End of an Era
Tomorrow marks the end of an era: the final flight of the Space Shuttle Atlantis and the 135th and last mission of the NASA space shuttle program.
A lot of us grew up with the space shuttle program, yearning and dreaming to reach the stars. The space shuttle and the space science programs inspired many a student to pursue higher education in aeronautical and aerospace sciences. There was the HABET (high altitude balloon experiments in technology) program at Iowa State University in the Space Systems and Controls Lab or the CUBESAT program at CalPoly: an innovative program wholly run by students to design, construct, test, launch, and operate miniature satellites for space research. It was a time of great inspiration. I still remember all those years of getting the applications for the astronaut program that never made it to NASA.
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Last month marked 10 years since the first commercial space flight. SpaceShipOne quietly tucked under the belly of its mother ship, WhiteKnightOne, flew successfully into outer space on June 21st, 2004. Although the flight into outer space and the return lasted barely 24 minutes, it accomplished what Rutan set out to prove: that commercial space flight is feasible. Two subsequent flights in September and October of the same year, demonstrated undeniably that it is not only possible but can be accomplished with short turn around time.
Scaled Composites went on to win the Ansari X-Prize and continues to build SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo with commercial space tourism in mind under the auspices of Virgin Galactic. After the three successful flights, SpaceShipOne was retired, and now graces the front galley in the Smithsonian Air and Space Musuem in Washington, D.C. This week marked the end of the first phase of commercial space flight. WhiteKnightOne, the mother-ship of SpaceShipOne was finally retired. It flew it’s final flight to Paine Field, in Everett, WA where it will become a part of the Paul Allen Heritage Collection.
I have fond memories of these two spacecrafts. Over the last decade I have had several opportunities to be up close and personal with them. It was back in the fall of 2003, when I first spied SpaceShipOne. Things were still hush-hush back then. One afternoon, I had an incredible opportunity to spend an hour or two in the hanger that houses SpaceShipOne in the offices of Scaled Composites in the Mohave Dessert, and to hear Rutan speak about his design and vision for spaceflight. How can I forget, that on that afternoon, in that hanger, when I surreptitiously let my hand caress the fuselage with wonder? Or later to think gleefully that if not I, that my fingerprints made it to space?
Or, how can I forget, that other Spring day, when I drove out to the arid Mohave Dessert at 3:00 a.m. along with several thousands others, who held the same enthusiasm and joy to be there to experience history being made? Pristine, peaceful and awe-inspiring was the moment to see the WhiteKnightOne taxi up to the runway with ShipOneOne tucked in it’s belly and quietly depart in the pre dawn morning, climbing slowly to altitude. Or to see, Mike Melville’s, triumphant return, gliding SpaceShipOne back to earth.
Or, the excitement to flying into the nation’s only spaceport in 2005? Or seeing Rutan and Melville at Oshkosh in 2005, triumphant from their success? Flying in WhiteKnightOne and SpaceShipOne to Oshkosh during Airventure?
My encounters don’t end here. Airventure 2011, celebrated Rutan Designs. While SpaceShipOne and WhiteKnightOne were not present, several other Rutan designs were on display.
Kudo’s to WhightKnightOne for a job well done. Maybe one day I will make it to Paine Field in Everett, WA and visit it.
Space is the Final Frontier. That we will make it there one day is a given!
Let’s do it!
A public viewing of the SpaceShipOne?
First, there was Kitty Hawk.
Then, Cape Canaveral.
Kitty Hawk happened in a previous lifetime. I always wanted to visit Florida and watch a Shuttle launch, but haven’t been able to as yet. If history was going to be made right here in the California Dessert, I wanted to be there to see it happen. The launch was scheduled for June 21st at 6:30 am and the public would be allowed inside the airport starting at 3:00am
Arriving there at 3:00 am, it was comforting to see that there were people like me out there for whom this was a momentous occasion. The public viewing area was right across from the departure end of runway 30, giving a fairly decent view of not only the take-off but also the landing of SpaceShipOne.
As the sun arose over the dessert, rendering a reddish hue to the eastern sky, the winds which previously were gusting to 25 knots began to die down. Soon the reddish hue was replaced by bright yellow sunlight. It was going to be nice, warm, clear day with unlimited visibility (or should I say extremely hot first day of summer). Picture perfect weather to suit the very special occasion. Right on schedule, the majestic WhiteKnight with SpaceShipOne piggy-backed on its belly taxied past us, preceded by the three chase aircraft. All of us watched with bated breath and suppressed excitement. The time had finally arrived. As the jubilant crowds of 20 to 30 thousand people who had gathered there watched, White Knight was soon on the rollout ready for lift-off um.. I mean take-off to usher in a new era in the history of private manned space flight.
The estimated time to climb to the design altitude of 50000 ft when separation of SpaceShipOne from the launch vehicle was expected to occur was an hour. Everyone watched with their necks craning, trying to keep the rising spacecraft in view. The spacecraft and launch vehicle were easily visible with the naked eye for most of their ascent and separation phases. After that SpaceShipOne was on its own. With its rocket’s fired, off it went to catch a glimpse of the world from beyond the earth’s atmosphere. Though it was estimated that a total of three minutes would be spent in weightlessness, the ultimate time spent was barely a minute. Due to unscheduled problems it was decided to cut-short the flight and return it safely back to earth. Despite that, the mission achieved its goal of sending a pilot into space and experiencing weightlessness.
Under the skillful guidance of the first private astronaut Mike Melvill, SpaceShipOne made it’s re-entry with a steep descent and finally a smooth landing. There was widespread cheering by the crowd. The chase aircraft too had ample occasion to celebrate the highly successfully mission and not to be outdone performed a formation flyby. When later asked about the flight, Melvill aptly described it as “touching the face of god”.
With the test flight complete, SpaceShipOne was rolled out for display towed by a truck before the cheering crowd and media that had graced the occasion. It was time to honor the men who made it all happen. It is moments such as these that touch our inner soul and inspire us to do great things.
If you are curious about the title of the article, Burt Rutan is famous for his open dissension of NASA policies. The whole venture by Rutan seeking the XPrize is wholly private, funded solely by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen. Incidentally, Rutan was given the banner by a spectator during the victory roll. He ran across to accept it and triumphantly had Melvill wave it from atop SpaceShipOne.
Now that it is over, I can truthfully say if not I, at least my fingerprints have been in space and back (unless, of course, SpaceShipOne has been washed clean since that fateful day in October).
Note: Article appeared in the September/October issue of International Women Pilots, the magazine of the Ninety Nines.