me to be part of his VIP guest group. So we had the VIP pass and "secret directions" for getting onto the field through the back entrances so had no traffic at all and were some of the first to arrive and set up our reclining chairs right in the best spot on the flight line.

A separate section was reserved for Media and the V-VIPs. There were at least a dozen large news production trucks with their very large satellite dishes and lots of floodlights. The pre-dawn scene look like we were at Cape Canaveral.

We met up with Ky and some of the others from his Civilian Space Exploration Team, including project manager Jerry Larson, motor builders Korey Kline (who also designed and built parts of the hybrid motor on Rutan's spaceship one) and Derek Deville, and Bruce Lee (who is also Tripoli rocket club's treasurer). There were many other aerospace notables next to us, such as Peter Diamondis of the Ansari X-prize, Virgin Airlines president Richard Branson, SpaceDev president Jim Benson.

Just before the trip a friend of my wife Luda had been able to embroider some nice shirts and hats with our IEAS logo, so I felt right at home with all the other logo'd teams and VIPs. I handed out IEAS business cards whenever I could, as well as color copies of our August Convention announcement and generally tried to spread the word that we existed and were supporting and encouraging experimental rocketry at the grass-roots level. The empty hangars of Rotary Rocket Corporation were behind us as a reminder of past aerospace company failures, but a new sign on the Mojave air traffic control tower offered hope: "Welcome to Mojave Airport, America's first inland spaceport!"

A sales tent in the VIP area was selling special Scaled Composites T-shirts and hats so we stocked up while waiting for dawn. The winds were very strong and gusty all night so we were pretty worried the flight would be delayed. The hills North of the runway are covered with large wind generators that were kept quite active. Fortunately the winds tapered off quickly to almost zero just after dawn so the flight was on time. There were several chase planes that took off first and checked winds and down-range emergency landing areas and got in position for photography. A Beach Starship was the photography chase plane during the climb to drop altitude. It kept close formation with the White Knight and was a great sight. The sky was completely clear but a very slight haze and sun glare made it difficult to find the planes sometimes. I re-learned a technique for avoiding empty-field myopia: look down at the horizon, lock your focus at infinity, then look back up in the sky. Otherwise your vision reflexively fixates 18 inches in front of your nose and you can't see planes. (remember this trick when scanning the sky for planes or your rocket at our launches).

During this time we finally met up with fellow IEAS member, Mike Dilsaver who had flown in from Illinois and had stayed with the National Space Society group in their RV.

Before drop, an Alpha jet trainer and a T-38 from NASA joined up. They were flying towards us, right past the sun and at over 40,000ft it was very difficult to tell which plane was actually the WhiteKnight (especially with spots in my eyes after accidentally looking into the sun with binoculars). At the time of drop, I was using my telescope and was accidentally watching the Beach Starship chase plane which was making the larger contrail. Many other spectators made the same mistake, including a radar tracked ultra-long range camera system near Edwards that another experimental rocketeer had informally commandeered at his place of employment that morning. The motor ignition quickly made it obvious which was the Spaceship One. At the very beginning, the trajectory of the exhaust plume had an odd wiggle that scared me but it quickly straightened out and screamed across the sky. The motor burn was very long and very visible. We tracked it until motor burn-out but couldn't see the spacecraft after that.

I brought my aviation radio so were listening to the whole flight. We we're a bit nervous when pilot Mike Melvile started reporting a series of problems right after ignition, including roll control difficulties under thrust with 90 degree excursions, pitch attitude control failure, and a loud bang from the engine compartment. For awhile we thought that the attempt had fallen seriously short of the 360,000 foot target and that Mike could be in serious danger. We were wondering if he was going to be able to land in SpaceShip One at all.

The mood was a bit subdued for awhile until we got the announcement that Spaceship One had actually reached space and Mike was back on re-entry profile. The crowd gave a big cheer at that news and an FAA official read a pronouncement declaring Mojave airport as an official Spaceport.

It took only a few minutes to get down to 40,000ft and then he glided in circles for what seemed like another 20 minutes. He was joined on the descent by the Beach Starship, an Alpha Jet, and an Extra 300 competition aerobatic plane all in formation. Quite a sight. A newspaper reporter thought my telescope was neat and took a lot of photos of me tracking the flight. He said he'd send me copies of the paper, but then they always say that.

The Extra stayed with Spaceship One right down final until Mike made an absolutely perfect "greaser" touchdown on the mains, then gently lowered the nose skid just as he passed the spectator area and rolled to a stop. We were then treated to a spectacular series of low-level flybys from the chase planes, and finally the White Knight which made quite a steep pull-up from its pass. A very unusual plane, especially when viewed from the top when you're still on the ground.

After a preliminary inspection, the spacecraft with Mike aboard, was towed past the flight line for Mike to make his exit in front of the media grand stands. We could immediately see that the lower fairing under the aft part of the engine had buckled inwards for some reason.

Mike was greeted with hugs by Paul Allen, Burt Rutan, and a hand shake from Buzz Aldrin then he climbed on top of Spaceship One and posed for photos. Later he came down and did some interviews before climbing back on top to wave and the crowds during the tow back to the hangar. At one point he held a sign that said: "Spaceship One Government 0"

Many people were carrying signs: a teenage girl and her brother posed for us with a sign that said "Rocketman Rutan is my Grandpa". They were Burt Rutan's grand kids.

Afterwards we spent the afternoon talking with some rocketeers from the Pacific Rocket Society, and going between the X-Cor (EZ-Rocket folks) open house and a VIP reception at the Scaled Composites hangars where we got close up looks at the SpaceshipOne and WhiteKnight. Boris shot digital photos from every angle. We later heard that one of the two trim actuators had broken and caused problems with pitch control while also inducing unwanted roll inputs. No word yet on what caused the faring to buckle. We later heard that Mike had not been talking on the radio much during apogee because he was playing with handfulls of M&M candies in zero-G and wasn't nearly as worried about the "anomalies" as everyone else was. We met the pilot of the White Knight "mothership", Brian Binnie, and got his autograph and a photo. He also was the pilot of an earlier Spaceship One flight where the landing gear collapsed. We talked with Peter Diamondis of the X prize and saw Elon Musk, the PayPal founder who started his own space transportation company.

As we were leaving the Scaled hangars we passed Burt Rutan in the entryway but he was walking pretty fast so we didn't try to stop him. Then we met Spaceship One pilot Mike Melvile in the parking lot and shook his hand.

The temperatures quickly went from comfortable to unbearable as the day progressed. By noon we were exhausted after over 24 hours without sleep and the oven-like heat, so spent more time at Xcor where they had a swamp cooler that worked quite well. Doug Jones use Liquid Nitrogen to make instant Strawberry ice cream and he and Randall Clague fired their small Ethane/NitrousOxide demonstration motor inside the hangar for us.

We had a late lunch with Randall at the Voyager Cafe at the Mojave Airport then headed back to LA that evening. On the way we stopped at the Lockheed plant in Palmdale to photograph the SR-71, A-12, and D-12 hypersonic drone that are on display in "Blackbird Park".

Our Sun Country flight home wasn't until 11:50pm Mon so we had dinner at a mexican cafe in the airport and after 38 hours without sleep just tried not to pass-out and miss our flight.

Finally arrived back in MSP at 5:15am, where I tried to remember my high school Spanish and help a family of illegal immigrants from our flight make contact with their underground railroad and catch a cab to their safe-house (How many people do you know who travel across the country with no luggage or carry-ons and no money?). My taxi driver said this was a frequent occurrence at MSP.

Quite a day.

I shot four rolls of film, and Boris must have taken a hundred digital photos. I'm also interested to see the CNN coverage he Tivo'd.

My Photos

Here are some on-line stories about the flight:

These are the some of the best aviation photos I've ever seen:
  Spaceship One flight photos by Richard Seaman.

Blue Skies,