I was gifted with the opportunity watch the flight. And I mean gifted. I didn't find out until very late Sunday night that they were inviting the public to Mojave Airport to watch. I had sent an email to a friend, who answered "I'll be there in 30 minutes" just as I was going to bed early Monday morning.
Who needs caffiene at 3am when you have giddy schoolboy excitement? Well, I do, but just not as much.
Grab a few gallons of water, throw the laptop, camera, and binoculars in the backpack, fold up the folding chair and go. We leave my driveway at about 3:30, stop once in upper Lancaster for some snacks and a smoke break about 4:30 and arrived in the parking field about 5:15 am after an easy and orderly queue directed by Boy Scouts, Explorers and Civil Air Defense folks. Practically perfect easy going.
The winds were gusty as they are just before dawn in the Mojave high desert, but were mild and calmed down after sunrise.
As always, the skies out there were just indescribably large. Enourmous bright white, gold and blue yawning domes of sheer, palpable space and openness, almost unbearable in the nakedness they bestow.
It was fantastic and gorgeous. So many people out there. Right wing, left wing, no wing, chicken wing, Grandmas and grandpas, little kids both deathly bored and absolutely enthralled, WW2 vets, aviation addicts, some aerospace archeology dude in an Indiana Jones getup that wasn't overtly ironic, Burning Man freaks bedecked in gadgets, boots and black, Mormon missionaries in shirts and ties, and a whole lot of people with silly antennae on their heads. The libertarian nut cocktail brigade was in full effect, and I use the euphamism quite endearingly. There was a guy with a "Hey Mr. Spaceman! Take me with you!" sign. Of course.
Everyone was grinning, strangers talked to each other, friends old and new recognized each other unexpectedly, or in some cases, "Fancy seeing you here!" with wild, knowing grins. Newscasters scurried around and were generally dwarfed by the mass of folks, some of which were wielding much more gear than they were. People were delightfully nice and well behaved, it seemed. Patient and smiling.
Energies - as they say - were high, laden with expectation. There was an air or a strong scent of what it must have been like in the heyday of the barnstormer. This wasn't a sanctified NASA launch, there were hulks of jetliners being dismantled or repaired smack dab in the middle of anything, and rows of them parked in the distance. The scene set before us almost being apocalyptic in nature, post-apocalyptic, rebirthing. Surreal isn't a heavy enough word for it. Bewildering approaches, and will suit, and I'll probably use that word again before I'm through.
The PA system was insufferable in its audio quality, though informative, entertaining, and timely.
And amazingly, more or less on time the chase planes began to taxi for take off. People went yay and whistled with sincere enthusiasm. Scanners and ham radios crackled alive as the chattter between ground, tower, and air began to liven up.
And I'm going to just drop a spoiler here. I should perhaps put this right at the top, but where's the story in that? Here's my one line description for the whole shebang: "Delightfully and wonderfully mundane." That's it. And it's absolutely gorgeous to see. Watching the whole experience in person was remarkably nonviolent compared to just watching video of a NASA Saturn V or SST launch. Granted, there are mechanical and logistical reasons for this, but I feel there are valid philosophical reasons and differences as well, considering the birthplaces of rocketry, be it an arrow or V2 missle.
WhiteKnight and SpaceShipOne are some seriously odd looking aircraft. They're perhaps even difficult to look at, but almost impossible to take your eyes off of. WhiteKnight is also impressively quiet.
Mundane, and bewildering. Okay, brain, you got that? You're not getting heatstroke this early in the morning, are you? Drink your water, piss clear.
So, the planes go up. And they spiral around and around and climb, and we all strain our necks and eyes trying to track them, losing them in the sun now and then. I don't know how pre-radar (or current) fighter pilots do it. These are nice, big, shiny white planes and they get lost in that swallowing sky like dust motes.
Watching them or trying to find them dazzles me silly a few times. More than once I feel like I'll just fall up into space. I'm plagued by now noticable floaters in my vision as I stare into the blue and sunspots from accidentally getting full eyeballs of the damnable thing. Then finally the ship is spotted just below the sun and moments later the trail from SpaceShipOne is seen zooming right up out of the flare of blinding sunlight.
We heard Mike Melville's jokes all the way up until the trim got stuck or glitched, when he began to get real nervous sounding for a bit. (Later, I saw the video of the apogee with the bag of M&Ms floating around, and I was giddy all over again.)
And so, the planes come down as they went up; Quiet, unassuming, gorgeous, peaceful. Flight for the sake of it, because we can, because it's beautiful and graceful and perhaps unites us in a dream to become more than the mud we've spawned from.
And that's life - not to disparage the honorable primordial ooze that may have birthed us. To self organize into something more. To strive, and try, because until you try, you never really know if you can. To grow, and expand.
After SpaceShipOne has landed, the chase planes land, and WhiteKnight does a high performance tower buzz, just because it can, gracefully pulling up and banking away over the centerline of the runway, showing us her graceful and unusual lines from below. It looks and feels like the scene at the beginning of the Robotech movie or graphic novel, at the dedication of the SDF-1, especially with the derilict hulks of old era jetliners scattered about, and these graceful, new, strange and effiecient planes buzzing around. Yeah, I went there, and I'm wearing my geek badge on my sleeve, day-glo stitching illuminated by UV leds. But it feels like that, looks like that, and gives me the willies just like that, but better and real.
After the VIPs celebrate out of our line of sight down the runway and the hand shaking and hugs are over, they tow SpaceShipOne back up the runway for us to ogle and cheer at. Michael Melville rode atop the towed craft looking a little bewildered himself, and perhaps a little shaken. Almost tentatively he waved and raised his arms in salutation, and was visibly affected by the cheering throng. He let the cheers die down, and raised his arms again triumphantly to even more cheers, moved by the whole thing.
At one point he reached down for his camera, and took pictures of all of us taking pictures of him. The crowd laughed and cheered, and waved back obligingly and cheerfully, appreciating the irony and the sentiment. Somehow we were all part of this, and felt it, and it was good and fine. And really, we are all part of it. How many thousands and thousands of people there have bought Microsoft products over the years - willingly and unwillingly - allowing Paul Allen the resources to sponser this crazy thing? Even if we only came out to cheer and ogle and spectate, how could you not feel included?
As the craft came to the a rest at one end of the crowd, one of the libertarian nutters ran out on the tarmac with a sign to hand Melville: "SpaceShipOne: Government none!" to the cheers of the crowd. He took the sign, grinning madly, and to us in the crowd it looked like he was laying the sign down on the other side of the ship to hide it or something, but he was just showing it to some of the crew walking on the other side of the ship. People called for him to hold the sign up for a photo-op, perhaps a PR nightmare for Scaled Composites, and he just turned around and held it up, grinning even more, people cheering and hooting, clapping and laughing.
So delightfully not like NASA, flexible, endearing, personable. Grungy and graceful. Human, not superhuman. One of us. And in that, the dream of millions is even closer.
Yes, it was a stunt - but a glorious one. But what else is a stunt but a proof of concept? What else is showing off but dancing? Proof of concept, proof of skill, proof of ability. Dreams become tangible. Thoughts and ideas materialized, pulled from the ether, sculpted from nothingness into something real. And again, it's so beautiful my hair is still standing on end nearly twenty-four hours later.
To me, the most beautiful thing of all about all this is the demonstrated concept of the boundary of space not being really a boundary, but a gradient. It's not a wall to punch through, it's not a barrier. It's a gentle and easy gradient to climb, welcoming, beckoning for us to come explore it's vastness, and in that exploration and vastness, we can learn things about ourselves we might not learn anywhere else.
The Scaled Composites SpaceShipOne craft - to me, in my honestly humble opinion - shows and embodies a very clear, but highly unusual plan. Rutan is up to something big, and the Voyager flight - and this one - are just stepping stones. The man is very clearly advancing forward into the grips of an inescapable vision that makes Hughes look like a greengrocer. (And so we stand on the shoulders of giants.)
I Am Not An Aerospace Engineer, but I used to dream of being one as a kid. My brother and Dad and I would build solid balsa wood free flight thermal gliders or WhiteWings craft, and try to get them to catch rising thermals and vanish - spiraling slowly - into the sky.
We spent nearly two decades making paper and wood airplanes off and on. Simple one sheet of paper affairs made with office and art supplies. We'd make some rather impressive still-air indoor gliders. This hands on making of airfoils and thinking about it and just throwing out the rulebook for making little toys that fly gives you a sort of ability to reason and see what someone like Rutan is thinking.
And if he's thinking what I think he may be thinking and he's planning what I think he might be planning, his genius and single-mindedness on a scale of 1-10 is utterly mad, in the best way possible. I can only expect more of the same from him, and others like him.
Godspeed and keep dreaming, Burt Rutan and crew. Keep climbing. And don't forget to take us with you!
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