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Mojave Vortex

An eyewitness to the X-Prize

By Joe Trela

IF YOU take Highway 99 to Bakersfield, go east on 58 and then turn east toward Edwards Air Force Base, Barstow and the open desert, you eventually run into the Mojave Airport. It has no regularly scheduled flights. Airlines send their planes here to be upgraded or repaired, or to hibernate, sealed up in the dry air.

This is also the Mojave Civilian Flight Test Center, where you can test radical new designs or undergo pilot training in a Swedish Draken fighter with little worry of hitting someone below if something goes wrong. And in less than seven hours, it will become a working spaceport for the Ansari X-Prize: $10 million to the first team that can launch a piloted, privately funded spacecraft, return to Earth and repeat the launch with the same ship within two weeks.

Aeronautical engineer Burt Rutan has been working on his X-Prize attempt, the Tier One project, for more than three years. On June 2, Rutan announced that the public would be invited to his team's first full-fledged try for space, 19 days away. That's why I'm here at the Mojave Airport in a crowd of thousands: students, scientists, enthusiasts. There are rumors some guy is walking around in a raccoon suit, but I assume it's just another tall tale of the Southwest, to be lumped in with jackalopes, feral camels and a Kerry/McCain ticket.

According to experts, it takes billions of dollars to put people in space. Rutan wants to do it for $20 million. Tier One consists of two elements: the White Knight carrier plane, and SpaceShip One. The plan is for White Knight to carry its sibling to about 50,000 feet and let it go. Then, SS1's pilot, Mike Melvill, will release nitrous oxide into the rubber-lined combustion chamber and ignite the mixture. The "hybrid" rocket combines the simplicity of a solid booster (few moving parts) with the safety of a liquid-fuel engine (it can be shut down instantly). With only one passenger and a full fuel load, Rutan believes he could exceed 130 kilometers, or 80 miles; as it is, he plans to shut off the nitrous early and peak just above the international 100 kilometer boundary. This won't win him the X-Prize (he'll have to make the flight twice in two weeks with a three-person load), but it will put him closer than any of the other teams.

6:37am: White Knight appears, with SpaceShip One slung under its belly. White Knight's double-boom tail and long, skinny wings echo its second cousin, Voyager, now in the Smithsonian. It crosses in front of the crowd, turns around and makes a lumbering run down the strip before hauling itself into the air.

7:49am: The White Knight is just below the sun from our vantage point, so it's doubtful too many of us at the airport see it. But a cry goes up, "They launched!" and a thin white streamer of smoke rises straight up from the sun at a tremendous rate. The crowd tries to look through the glare. In less than a minute, the contrail stops rising—the engine is still firing, but its exhaust is too far up to be seen—and cheers. SS1 has exceeded 100 kilometers. Mission accomplished.

7:58am: Everyone hears a soft double boom—like a muffled backfire—and the cheers magnify, because this means that SS1 has dropped to subsonic speed in one piece.

Soon we see SS1 hanging in the sky. It's a surprisingly good glider—better than the 'flying brick' of the space shuttle.

8:13am: Escorted by its companions, SpaceShip One lands sedately; if you squinted, you'd think it was a Cessna. Assuming it survives its career as a test vehicle, it will end up in Washington, D.C., either in the original Air and Space Museum or its just-completed annex at Dulles Airport. It won't take up much space.

As I head back to the parking lot, I see that the man in a raccoon costume (a hockey-playing raccoon costume, to be exact) does exist and is posing for pictures. For a moment, the fact that I've seen a man go into space and come back alive fades into the back of my awareness—but only just a moment.

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From the July 14-20, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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