XPrize, ten years ago

Ten years ago this past weekend, SpaceShipOne made its final flight and won the coveted X-Prize; the date was October 4th, 2004. I was there, as a part of a three-man team on the “inside” covering the event for the Aero-News Network.

In mid September of that same year I was contacted by ANN’s editor-in-chief, Jim Campbell and invited to join the news team at Mojave, California for the X-Prize. At first I was torn on whether or not I should go. My daughter was just about ready to take her first steps and as a part of getting out of the cockpit and becoming a stay-at-home daddy, the deal was that I would not have to miss such events as that. When I told my wife about my dilemma, she, (being also an Embry-Riddle alumnus and in the aviation industry), reminded me that the flights for the X-Prize were not only singular in aviation history, but in spaceflight history as well. Then she gave a simple ultimatum, “If you don’t go, I will!” 

As a result I coached our baby girl like Scotty Bowman preparing for a Stanly Cup bid. She took her first steps the evening before I left for Mojave.

When Campbell first offered me the chance to cover X-Prize, he told me we would be “on the inside.” To which I asked myself, “how much on the inside?” To give all of you readers an idea of just how “inside” we were I will cite an event that took place just after the final flight. Every media outlet on the planet had suddenly discovered Mojave before that final flight and they came crowding in. There was a post-flight news conference that was being held in a room that could lawfully fit less than a third of those who wanted to cover the moment. Thus, X-Prize saw fit to limit access by issuing gold stars for those being allowed in, to stick to their badges. As Cambell, Kevin “Hognose” and myself, who were the ANN team, elbowed our way through the throng trying to get into the building, we heard the security lady at the doors saying repeatedly, “Only those with gold stars can get in!” Looking at our badges, we did not have any stinking gold stars. Campbell just said, “Don’t worry about it.” As we pushed through the door we gave a wave to the lady and simply went in. Behind us I heard some shouts of “Hey! Those guys don’t have gold stars!” To which she replied simply, “Those guys don’t need gold stars.” THAT is how “inside” ANN was at X-Prize.

Before the actual X-Prize flights there had been a good deal of publicity concerning the up-coming event. In one article there was a photo of Burt Rutan, the chief designer of SpaceShipOne, doing some zero-G flights with a teddy bear that was supposed to ride on the vehicle into space. “Why a teddy bear and not a Klyde Morris doll?” I asked publically. Shortly before I left for Mojave, I got the word, “Bring one.” So I brought three with me.

As the first flight of the two required to officially win the $10 million X-Prize taxied out, we had all left our crowded little “press room” to watch White Knight depart. I was in among the VIPs, Hognose was on the flight line taking pictures and Campbell was in the chase-plane; his was the only camera taking in-flight photos of that event. X-Prize had arranged for a huge jumbotron-like bill board to be set up where everyone in the crowd could watch the on-board and long-range TV images of the two vehicles in flight, so I was pretty occupied just watching.

Just before SpaceShipOne’s release I spotted then NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe standing with a group of three pilots from DFRC. I had been lampooning O’Keefe in the cartoon strip fairly frequently in months past, so I just walked over and introduced myself. Of course he had indeed read some of the cartoons and I asked if he had read the latest, and drew his attention to the September 9th cartoon which was about his predecessor Dan Goldin. Mr. O”Keefe said he had not seen that one and motioned to his administrative assistant to bring over her laptop. In just a few minutes he had the cartoon up, read it and gave out a large laugh. His assistant rolled her eyes and sarcastically said, “Thank you, now when we get back he’s gonna be sitting around reading these all the time.” Pointing his finger at me, Mr. O’Keefe, with a touch of satisfaction, said, “You know, we’re getting real close to the shuttle’s return to flight.” I told him that I was closely watching.

Just about then White Knight released SpaceShipOne, the engine ignited and test pilot Mike Mike Melvill pointed her nose toward space. We all kept switching our attention between the billboard TV and the rapidly departing contrail in the morning desert sky above us. Melvill had become the world’s first corporate pilot astronaut back on June 21st and now he was on his way toward reaching space again. But, as SpaceShipOne got into the thinnest of atmospheric layers the vehicle went into an uncommanded roll. I stood there thinking that this was not good and the other pilots around me were thinking the same thing. Then, Mr. O’Keefe asked aloud, “Is it supposed to do that?” In harmony, all of us pilots standing around him barked “NO!”

The ever-cool Melvill realized that this roll, although odd, was not going to damage the airframe. He was high enough that any aerodynamic forces were nearly nill, so he just let the vehicle roll. At engine shutdown he recovered control and entered space for the second time. Upon landing the crowd celebrated and following a full-house press conference the members of the media took the non-answers, answers that Scaled Composites, the makers of SpaceShipOne, had to offer and then the news media simply left. Likewise, the entire staff of X-Prize also simply packed up and split . The three of us from ANN were all who remained behind.

SpaceShipOne was locked away in its hangar and was deemed as “Off Limits.” This was the first time that our ANN crew was kept out as well. Not a word got out as to what had caused the uncommanded roll. It was considered to be proprietary information held by Scaled. It was also a good taste of what private spaceflight would be like compared to NASA spaceflight. When NASA has a problem, they are required to release the details to the public, normally by way of the news media. When a private company has a problem, they can simply lock it away behind the company ‘s gate. It is a message for those of you rooting for all spaceflight to be private.

Following that first flight we dutifully showed up in the press room each day. The building that once was teeming with X-Prize people was ghostly quiet and nearly as empty as the desert surrounding it. Two days after the flight two NASA engineers from DFRC showed up with a box full of VHS tapes and they were looking for someone, anyone, from X-Prize. Eventually they stumbled into our pressroom where Hognoze and I were writing our daily pieces for ANN. We explained that all of the X-Prize people had gone back to L.A. They said that the box contained the video and telemetry that proved that SpaceShipOne had actually crossed the official boundary into space. I could not believe it, here was the proof needed to help win the $10 million X-Prize, and X-Prize had not bothered to leave anyone there to collect it!

Hognoze and I said that we would be happy to take charge of the box, but the guys from DFRC were wise enough to see that we were only kidding. They too were astounded that no one from X-Prize was there to get the evidence. In fact, the only phone number that the engineers had for X-Prize ended up ringing a phone in one of the abandon offices down the hall. It was a good lesson in how X-Prize was being managed. The DFRC team left and we told them that if anyone from X-Prize showed up during the week, we would let them know where the $10 million box went. No one showed up.

During our stay at the Mojave airport, I managed to drop in on some of my cartoon’s fans at Xcor. They too were working on a sub-orbital spaceplane and they happily gave Hognoze and I the grand tour of their facility. Later they had a big hangar party and we were invited back to meet some of their amazing staff and eat some of the best food we had eaten all week.

October 3rd and it was the night before the second flight in SpaceShipOne’s attempt to win the X-Prize. Our ANN team was now joined by other media in the pressroom; we were all working toward the next day’s story. Sometime late in the evening, the lady in charge of X-Prize public relations poked her head into the door and motioned for Campbell to join her in the hallway. He returned a moment later and said to me “Get the doll.” Reaching into my bag I nabbed the Klyde Morris plush doll that I had specially marked for the flight. He handed it to her and she said to me, “This could still get bumped for weight. We won’t know until tomorrow when it taxies out.” That was fine with me!

On the morning of the big flight, I was assigned to be in the control tower. As I was walking out toward the tower in the pre-dawn darkness, my cell phone rang. It was Campbell, “I just go the word,” he said, “Klyde is onboard.” I was delighted and quickly called and passed the good news onto my wife in Washington DC and my folks back in Michigan who were watching the event on TV.

From that point on I could not really lose. If the flight went as planned, I would get Klyde back as a real space artifact. If things went REALLY wrong, however, Pete, a friend of mine from college who lived near Mojve and is the ultimate tin-kicker, promised me that he would at least recover some bits and pieces of Klyde from the crash site. I told him that such was fine with me as long as there wasn’t any of Brian Binnie, who was the pilot of SpaceShipOne on this flight, mixed in.

This time as SpaceShipOne  and White Knight rolled to the runway, their chase plane was absent of Jim Campbell and his camera. He had been bumped from the aircraft to make room for Sir Richard Branson and a couple of his hangers-on. You see now SpaceShipOne had the name “Virgin” scrolled onto its tail. Yes after all of the heavy lifting and development had been done, Sir Richard stepped in bought the show. Now, there would be no historic photographs of that  launch, just because Campbell's seat was demanded by Sir Richard. Along with him, like all of the music industry high rollers, came not only staff, but hangers-on; one of which had bright orange hair. As he, or perhaps I should say “it” walked around the ramp I thought to myself that with hair like that at least no aircraft would accidentally fly into him.

Winning the X-Prize would require a flawless flight of SpaceShipOne, and that is exactly what Brian Binnie gave us. As the TV showed the onboard video of SpaceShipOne’s engine igniting, my Mom shouted at their TV, “Hang on Klyde!” It was a perfect ascent and a precise descent to a $10 million landing. In the press conference that followed the mission there were speeches that pointed toward a bright future. Following SpaceShipOne would come the Branson-sponsored SpaceShipTwo that Sir Richard himself stated would be carrying the rich and famous into sub-orbital space in less than a half dozen years. Out on the field the vendors of space were taking down their displays where they were huckstering orbital hotels, lunar resorts and everything else in space that none of us on the ground at Mojave, aside from Sir Richard and a few Internet billionaires could ever afford. Still, it was a wonderful and upward looking day. The future in space, it would seem, was very bright.

After the presser, the X-Prize folks held a huge hangar party. Of course Sir Richard and his old and new hangers-on were somewhere else sipping champagne from a slipper. Yet we aviation commoners were gathered at folding tables eating great food and deserts from paper plates. The most outstanding exception to this division of the commercial space classes was Anousheh Ansari. She avoided the posh billionaire’s event to be with us aviators and space-buffs. Seated at a table not far from where Pete, Hognose and myself had roosted she was flanked by her female staff. The absolute quintessence of grace and dignity she appeared to actually feel at home there in the hangar. It was an injection of Ansari funding that had pulled the X-Prize foundation from some very hard times just before the first runs of SpaceShipOne. Had it not been for her and her personal vision of spaceflight, we may not have been celebrating.

After we finished eating I noticed that Hognoze was gazing over at Mrs. Ansari’s table.
“What are you lookin’ at?” I half snarled at Hognoze.
“Look at all of those gorgeous Mediterranean women,” he sighed, exhausted with his chin on the table, “I think one of ‘em keeps lookin’ at me.”
Looking over at the Ansari table, I looked back at Hognoze,
“Anousheh Ansari is married buckaroo, and he’s a lot more handsom than you or me,” I told him.
“No, not her,” Hognoze dreamed on, “one of the other ones.”
I just looked into my plate, scooped up the last of my beans and gave Hognoze a dose of reality,
“She just wants to take you home with her and turn you into her big fat eunuch slave so you can stand next to her sofa, feed her grapes and fan her with a giant feather.”
“Ya’ know,” Hognoze rubbed his unshaven chin and pondered, “if it wasn’t for the eunuch part… that might not be so bad.”

Of course now here we are a full decade after that amazing day that was supposed to kick off the era of pure commercial spaceflight, and what have we to show for it so far? Sir Richard’s Virgin Galactic has constructed their passenger version of SpaceShipOne, sold reservations and even constructed a huge carrier aircraft from which to launch. Yet, technical difficulties and delays have kept it from carrying any paying passengers as of this writing. So we now have a SpaceShipNone. SpaceShipOne itself hangs in the Smithsonian as tourists walk past. I recently heard a small boy ask his daddy “What’s that?” as they strolled by it, and the daddy replied, “Some kind of rocketplane,” while they simply walked away. Other commercial space ventures such as the orbital hotels, lunar colonies and earth-bound simulated lunar resorts have so far simply faded into the pay-someone-to-lecture-about-it circuit.

Meanwhile, the dream of “commercial” spaceflight was been twisted into a hand full of up-start and heritage companies reaching out for huge NASA contracts to shuttle astronauts to and from the International Space Station and run supply ships up and down. I recall that after the first time that Mike Melvill returned SpaceShipOne from its venture into space, he stood atop the vehicle facing the welcome home crowd. As they cheered someone ran out of the crowd and handed him a huge sign that Mike raised over his head; it read “SpaceShipOne, Government None.” That was what commercial space was intended to be all about. Now, companies such as SpaceX, Sierra Nevada and Boeing call themselves “commercial” yet scream if they do not get enough funding from NASA. They say that they simply cannot operate without those millions of tax payer dollars. They are little more than government contractors in a “commercial spaceflight” wrapper. The degradation of the ideal of “commercial spaceflight” makes Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne flights look like little more than a$10 million dollar stunt.

As someone who was there and watched it happen, I ask myself, was the X-Prize the seed for a huge technical jump into pure commercial spaceflight, or was it simply a circus stunt with a highly educated audience? Of course the folks at Scaled Composites got their rightful $10 milliom prize, space-buffs got some hope toward a huckstered bright future. I, personally got to witness a bit of history and I eventually got my Klyde doll back from the folks at X-Prize. Oddly, he was scheduled to be on display at the Daytona campus of the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, (of which I am an alumnus) where he would reside in the administration building in a glass case along with a SpaceShipOne model. Just a few weeks before I was supposed to ship the doll off to Daytona, a freak December tornado ripped across the campus and destroyed the building! Klyde now sits safely here in my office.

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