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Q-talk 106 - Burt Rutan Comes (and Goes) a Long Way, Baby

A thin band of copper air fading into a light blue overhead announces the arrival of a new day in the desert. A crowd of some 100,000 aviators and liistory lovers begin shuffling from the parking/camping areas over to the areas marked out for the public.

June 21, 2004, 6:45 am PST. A cheap, intermittent PA system crackles to point out that the EXTRA 300 taxiing out is the low level chase plane. Next to come is the Beech Starship, serving as the mid-altitude chase plane. The eager crowd mumbles as an odd looking aircraft emerges on the taxiway from behind a screening jumble of partially disassembled, almost derelict airliners. Wow! Here comes the White Knight mother ship carrying its 18,000-lb. load called the SpaceShipOne. The crowd expresses its admiration and wonderment as the twinjet passes by.

The EXTRA launches, departing in a smooth 60 degree turn to the left. The Starship does the same, except much of the crowd who have never seen one, happily jabber as the unusual planform is revealed in the sun burnished steep climbing turn. Then a loud jet whine signals the takeoff roll of the star attraction.

The heavily laden White Knight mother ship uses a LOT of runway, but the crowd cheers loudly as it claws for altitude toward the northeastern mountains. As all aircraft climb for altitude over the airport, the crowd jubilantly points this way and that as they spot and monitor each plane's progress. 15 minutes later, a black German Alpha jet taxi's by on its mission as high chase plane. This is a fighter trainer and it won't take long to get where he's going. The crowd gives its neck bones great exercise as the White Knight and Starship spiral up in formation.

After an hour and fifteen, the White Knight is lost to the crowd as it loses its contrail, but it begins to position itself on the run line. Minutes pass and then far ahead of the crowd, but directly at it, a puff of distant white tells them that the released rocket has lit up. The smoke trail briefly scribes a descending arc, which suddenly goes straight up and fast.

There is now a rock concert crowd on the ground, cheering ,? wildly. The white smoke trail ends as the atmosphere thins out and the rocket burns out. We know pilot Mike Melvill is up there, going like a bat out of hell, but we can't tell where. The raspy PA system is not much help. Finally, someone hears Melvill report at 270,000 ft. and coming down. Sometime during the descent of the 3 and a half-minute ride, a soft double bang of a sonic boom can be heard. More cheering.

As the rocket spirals down over the crowd, the EXTRA and Starship form up on each wing and escort the glider down to final approach where in a display of showmanship, they both peel away for die cameras while SpaceShipOne basks in a

glorious and smooth landing.

After a short post flight checklist, the Ship was hooked to a pickup truck and slowly paraded down and close to the public crowd line where a spectator handed Melvill a large sign that read, "SpaceShipOne, Government Zero".

Detailed telemetric data was not immediately revealed, but the media reported that SpaceShipOne left earth's atmosphere at 328,000 ft (100 kilometers) and earned Mike Melvill a pair of astronaut's wings.

Gene Knapp Birmingham, AL

Yet, to think back to the majesty of it all... after all the cheering for Mike Melvill, as the huge rocket plume shot up through the golden California sun and beyond, as we waited to know if Mike successfully traversed the apogee (the apex of his flight), there was a silence of 27,000 souls. Then, in the still, desert quiet, which must mark many a morning at Mojave, we heard it! Boom! Boom! There was a soft, but mid-range, deep clap in the air like a timpani and we knew SpaceShipOne was on its way home. More excited shouts of joy went up to meet Mike Melvill in the thin, desert air that is Mojave. On that day, Burt Rutan's 61st Birthday, Mike presented him with the best present of all, the first successful completion of a private astronaut's trip into outer space. To travel three hundred and twenty-eight thousand feet above the earth and return with the same reverence must have been the way Alan Shepard felt as our first NASA astronaut viewed the world from a new perspective. Heady stuff! To be there on that day and share in such a gift was truly a blessing for each heart. I know, for God touched mine there, above the clouds, in the high desert of California.

PS: I am grateful to Pat Panzera for gaining access to the Sunday Press Day activities.

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