With all this brouhaha going on right now about the fifth space tourist (officially: participant) being up at the international space station I remembered an article I wrote nearly two years ago in June 2004 after we had returned from Mohave, California where we watched the first civilian attempt to reach space without any government funding.
I think it’s in order to review this event and realize that private space travel will be required to get you and me (or at least your and my kid) off this planet.
I missed the flight of the Wright Brothers, I was on vacation in Spain when the Eagle landed on the moon and Neil Armstrong said his famous “One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” and I have never observed a space shuttle flight.
Did I mention that I have also not visited the International Space Station yet either?
So I, for sure, did not want to miss the first attempt of civilian space flight!
Maybe a little bit of background. There is no boundary between earth atmosphere and space as the air is just getting thinner and thinner as we go up and at some point there is so little that we define that as nothing and that is then space.
As we as, humans, have the tendency to label, measure and categorize everything we, or somebody, has defined the border of space to be at an altitude of 100 km, or 62 miles.
The first person to get above that and fly around our globe was Yuri Gagarin, very much to the dismay of America. But the situation was somewhat remedied when Alan Shepard made it up into space just a few weeks later. Not quite as impressive because he was just shot up and fell back down while the Russian had circled the globe, but nevertheless, an American had been in space.
We all know more or less what happened since, and we also know that this stuff is EXPENSIVE! Just lately we had a few civilian space tourists paying 20 million a pop to get up to the space station. All this seems so far away from the idea of a space smuggler outrunning some government cruisers with a batch of Whiskey from Vega and reaching Aldebaran safely. Especially unrealistic as long as the government has a monopoly in space travel.
Civilian space travel is thus needed. One attempt to spur that is the X Prize. This is a prize of 10 million Dollars awarded to the first team to reach space with a three man crew and repeats this trip with the same vehicle within two weeks.
There are a few contenders for this prize around the world, but lucky for us Californians, the group apparently ahead of the crowd is ‘Scaled Composites’ in Mohave, California, about an hour and a half away from Los Angeles. Under the leadership of Burt Rutan this little company had build a space ship.
Funding did not come from any government, only from one private source, Paul Allen, the second man of Microsoft. Some might argue that this is just as good as government, but hey – there is a difference!
The price so far being paid for this whole spaceship and everything else to get it into space had been in the same range as one tourist ticket to the international space station.
Now, for Monday morning, the 21st of June 2004, Scaled Composites had announced that it would attempt to reach space – remember – 100 km. Scaled had been very quite about its test flights, but this time there was a big announcement.
Zen and I had been planning a trip out into the desert to sleep under the open sky anyway, so the idea was to combine these two events – sleep out there under billions of starts and then get to the air/space-port early to witness the event. I had not considered that others might have the same idea. But that became clear soon, when I learned about all the things the air/space-port was planning for all the people who would come – – – after it had been built.
Gigi decided to also come along and I made an announcement at Zen’s school to allow other parents to take their children out to this historic event but they all decided to miss it and probably later regret it, just as I regret to have missed the flight at Kitty Hawk. But Zen’s teacher Rose came and brought her husband Doug and graduate Ariel.
So, on Sunday night we headed north into the desert, stopped in Rosamond for dinner and to meet Rose, Dough and Ariel and were soon at the entrance to the first (official) American inland space port. We just wanted to check it out, so that the next morning we would easily find our way to the best vista point, but then we paid the stiff price for a spot in the RV and tent area and stayed there for the night. It had become so windy that it probably would have been more or less impossible to sleep under the open sky without being blown away.
We made do with sleeping (somewhat) in the car and finally crawling out into a perfect morning. The winds had calmed down to nearly nothing, there was hardly a cloud in the sky and with sunrise we got on the short way to the end of the taxi-way where the takeoff would commence.
Even though I have never seen a rocket takeoff live, I have to admit that the takeoff of ‘Space Ship One’ was way unimpressive. No big explosion of fire – just the taxi of the carrier ship ‘White Knight’ with ‘Space Ship One’ strapped under it’s belly, a turn at the end of the runway and then a pretty long roll before taking off into the clear air over Mohave.
I will not report about the technical aspect and the interviews and events as they have been covered in the media and on the web much better than I could do.
But I have to report about this one brief moment when ‘Space Ship One’, twenty minutes after it had been in space – just barely – glided down in one last circle over the air/space-port and landed right in front of us and the crowd cheered – that was darn emotional.
I think we got a bit closer to the day when the Millennium Falcon will outrun some empire battleships.
UPDATE 2019-11-11: It looks like we (or better Virgin Galactic which arose from ‘Scaled Composits’) are not too far from finally going into space with some real space tourists.
Still, the trip seems to be a better deal – 20 million for a week in space versus four minutes for a quarter million.