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Wed, Jun 23, 2004

From The Ground: Tyson Rininger On SpaceShipOne

A Witness To Space Exploration, v2.0

This will certainly be a day I will not soon forget! ANN Publisher Jim Campbell and I left the hotel in Palmdale at 0300 for the Mojave Airport. A line of cars already stretched from the airport entrance to Hwy 14, about 2 miles at that point. Media vehicles formed endless rows, satellite trucks gathered as if it were a telecommunications convention and still and video cameras were amassed in the hundreds.

White Knight and SpaceShipOne taxied by right on time with the sun having just risen over the high desert. The abandoned airliners glimmered in the warm light as the twilight breeze dwindled leaving a 4 knot headwind to assist in liftoff. Moments later, the chase planes marched past one by one... first the Extra 300 low altitude chase followed by the Beech/Raytheon Starship mid-level chase (where ANN's Jim Campbell was getting a different view of the proceedings, altogether!) and finally the AlphaJet high altitude chase plane. All that was left was the odd creation we all waited hours... years to see.

The twin engined White Knight with SpaceShipOne slung underneath began it's journey down the runway to the familiar scream of small turbine engines. The not so familiar thing was the elegant, complex yet typical Rutan design that continues to amaze even those who think they can comprehend the "outside the box" line of thinking. Off to the NorthWest it headed beginning it's initial climb to 46,000 feet.

Everyone waited once more as the craft and it's chase planes circled overhead for almost an hour. Edwards AFB officials had joined the Scale Composites crew at Mojave not only to witness the event, but also provide assistance in the form of altitude verification via Edwards radar. They also authorized Rutan and his team unlimited altitude through the airspace above Mojave belonging to Edwards, "A tube to the moon," one narrator quoted.

"Inbound from the East, we anticipate detachment in approximately 8 minutes." Simultaneously, cameras and crews swung to their new position after spying on many of the VIP attendees such as renowned aviator, Bob Hoover; first space tourist, Dennis Tito; Virgin CEO, Richard Branson; Astronaut, Buzz Aldrin and so many more.

Unfortunately, this thing called the sun rises in the East and made finding the small aircraft nearly impossible. Flying at an altitude above that of most airliners, SpaceShipOne was a hard target to acquire. Catching in the viewfinder an aircraft one-third the size of a Boeing 737 proved most challenging. Like many of the miracles taking place in front of our very eyes, yet another was about to occur: the sunlight glimmering off a faint contrail at the last minute allowed us the opportunity to catch the moment. Within seconds we heard the words, "SpaceShipOne has detached!"

A long thin trail streamed upwards at an incredible speed, Mach 3.2 to be exact... quite literally faster than  a speeding bullet. SpaceShipOne continued it's ascent long after it's rocket motor had shut off...all the way to 62.5 miles! Pilot Mike Melvill endured the 3+ G's until there was no gravity at all! Opening a bag of M&M's he cheerfully watched them float in front of him in total weightlessness for almost 3 minutes. Melvill had just become the world's first civilian astronaut.

It took almost 20 minutes before SpaceShipOne became visible to the naked eye circling around Mojave, gracefully strutting it's accomplishments. Cameras pointed skywards searching for the miniscule craft gliding effortlessly home accompanied by the various chase planes as it descended within their reach. Chills began running up the spines of so many people.

Gingerly touching down, eventually coming to a stop, SpaceShipOne was greeted by the ground crew who ran a quick inspection of the aircraft along with preparing it to be towed in front of the media. After a short trip down the taxiway, Astronaut Melvill stepped out and was greeted by project backer Paul G. Allen and aircraft designer Burt Rutan. Thumbs up, waves and the crew simply couldn't restrain smiles that had gone unseen in the days leading up to this. Even a few tears were shed by an emotional Burt Rutan as years of hard work were finally and triumphantly fulfilled.

"Welcome to the Club!" laughed Apollo 11 Astronaut Buzz Aldrin as he shook Melvill's hand. Although SpaceShipOne is now safely on the ground and Mike Melvill has a new title, I doubt Mr. Melvill will have truly landed for days to come.

On June 21st I was witness to what Burt Rutan noted as the 2nd generation space program. Whether it be from a financial standpoint or a visionary one, space travel will never be the same again. One spectator said it best with a sign reading "SpaceShipONE, GovernmentZERO."

FMI: www.tvrphotography.com

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