Before pilot Brian Binnie soared and flew right into world history aboard SpaceShipOne on October 4, 2004, team leader Burt Rutan had a little advice for his old golfing buddy. Just after 6 a.m. inside a hanger at Mojave Airport in California, Burt leaned into the bug-like spacecraft’s cockpit and said, “Use the driver. Keep your head down and swing smooth.”
Translation: Go for maximum distance, but just make sure you keep it in the fairway. As it turned out, Binnie scored a galactic hole-in-one. The flight couldn’t have been more perfect. On a crystal-clear California morning that was unusually calm for the high desert, Binnie soared seamlessly to a suborbital height of 367,442 feet, thereby securing a $10 million first prize in the Ansari X Prize competition given to the first privately funded spacecraft to carry a pilot and the equivalent weight of two passengers into space twice in two weeks.
Although Burt has been a big part of aviation history (he has designed about 40 aircraft, including the Voyager airplane, which his brother Dick and Jeanna Yeager flew around the world on one tank of gas), SpaceShipOne is his Mona Lisa. “We showed the little guy can do it and do it safely.
But this is, by far, the biggest program we’ve ever had because it involves two airplanes, and one of them is a big, high-lift, twin turbo jet, after-burning-carrying airplane. We had to develop a rocket motor from scratch and then do all the testing.”
Behind Burt on a table as he talks in his cluttered office is a model of SpaceShipOne with “Virgin Galactic” painted on it. Virgin Airways owner Sir Richard Branson spent more than $20 million purchasing the rights to Burt’s SpaceShipOne technology so he can fly tourists into space aboard aircraft built by Burt at $200,000 a ticket. (And you won’t even get a meal. “People will be more interested in looking out the window,” says Branson.)
“Burt is the most brilliant aviation engineer in the last 100 years,” he says. “I’m fortunate to tie up with him. If someone says that it’s impossible, he will sit down and try to prove them wrong, and he has proven a lot of skeptics wrong today. One day, with this little bit of investment here, in a few centuries’ time, instead of Virgin Galactic, it could be Virgin Intergalactic.”
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