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Go / No Go :
Black Sky: The Race For Space and Winning The X-Prize DVDs

Review by Rick Houston

Studio:   The Discovery Channel
Release:   2005
Length:   2 hours, 30 minutes on 2 discs
MSRP:   $24.95

Booster Rating: Five (out of five) Stages

Studio's Synopsis: Follow Burt Rutan on his quest to build a personal spacecraft - dubbed SpaceShipOne - and capture the elusive X Prize: a $10 million award that will go to the first privately funded, non-governmental group to build a spacecraft capable of carrying three 6'2", 198- pound adults to an altitude of 62 miles twice in 14 days.

Review: Of all the space-related documentaries I have seen - and there have been plenty - Black Sky: The Race For Space and Winning The X-Prize are the only two that have ever inspired a full-fledged tear in my eye and a lump in my throat.

For more than 30 years now, I have dreamed of flying in space. While my father was in Vietnam, my mom and I watched astronauts walking on the Moon and driving something that looked a lot like a dune buggy. How cool was that?!? I would flop down on the floor, throw my legs up on the couch and make all sorts of adjustments to my make-believe control panel as I not-so-patiently waited for liftoff. That liftoff never came.

Space flight had never been an option, not for an average guy like me. My ticket into space may never be punched, but it is now a distinct possibility for my sons because of dreamers like Burt Rutan and the engineers, mechanics and pilots at his company, Scaled Composites. He made the impossible possible.

From the moment early in The Race for Space when Rutan and some of his Scaled employees tie hot dogs and marshmallows to a fence just feet away from a rocket engine that is about to be tested, it's quite obvious that this is a very different group of characters. Nothing comes through quite so clearly in either of the two discs as Rutan's infectious enthusiasm. This is a gentleman who likes what he does... no, he loves what he does.

Rutan has designed hundreds of aircraft, and actually has seen dozens of them built. SpaceShipOne though, is his masterpiece, his crowning achievement. The Ship was built in pursuit of the $10 million X-Prize, awarded to the first team to achieve two flights above the 328,000-foot plateau within a two-week period. A year ago this month, that goal was achieved by pilots Mike Melvill and Brian Binnie, and the craft recently took its rightful place in the National Air and Space Museum.

The Race For Space begins with the first flight of the mothership White Knight, as then focuses in on virtually every stage of SpaceShipOne's development. Rocket tests? They're here. The awarding of the contract for those engines? Check, and Discovery Channel cameras catch the reactions of both the winners and losers. The first glide test is here, and so is the first trial run of the Ship's re-entry "feather" system. There is a test in which SpaceShipOne spins out of control and a cockpit camera captures pilot Melvill's reactions as he skillfully brings it back under control.

The real highlight though, of this disc is Melvill's attempt to become the world's first privately-funded astronaut on June 21, 2004. It is SpaceShipOne's fourth powered test, and is in fact, not one of the X-Prize qualifying flights. Again, serious control problems develop just after SS1 begins its powered ascent. Other complications surface after Melvill corrects that problem. At the top of his climb, and barely past the magical 328,000-foot barrier marking the entrance to space, an engine stops prematurely and appears to come apart. To make matters worse, a trim fin is stuck in place. Melvill - a high school dropout - is in big, big trouble. Only a backup system separates Melvill from complete disaster and safe return. All the while, his wife Sally, watches. On either disc, her reactions to both the good and bad moments are priceless.

Winning The X-Prize's main focus is just that; SS1 goes into a dizzying roll as it makes its vertical climb toward space. To see Melvill in the topsy-turvy cockpit and the views toward the back of the ship - excuse me as I grab an airsick bag. Maybe that's why I never got the chance to fly in space.

Melvill, on the other hand, never blinked. Instead, he takes photos with a mini digital camera as SS1 is still in a slight roll. Amazingly, he activates the reaction control system to regain control during the spin, the same method employed by Neil Armstrong to save Gemini XIII during its terrifying tumble in space. As he lands, the first piece of the X-Prize puzzle is set squarely in place.

On October 4, 2004, 47 years to the day after the launch of Sputnik, Binnie completed the second. A cockpit camera frames the pilot perfectly as he closes his eyes in what seems to be a quick prayer, and then slammed into his seat as the rocket engine ignites. When SS1 nearly collides with White Knight, Binnie exclaims, "Holy crap, that was close!!!"

Binnie's flight was flawless. At his peak altitude of 368,000 feet, it's hard not to see the look in Binnie's eyes as he gazes out the Ship's various windows and not feel the slightest bit emotional. His eyes are huge, filled with wonder, complete and utter joy. For a very few moments, he's a kid again. It's the very same look I imagine that I would have.

And it's the very same look that I hope one day my sons will have, thanks to men like Rutan, Melvill, Binnie and everyone else at Scaled Composites. They have made it possible for some average guy to live out a dream.

Go/No Go: Every so often, I come across a program that for a time becomes "the best space-related documentary that I have ever seen". Ever since viewing these discs for the first time a few months ago, Black Sky: The Race For Space and Winning The X-Prize have earned that title.

It would be hard to top this inside look at the next chapter in spaceflight.

Order now: Discovery Channel

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About the reviewer:
Rick Houston is an avid collector of DVDs (he has more than 600). Houston is also a space history enthusiast, so he is sure to not miss a documentary or docudrama.

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