Back in 2004 I had the privilege of being involved in a small way with the launch of SpaceShipOne, the first non-government spaceship. Afterwards, I wrote an article for a small newspaper in Northern California that I still write for. Here is part of that article:
“Go.” With the period. That was the motto of the Ansari X-Prize. M&M’s, one of the sponsors, produced commemorative bags of M&Ms with that word or a picture of SpaceShipOne printed on them instead of M&M. It also stood emblazoned on the banners hanging from the side of the spaceport control tower and on all the press passes.
I arrived at the Mojave Spaceport about 11:00 AM on Tuesday, the day before the scheduled launch of SpaceShipOne in its first of two attempts at the Ansari X-Prize. I managed to get there without losing my way and found building 79 where I checked in. I had agreed to be a Media volunteer. My job was to assist the staff of the X-Prize Foundation in the general care of the news media that were going to descend upon Mojave for this first launch attempt to win the X-prize. My bosses were expecting about 500 news people to show up starting around noon. My first job would be to help check them in, give them their press packets and passes, and help them find their way around.
I was given my own passes and a bright yellow t-shirt to wear. On my back, the words “X-Prize Crew” were written in large black and sky blue letters. On my front were the words X-prize again, above a large black, blue and red picture of SpaceShipOne. Below that was the omnipresent motto, “Go.” I had several reporters ask me if I would sell them the shirt, which of course I refused.
The process of checking in reporters and producers and camera crews was relatively easy. I got to sit in a nice air-conditioned building called Shibley Hall. Since 7-Up was one of the other major sponsors of X-Prize, I had all the 7-Up products to drink that I could want. The media began arriving at noon to check in. They identified themselves by telling me or the other volunteers which organization they were with: LA Times, ABC, CNN, Japan Television, and so on. Most of the media were from the US, but the world was well represented. I gave them their passes and press packets and answered simple questions ranging from “where’s the restroom” to “where do we set up our cameras.” By 6:00 PM all the news critters had arrived and gotten their directions. At 9:30 PM my fellow volunteers and I had a mandatory meeting in building 79, where we were thanked and encouraged by our bosses and the manager of the Mojave Spaceport, Stuart Witt.
I then went directly to my car to catch some sleep before I had to be up and about at 3:00 AM; I’d brought a pillow and blanket so I wasn’t too uncomfortable. Breakfast was in the Media Filing Center at 4:00 AM with those few reporters who had actually paid attention when we told them there was a free catered breakfast being served from 4:00 until 11:00.
After that, it was out to the flight line, to help the media finish setting themselves up, or to direct them to places they needed to go. One poor woman with a local area newspaper had gotten herself completely lost. She had parked her car a mile from the flight line, and had been wandering in the early morning darkness. She was close to tears and didn’t know where the Media Filing Center was. She half-seriously asked me if I could just personally take her there, but I calmed her down and gave her careful directions. Later, after sun up, she saw me and thanked me for my help: she’d gotten breakfast and coffee and moved her car. Most of the reporters I interacted with were very nice. At least a couple of dozen later came up and thanked me, praising the X-Prize Foundation for how well-organized the event had been. Our goal was to make life easy for the media and we seem to have succeeded.
At 7:15 SpaceShipOne took off under the belly of its carrier aircraft, White Knight, a very noisy jet aircraft. After an hour of watching the linked ships circle toward launch altitude (48,000 feet), the solid hybrid rocket on SpaceShipOne fired; 78 seconds later, Mike Melville, the 61 year old pilot, shut off his engine—about 11 seconds early because the spaceship went into an unanticipated roll. There was no danger and Mike said he felt comfortable, but at 78 seconds he knew he had the velocity to reach the necessary altitude of 62.5 miles and so he thought it best to be conservative and not push things to the limit.
About ten minutes after engine shut down we heard the soft double boom indicating that SpaceShipOne had dropped below the speed of sound. And fifteen minutes later, at 8:30 AM, Mike brought SpaceShipOne in for a smooth landing. A Chevy Suburban subsequently hauled the spaceship with Mike Melville standing on top over to the camera platform where the news media took pictures and briefly interviewed him.
I attended the formal press conference that followed at 11:15, delayed from its original start time of 10:30. Burt Rutan and the rest of the folks at Scaled Composites needed extra time to review the flight data. Burt and his crew were overjoyed and announced that the flight had gone smoothly and uneventfully (aside from the roll). Rutan said Melvill’s wild ride and smooth landing showed that SpaceShipOne’s design was robust enough to handle problems that might have doomed other spacecraft.
“When you end up with a high roll rate, and you didn’t plan to do it, in a manned spacecraft, that’s normally a very, very big deal,” he said. “That would be an accident if it happened on the space shuttle or the X-15, and we would be looking for small pieces now. … Any system that will ever go out there and fly space tourists needs to be a hundred times or more safer than any manned spacecraft that has ever flown.”
Now, eight years later, I still have the shirt. And it still fits.