Monday, June 21, 2004

Greetings from Mojave

I had the pleasure this morning of attending the Launch of Space Ship One (SS1) from Mojave Airport, which has just recently won approval from the FAA as the first inland spaceport in the country. What follows are a rough transcription of the notes I made as the morning went along.

Note: Go to the bathroom and grab a fresh cup of coffee, this is going to take a while.

3:45 a.m.
I am beginning to wonder if hitting the snooze bar at 2:00 may have cost me a parking space as the line to get onto Mojave Spaceport (I love writing that) stretched back at least a mile. The parking lot opened 45 minutes ago, and it seems that most of the LA basin is showing up. Fortunately there is still plenty of room in the well organized parking lot. Commendations to the Civil Air Patrol members who were directing traffic.

4:30 a.m.
I headed for the one lighted area that I could see, which turned out to be a concession stand and memorabilia shop. Even here with the sales matters were well organized, with a line for those paying with cash and those with credit. Sadly, in respect to the rate of movement, the cellular card readers gave those in the credit line little love, myself included. However, I got my cap and travel coffee mug, and I was good to go.

I should note that I was feeling particularly good for 4:30 in the morning and three hours of sleep. It was the excitement in the air, the 24 Oz. of Mocha Alert (Instant Cappucino with extra caffeine), or both.

The sun had yet to rise, but we are treated to a very clear view of Venus over the eastern horizon. There was a slight breeze, enough to make me glad of the sweatshirt I had bought, but the forecast was for the wind to die down shortly after sunrise.

The following is more directly from my notebook:
5:10 a.m.
I'm not sure which runway is going to used, Presumably runway A. The wind is coming from the north, and I am standing at the northernmost end of the viewing area. I'm probably a dozen or so people back in the crowd behind people who had the foresight to get here earlier and to bring camp chairs. It is no big deal that I will be standing the whole time, this should be worth it.

I figure that everyone will be standing when White Knight/ Space Ship One taxi by. At that point, being 6 Ft. 5 in. tall will have yet another advantage.

I'm standing next to a family that have chairs, binoculars, and, coolest of all, a receiver picking up the tower frequency. The mother just commented on the no one writes anymore (this is first draft in a notebook with a fountain pen, I love the classics), but I told her that this would go up on my weblog.

Sorry, folks, no pictures here, wouldn't know how to upload them, but I'll link to others as I find them. (Update 7-1-04: Found some damn good ones via Samizdata.net)

5:30 a.m.
I just realized while this is a historic first, this is still exciting because this is a space launch. I've been out at Edwards AFB a couple of times for landings. The first time was when President Reagan was present, and the second time on the spur of the moment when the shuttle had to be diverted from Cape Canaveral about four years ago. The second time was better, better view, and better point of view and appreciation from having studied engineering and the whole space program.

Still, those were both coming down. While tricky, its still the more natural of the two necessary operations: coming and going. The launch is where the power is, the sheer defiance, maybe hubris, in the whole project.

5:39 a.m. and the sun is just crowing over the horizon. Someone mentions this is the Summer Solstice. Since my best friends got married on the Solstice, and that I can never remember these dates precisely, I always use that as their anniversary, so Happy Anniversary Dave and Teala.

Okay, back to the reportage and awaiting the karmic payback for using the word "hubris" in a blog post.

5:45 a.m.
Music is now being played over the make shift PA system.

Good clear day as the sun clears the horizon. I can make out the windmills in Tehachapi from here. According to the Airport Manager, the conditions should be good for contrails, and White Knight (WK) will pop smoke near launch.

5:55 a.m.
Stewart Witt, the General Manager of the airport came on the PA to announce the launch is a go.

Later this afternoon there will be a small ceremony to officially proclaim Mojave Airport as the first inland spaceport in the country. Just getting anything through the FAA is worth a celebration in itself.

Just a side note, I would wager there are more digital cameras than film-loaders here. Obviously there are professional rigs out here, but the spectator contingent is almost all digital. No real importance with respect to the goings on, but I found it interesting none the less.

6:15 a.m.
Message off the PA: we are still go with White Knight/ Space Ship One (WK/SS1) taxiing out at 6:30 - 6:45. Should we expect this to happen right on schedule? Probably not, even the routine tech of commercial airlines is subject to delays. Regardless, both should be a damn sight more reliable than the Space Shuttle. I hope, I hope.

6:27 a.m.
PA of Kevin Mickey, VP of Scaled Composites: White Knight has started its engines in the Scaled Composites Hangar.

Dick Rutan, brother of SS1 designer Burt Rutan and pilot of the Voyager, has taken the podium, and has reported that the re-entry point is calm. He then went on to describe how Scaled Composites was the first to enter the X-Prize competition in 1996. When Dick asked Burt how he came up with these almost nonsensical designs, Burt replied with a quote I want to make into a poster:

The ability to deal with chaos and nonsense defines creativity.
-Burt Rutan


Emphasize "make shift" with respect to the PA, it sounds like a bad cell phone connection.

Cogent observation by Dick Rutan: This is the first manned US spaceflight in over two years. Recall: the Space Shuttle has been grounded since the Columbia.

6:36 a.m.
The first chase plane taxis out. It is a prop plane capable of aerobatics and will handle the chase through the lower altitudes.

White Knight/ SS1 has come onto the runway. White Knight is a short, twin tailed, twin jet engine, single fuselage craft that is almost surrounded by SS1.

The second chase plane, a Rutan design called the Starship, looks like a Gulfstream, except for the twin pusher props behind the back set main wing and canard along the nose. This one is the mid altitude chaser.

WK/SS1 will have a take off weight of 18,000 lbs. A long roll-out is expected.

6:46 a.m.

White Knight/Space Ship One is airborne.

It is expected to take one hour to reach the 47,000 foot launch elevation.

6:57 a.m.
The Starship has joined the formation and they are rapidly diminishing into the clear sky.

The final chase plane is called the Alpha Jet and has just taxied by. Two man, one engine jet to accompany WK/SS1 up to the launch altitude.

7:00 a.m.
Alpha jet takes off. It does gain altitude rapidly.

7:10 a.m.
Elevation approximately 30,000 feet. Even from this far the Rutan designs of the Starship and WK/SS1 are still distinctive. This launch is a great day, not only for private enterprise or the Antelope Valley, but also for the local chiropractic community. All of the neck craning is going to be awesome for their business.

Alpha jet has reached altitude and is drawing contrails. While everyone was looking at that, we lost track of WK/SS1.

The launch of SS1 will be to and toward the east in the direction of California City.

7:20 a.m.
WK/SS1 and Starship are contrailing, evidently Starship has separated. In fact, three contrails are intermittently visible. WK/SS1's is the most clearly visible.

7:42 a.m.
Needless to say, it is difficult following the planes toward the sun. The contrails are washed out. WK should pop smoke soon.

Announcement: 8 minutes to launch.

7:50 a.m.
Main separation of WK/SS1 and SS1 engine ignition. From the angle of the viewing area, it looks as if SS1 is climbing straight for the sun. First word from my neighbor with the radio is that the engine cut off prematurely and that the pilot is trying to check the fuse box to relight it. [This report is erroneous, there was a fuse problem with some of the surface controls.]

7:58 a.m.
A sonic boom rolls across the airfield. Everyone around me is still uncertain if the 100 kilometer mark was reached. The last rumor I heard was 210 thousand feet at 5 G's. Well short of the 330 thousand mark. Radio has 219 thousand.

8:10 a.m.
Waiting for some sort of announcement over the PA and for the planes to come back down. Some of my neighbors are discussion metric conversions. I am wishing I had a camera with me, SS1 and all three of its chase planes flew right overhead. The prop plane is in tight formation and has popped smoke.

8:14 a.m.
SS1 lands. Beautiful landing, almost right in front of me.

8:15 a.m.
WK executes a high bank turn to prepare to loop back for a landing.

8:19 a.m.
WK touches down.

8:20 a.m.
Flyby of the three chase planes.

PA has it that it may have been a trim system and not the engine that cut out and that they did hit the 100 kilometer mark.

Still quite a bit of uncertainty about if the mark has been hit. The PA is announcing matters as if the flight was a success. Given the amateur status of my radio operator, I will go with the official read of the PA. Success!

Either way, that is the most fun I've had before 8:30 a.m. and on four hours sleep.

The pilot of SS1, Mike Melvill, claims 340,000 feet.

8:45 a.m.
SS1 with Mike Melvill atop is towed by the public viewing area. They pulled the craft to about ten yards from the boundary ropes. Much cheering and hoopla.

Mr. Melvill had a sign on his victory lap on his ship that read:

Space Ship One
Government Zero


That was probably the best point of the whole exercise.

Update: From some of the scuttlebutt Dale Amon picked up, it looks like my amateur radio operator was not all that wrong. The engine cut out approximately 15 seconds before schedule. It would certainly explain whatever changes in vectors that would result in a 26 mile divergence from the re-entry box. I too heard on the immediate repeat of communication with the tower that there were trim problems on the way back to the spaceport. It was toward that problem that the instructions to check the circuit breakers came from.

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