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Beyond the Heavenly Hoopla

Flight of private rocket ship was filled with hype, but it is nevertheless a giant feat

June 27, 2004|Peter Garrison | Peter Garrison is a columnist for Flying magazine.

An ebullient Michael W. Melvill wriggled out of his rocket ship at Mojave last week after a brief and violent roller coaster ride to the edge of space. Emotions overflowed. At a press conference later, the 63-year-old test pilot reflected -- unexpectedly, irrelevantly and beautifully -- about his wife, Sally, and how they married when he was 20 and she was 17. Burt Rutan, the guiding genius of the project, compared the emotion of Melvill's return to what they both had felt long ago when, searching in darkness over the Pacific, they had glimpsed the lights of the Voyager, Burt's brother Dick at the controls, returning home, with barely a sip of fuel in its tanks, from its nine-day nonstop circumnavigation of the globe.

It was, in fact, all about emotion -- streaming tears, choked voices, screaming fans -- and a strange, deep well of longing to boldly go somewhere or other, just as long as it wasn't here. A woman from Oregon, who had arrived in a camper the night before to witness the flight, told Rutan, out wandering among the troops like Henry V before Agincourt, that she was there because she wanted her kids to be able to go to Jupiter someday. "We want our kids to visit the planets," Rutan later repeated -- kids who, on this planet, probably can't wait to pull down the shades on their window seats and start the in-flight movie.

Under the distorting waves of hype, which flowed as freely as champagne that day, the outlines of what had actually been accomplished were indistinct. Rutan, 61, who three decades ago was a lone entrepreneur selling plans for hobbyists to build two-seat Styrofoam-and-fiberglass airplanes in their garages, had by the force of his ambition, a messianic personality and the brilliant originality of his engineering cast himself as a rival to NASA. A tiny hot-rod spacecraft, consisting essentially of an airtight cabin glued -- literally -- to the front end of a rocket motor, had taxed Melvill's considerable sang-froid with a violent, thunderous, problem-plagued ride to the edge of space, where he briefly enjoyed a soul-expanding view of Southern California before falling back in an even more violent and thunderous reentry. And this had been accomplished for a piddling $20 million or so, less than the cost of one or two of sponsor Paul Allen's private jets.

Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, after Neil Armstrong the second man to walk on the moon, greeted Melvill. Aldrin could have been bemused by the fuss; after all, he had been all the way to the moon in 1969, and that trip had been accomplished by gifted engineers and brave pilots as well. What was the big deal today?

Well, it was that this was a private space launch, not a government-run one. Private spaceflight is not new -- Orbital Sciences Corp., with a base at Mojave, orbited payloads using privately built equipment for years, and, in fact, Rutan's company, Scaled Composites, supplied major pieces of Orbital's hardware. But this was the first private manned spaceflight, if you accepted -- as the Federal Aviation Administration did when it pinned the first civilian astronaut's wings on Melvill -- that a few seconds 62 miles above the Earth was a "spaceflight." Rutan's populist hostility to the timid and self-serving bureaucracies, the slowness, the myopia of "big government" fed the enthusiasm of his admirers; he fanned the flames with stories of the absurd obstacles with which the FAA's new office of commercial space transportation had littered his way, including the demand that he ensure that no desert tortoise would be harmed by SpaceShipOne's flight. None was.

Likening the day's events to Wilbur Wright's epiphanic demonstrations of his Flyer in France in 1908, Rutan looked ahead to a future -- not far off, he implied, now that the energies of private enterprise had finally been uncorked -- when ordinary people would buy tickets for hops out of the atmosphere and even ride "transfer vans" to vacation in orbiting hotels.

In the elation of the moment it was easy to forget that the present orbiting hotel -- a leaky near derelict called the International Space Station -- clings, despite the efforts of two nations to support it, to an existence as tenuous as that of some crumbling desert motor court. That the moon proved so uninviting that no one has bothered to go back. That Mars looks like those portions of Arizona that no one wants to visit. And that last week's event took place against the backdrop of hundreds of big passenger jets, distant descendants of the Wright Flyer, mothballed by airlines staggered by the commercial realities of a strife-torn world.

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