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Legendary SpaceShipOne pilot debriefs history in AIAA session

LANCASTER, Calif. — America’s Aerospace Valley is a rare place that not only makes history in the sky, but quickly packs a banquet room to meet and honor the test pilot of SpaceShipOne who changed history nearly two decades earlier.

That reunion happened the night of May 19 after the Antelope Valley Chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics, the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, the Society of Flight Test Engineers, and the Society for the Advancement of Material and Process Engineering passed word that Ansari X Prize-winning test pilot Brian Binnie would say a few words in the banquet room of Medrano’s Mexican Restaurant.

Every seat at every table was occupied by Binnie’s former colleagues at Burt Rutan’s famed Scaled Composites factory at the Mojave Air and Space Port, along with a mix of men and women in aerospace, some barely old enough to buy a drink on the October day in 2004 when Binnie flew SpaceShipOne to world altitude record and speed records for a winged aircraft, breaking the 1963 records set by the X-15 rocket plane.

An even younger international contingent of test pilot school students from Switzerland, Australia and Italy, among others were in the audience.

In addition to winning the $10 million Ansari X Prize for the sponsors, Binnie earned Astronaut Wings, opening the door to privatized commercial space flight.

But reflecting on an unexpected outcome he brought to light in his critically acclaimed first-person book, The Magic and Menace of SpaceShipOne, published in 2019, Binnie told his audience a high-level demand from Washington that SpaceShipOne be quickly handed over for enshrinement in the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum came as a blow to hopes for further research flights by that model for the future.

Months after SpaceShipOne won the prize, Sir Richard Branson announced a joint venture between his Virgin Gallactic and Scaled. The new entity, named TheSpaceShip Company, built SpaceShipTwo, and Branson took his spaceport to New Mexico.

Speaking for more than an hour, without notes while showing slides, Binnie delivered with exactitude, wit and humor his personal experiences at Mojave with other vehicles that didn’t make the cut, notably the Roton Rotary Rocket, which had what he called “an adversarial relationship with Mojave.”

SpaceShipTwo, he said, failed to build on lessons from the original winged SpaceShip. And the conversations he sparked in his remarks, such as, “Unfortunately, it IS rocket science,” went on long after AIAA AV Section officer James Sergeant thanked the audience, presented an AIAA Challenge Coin to Binnie and adjourned.

Before embarking on his civilian journey to space, Binnie served 21 years as a U.S. Naval Aviator, retiring as a Commander. He is a graduate of the Navy Test Pilot School. During his naval career he flew the A-7 Corsair, A-6 Intruder, F/A-18 Hornet and AV-8B Harrier.

His book is available on Amazon Prime.

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