Melvill, Binnie became civilian astronauts 16 years ago

SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X-Prize on Oct. 4, 2004

by Cathy Hansen, special to Aerotech News

On Oct. 4, 2020, we will celebrate another milestone anniversary at the Mojave Air and Space Port.

Sixteen years ago on the cool morning of Oct. 4, 2004, Brian Binnie flew high over Mojave at the controls of SpaceShipOne for the second Ansari X Prize flight. He soared to a record height of 367,442 feet (112 kilometers/69 miles), exceeding Mach 3 to clinch the $10 million and to become the first Scotsman to reach space. That epic flight broke the rocket plane altitude record set in 1963 by the North American X-15.

On Sept. 29, 2004, at 8:13 a.m., SpaceShipOne, with pilot Mike Melvill, coasted above the 100-kilometer altitude point and successfully completed the first of two X-Prize flights. The peak altitude reached was 337,500 feet. The motor was shut down when Melvill noted that his altitude predictor exceeded the required 100-kilometer mark. The motor burn lasted 77 seconds — one second longer than on the June 21 flight.

Brian Binnie flew SpaceShipOne for the second Ansari X Prize flight. (Courtesy photograph)

The first exciting flight into space was flown by Melvill when he soared into the black sky on June 21, 2004.

Mike Melvill piloted SpaceShipOne to an altitude of 328,491 feet (62 miles), making him the first civilian to fly a spaceship out of the atmosphere and the first private pilot to earn commercial astronaut wings from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Nearly 30,000 people came to Mojave to witness these milestone flights that were accomplished by private civilian funding and a small group of brilliant aerospace engineers headed by Burt Rutan at Scaled Composites.

After completing the second record-breaking SS1 flight, during a ceremony marking the occasion, Binnie said, “I wake up every morning and thank God I live in a country where all of this is possible.
Where you have the Yankee ingenuity to roll up your sleeves, get a band of people who believe in something and go for it and make it happen. It doesn’t happen anywhere else.”

Mike Melvill earned his commercial astronaut wings for his flight in SpaceShipOne. Melvill flew the spacecraft to an altitude of 62 miles. (Courtesy photograph)

“Here in Mojave, the irrepressible nature of the American spirit shines brightly. Our agenda may not be as fundamental as life, death and war but we are very much involved in our version of liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” he said.

“I can think of few activities as liberating or rewarding as flying,” explained Binnie. “And our more recent extension of this pursuit to rockets, space ships and suborbital flight has put little old Mojave, front and center on the global map of pioneers. It has been the freedom that Mojave has afforded those that came here to tinker, test, try and fail that has made it so special. Yankee ingenuity, unfettered by rules, regulations and red tape; it’s a winning combination every time it’s tried.”

Tonya Rutan, Burt’s wife, knew the flights of SpaceShipOne would bring people from all over the world to Mojave.

She and a group of various volunteers from non-profit groups in and around Mojave formed a coalition of those groups, mostly those that benefitted youth groups and chose a unique name for their organization — RocketBoosters. She was dedicated and persistent to gain permission to sell merchandise bearing the trademark SpaceShipOne logo, in cooperation with Mojave Aerospace Ventures, a Paul G. Allen company. Once that hurdle was accomplished, the Mojave RocketBoosters raised nearly $250,000 over the year, during the SS1 rocket flights and competition flights for the Ansari X-Prize. Posters, post cards, pins, hats, patches and shirts were made for sale.

The second commercial astronaut, Brian Binnie (left), is shown with Paul G. Allen (center), and the designer of White Knight One and SpaceShipOne, Burt Rutan. (Courtesy photograph)

We have the opportunity to relive some of these historic flights from Brian Binnie’s point of view in his new book — The Magic and Menace of SpaceShipOne.

Binnie recently completed the book about SpaceShipOne — that marvelous program, under the helm of Burt Rutan, from 2001—2004. It is colorful and humorous, with an entirely different perspective from anything previously written.

If you are curious, please check out https://brianbinnie.net/. At the website, you will find an outline of the book, a few chapters to read and reviews, and instructions for ordering.

The book is self-published. On the website, Binnie writes, “I enjoyed the unique perspective of being Burt’s program manager, his rocket motor test director, and one of his test pilots. Coupled with the additional insights provided by also being Burt’s long-time golf partner, I offer an entirely unique viewpoint, with details not previously addressed, as suggested by the book’s title.”

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