This weekend marks the 10-year anniversary of the winning of the $10-million Ansari XPrize by Burt Rutan and the SpaceShipOne team. In recognition of the anniversary, XPrize interviewed test pilot Brian Binnie. On Oct. 4, 2004, Binnie was at the controls of SpaceShipOne when it rocketed to an altitude of 367,442 feet, or 69.6 miles above the Earth’s surface. Binnie recently sat down with XPrize to discuss that history-making flight, and share his take on the current state of the commercial space industry.
XPrize: What were you feeling the morning of Oct. 4, 2004?
Brian Binnie: Total trepidation. The night before the flight, the Discovery Channel aired the first portion of the documentary, “Black Sky: The Race for Space.” It chronicled all the efforts to date to get Mike Melvill into space. [Related: How SpaceShipOne and X Prize Launched Commercial Spaceflight]
During a commercial break, the network cut away to a reporter standing by live at Burt Rutan’s house in Mojave. The reporter asked Burt who was going to be the pilot for the flight the next morning, but he wouldn’t answer. All he would say is, “Not only are we going to hit a home run tomorrow, it’s going to be a Grand Slam!”
I’m watching this and pacing around the living room thinking, “My God! It’s not like the bar isn’t high enough already!”
That was about as much as I could stand, so I turned off the TV. My in-laws were in town to watch the flight and they were given the master bedroom. I was downstairs on the couch — which was also our dog’s bed. After a bit of a standoff, I finally got to bed at about 11:00 p.m.
When the alarm went off at 2:15 a.m., I felt like the last person in the world who was going to do anything particularly clever that day — let alone “hit a Gland Slam.”
After the pre-flight briefing, which was at 4:30 a.m., there was the final weigh-in to verify that we had the equivalent of 600 lbs. of payload. My body weight (and gear) was considered part of those 600 lbs.
As I walked toward SpaceShipOne, my mother-in-law appeared out of the crowd to give me a good-luck hug. She had a large cup of heavily sugared coffee in her hand, and as she wrapped her arms around me, she poured about half of it down my flight suit! I didn’t have a change of clothes and we were right on our flight timeline, so I manned up with this sticky mess all over me.
One of our engineers — an aerodynamicist — stuck his head in the spaceship and said, “You’re wearing about 12 ounces of coffee. That 12 ounces is going to cost you about 500 feet of apogee.”
During Mike Melvill’s first flight into space, he just barely got across the Karman Line by just 400 feet! (The Karman Line lies at an altitude of 100 kilometers above the Earth’s sea level, and commonly represents the boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and space.)
So with that news, the door was closed, and off we went to see what the morning would bring.
XPrize: What was your biggest concern prior to the flight?
Binnie: There’s something called the “test pilot’s prayer,” that was coined by Alan Shepard, the first American in space. It goes like this: “Dear God, please don’t let me screw up.” Except he didn’t say “screw.”
That’s how most test pilots are. We know how to fly. We have a certain amount of confidence in our abilities. But there are always unknowns, and how you react to them and respond is a concern. There are likely 10 wrong ways to react and maybe one right one … so the prayer is, “Dear God, please help me find the one right thing.”
And honestly, every powered flight (of SpaceShipOne) up to that point was full of surprises, so there was no reason to expect that this flight was going to be any different.
XPrize: Did Burt Rutan say anything to you before the flight?
Binnie: Burt and I were golfing buddies long before he hired me to work at Scaled Composites. He pulled me aside and said, “Take out your driver, swing smooth and go long.” Which is exactly how the flight went.
XPrize: Describe the moment of release from White Knight?
Binnie: The actual moment of release was no big deal. We had been initially concerned about hitting the mother ship, but we had worked it out by then.
About a minute prior to release, there was a lot more drama: I had not flown the vehicle in 10 months. Then there was my lack of sleep, my wet flight suit, the heavy smell of sugared coffee that overwhelmed the little cabin I was sitting in. The TV trucks with their satellite antennas up and broadcasting to the world.
There’s a saying in the military: “There are no atheists in a three-man foxhole.” I was joining that crowd and doing my best to invoke the good graces of God — or anybody else that was listening — that could help make this flight successful. But after release, it was all business.
Prior to this flight, we typically waited for mission control to assess the systems and then come back and say we were clear to fire. But on this flight, we skipped that step. Once you drop from the mother ship, it’s all lost altitude before you light the rocket motors. So as soon as I felt the “thump” of the hooks opening, I flipped those switches. The rocket motor fired, and the engineer who pulled the release handle in the back of White Knight said out loud, “Holy crap! That was close!”