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Author Topic:   X1 Eyewitness Report
FFrench
Member

Posts: 3093
From: San Diego
Registered: Feb 2002

posted 09-30-2004 10:06 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for FFrench     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
The Mojave desert on the cloudless night of a full moon is an especially atmospheric place. The Joshua trees and canyoned hills are bathed in a milky glow, while the desert winds rise and fall and despite the moonlight, the stars are crisp, clear and numerous. When you also happen to be spending the night in the bizarre accumulation of buildings that make up the Mojave airport, the effect is even more eerie. Weatherbeaten hangars and mothballed passenger jets litter the desert expanse. Yet in the middle of this abandoned-looking facility some of the most innovative, creative aerospace technologies are being created. For example, on the night of September 28th, I was sleeping in a hangar where rockets are being designed to carry humans into space. The next day, a spaceflight would begin and end within the airport boundaries.

Hours before the sun has risen, I am sitting under the stars near to the airport's control tower - rather unexpectedly finding myself having a very early outdoor breakfast with NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, and former astronaut and Associate Administrator Bill Readdy. The duo have been key figures in deciding NASA's direction after the Columbia disaster, and it might be imagined that they'd find today's non-NASA manned launch a little bittersweet, at a time when NASA is effectively grounded. But the opposite is true: they are enthused and energized. For them, this is what spaceflight is all about, and one of the reasons NASA exists - to inspire and help develop technologies that make days like this possible. In the unusual position of being at a manned launch they have no say in, they are relaxed, off-duty and eager to talk.

To me, such informal meetings characterized this launch, the first of two needed to win the Ansari X-Prize, and what will probably be later seen as one of the most important events ever in private spaceflight. It was possible to stroll around and talk with the person who designed the spacecraft, then run into someone else who had designed the fuel and engines, another who had financed the project, and yet another who had set up the X-Prize competition. This was no overwhelming bureaucracy; this was a small group of focused, dedicated individuals who were eager to see their dream come true that day. The small-scale homeliness and intimacy of this space program is a big difference from NASA and Russian large-scale efforts, and made for a refreshing change. In the end, it was even possible that day to watch an astronaut climb out of his spacecraft having just finished a flight, then immediately shake his hand and talk with him, in a casual way that would be unimaginable in other space programs.

There were a good number of others there who had hopes of different kinds riding on the outcome of the flight. Jerrie Cobb and Wally Funk, two of the "Mercury 13" ladies who passed the same physicals as the Mercury astronauts back in the early 1960s, were both there and both still eager to fly some day. Nick Patrick, one of NASA's crop of patient, yet-to-fly astronauts, excitedly watched the events of the morning and expressed a wish to be the one piloting the spacecraft. As the desert sky lightened, the winds died down and the sun rose, former test pilot Scott Crossfield sat by the flightline. He'd flown the X-15, the first aircraft capable of making suborbital flights, on its maiden voyage in 1959 and on subsequent test flights. Now he was seeing what was in many ways the end result of that work -  a commercial application.

Another special quality this space program offers is an element of showmanship. The spacecraft and its carrier airplane were taxied past the waiting crowds before take-off, and during the time they both climbed up to the needed altitude there were onstage interviews and live video from the spacecraft to keep everyone extremely informed. Crossfield kept an intent eye on this video screen, enjoying a luxury he had never had for his X-15 flights.

At last, it was the moment of no return. as SpaceShipOne separated from its carrier aircraft and its rocket motor was fired, a swirling contrail appeared in the skies above us and rapidly elongated. Crossfield kept up with every detail, watching with some concern as the onboard video showed the spacecraft begin to roll and the horizon flash past. But the reports given to the crowd were reassuring, and Crossfield could relax and and enjoy watching the spacecraft make its long descent spiral back to the airport. Through binoculars, the elegantly-shaped spacecraft could be seen making spectacular twists and turns to bleed off speed and height, sparkling in the sunlight.

In another display of the personal feel of this program, the spacecraft was twice wheeled past the applauding spectators after its dramatic high-angle landing, and brought to a stop just feet from the crowd. Pilot Mike Melvill quickly strode over to a beaming Scott Crossfield and warmly greeted him. Then, like a champion prizefighter, Melvill stood on top of his spacecraft as it was once again towed along the flightline, raising his arms aloft in victory.

All that remained was a press conference, where a confident team explained the progression of the flight, including the worrisome rolling maneuvers. Melvill was relaxed and confident, and once again it was evident just how different this space program was - a man who had just returned from space was chatting, posing for photos and signing endless autographs as if he had just walked in from a stroll around the block. As I headed back out into the desert and home, I'd been made to feel that suborbital space flight was soon to become so commonplace, it was hardly surprising that this team were planning to do it all over again - in just a few days' time.

machbusterman
Member

Posts: 1657
From: Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland
Registered: May 2004

posted 09-30-2004 10:21 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for machbusterman   Click Here to Email machbusterman     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Thank you for such a beautiful post... it was almost poetic!

Regards, Derek

Aztecdoug
Member

Posts: 1330
From: Huntington Beach
Registered: Feb 2000

posted 09-30-2004 11:51 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for Aztecdoug   Click Here to Email Aztecdoug     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Brilliant account of the events of the day. Mike Melvill and Scott Crossfield together, wow!

So much about what is going on today reminds me of the Golden Age of Test Flight. It is appropriate that the Scott was there with Mike. Are there any pictures of the two of them together? I would love to see one.

Thank you for the wonderful writing style too. I felt like I was listening to an old U-2 song while reading your description of the California high desert softly awash in the moonlight, on the coastal shores of outer space.

------------------
Warm Regards

Douglas Henry

Enjoy yourself and have fun.... it is only a hobby!

Larry McGlynn
Member

Posts: 805
From: Boston, MA
Registered: Jul 2003

posted 09-30-2004 02:18 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Larry McGlynn   Click Here to Email Larry McGlynn     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Frances,

Must have been a very exciting day. Your descriptions were excellent.

It must have been very unique to have such an intimate view of the beginning of commercial space travel.

Thanks and will you be in the Mojave desert again for the next flight?

Larry McGlynn

FFrench
Member

Posts: 3093
From: San Diego
Registered: Feb 2002

posted 09-30-2004 11:35 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for FFrench     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Thanks everyone, I am pleased you enjoyed reading that. It was indeed a great event - watching a suborbital flight with the first X-15 pilot was certainly unforgettable. And yes, I love the desert... my first job in the US was teaching kids about the wildlife and people of the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, and it is a place I love.

I took some photos of Scott and Mike talking, but Scott will have his back turned in most of them - we'll see how they come out, and if they are any good I'll post them here.

I have an invite to the second launch attempt, but don't know if other commitments will let me get up to that one as well. This launch, by the way, was on my birthday, so attending it seemed a suitable present to myself...

Thanks,

FF

FFrench
Member

Posts: 3093
From: San Diego
Registered: Feb 2002

posted 10-09-2004 09:44 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for FFrench     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by FFrench:
I took some photos... we'll see how they come out, and if they are any good I'll post them here.


Sunrise over the Mojave


Jerrie Cobb and Wally Funk


Scott Crossfield watches the launch.

FFrench
Member

Posts: 3093
From: San Diego
Registered: Feb 2002

posted 10-09-2004 09:49 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for FFrench     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote

Melvill and Rutan hug at the successful completion of the flight.


Melvill chats with Crossfield immediately after landing.


Melvill after the flight.


Prizefighter.


Prizefighter 2

nojnj
Member

Posts: 495
From: Highland Heights, KY
Registered: Feb 2003

posted 10-09-2004 10:12 AM     Click Here to See the Profile for nojnj   Click Here to Email nojnj     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Incredible accounting of the event! Thank you so much for sharing your story and photos!

------------------
Evan

Spacepsycho
Member

Posts: 711
From: Huntington Beach, Calif.
Registered: Aug 2004

posted 10-09-2004 12:30 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for Spacepsycho   Click Here to Email Spacepsycho     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Francis,

Absolutely the most beautiful description of an incredible historic event.

Ray

FFrench
Member

Posts: 3093
From: San Diego
Registered: Feb 2002

posted 10-09-2004 01:54 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for FFrench     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
Thanks, Evan and Ray,

Ray, I liked the way you covered the second flight in that other posting in a similar way... you got some great shots too!

Francis.

FFrench
Member

Posts: 3093
From: San Diego
Registered: Feb 2002

posted 02-24-2005 03:01 PM     Click Here to See the Profile for FFrench     Edit/Delete Message   Reply w/Quote
quote:
Originally posted by Aztecdoug:
It is appropriate that the Scott was there with Mike. Are there any pictures of the two of them together? I would love to see one.

There are also some on Scaled's website now, I see.

All times are CT (US)

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