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Dateline Mojave, June 21, 2004

By the time you read this all the facts and figures and details will have been laid out for you by the major media. I'm sure, though, that the readers of this website are also interested in an answer to the simple question: what was it like to BE there? I was fortunate enough to be in the press area, due to some other projects of mine, and so these observations are both on the event itself and also on some of the reaction of the "mainstream" media to the concept of entrepreneurial space.

Sunday, June 20: Flight Eve

The heat (and a slightly nervous anticipation) made Sunday a fairly subdued day, much more so than I was expecting. People were excited, but also reflective (photo top) as was this a space fan thinking her own thoughts while looking out over a Mojave runway.

My favorite question of the Sunday press pre-briefing was asked by a little boy who reports for a kids' newspaper in Tucson. He inquired when kids would be able to go to space, given that grown up men, ladies, and tomato seeds all already had flight hours. The answer was that creating space travel so affordable that family travel was not out of the question was part of the long-term point.

Least memorable part of overnighting in a Mojave hotel: the trains, the trains, and did I mention the trains?

Monday, June 21: The Day.

The alarm goes off at 3 AM, just as yet another train blasting its horn shakes the Mojave Motel 6. The wind has been howling all night and shows no sign of letting up, but this is grand tradition in Mojave and more than likely it will drop in time. My box of Trader Joe's granola, bottle of vitamin water, and I are off. I get to the parking lot at 3:45 AM.

Mojave Airport, for those of you who do not know, has many parked and partially-dismantled large aircraft on the property. Floodlights are throwing shadows on the surrounding buildings, and a particularly large tail shadow from a painted-out jumbo jet covers a large part of the still-marked Rotary Rocket hangar. It seemed like a conclave of aviation ghosts had assembled to meet us! The wind continued to howl as an army of TV technicians jog to and fro dragging cables and creating clouds of blowing dust in the floodlights. I count 16 sound trucks, with more steadily arriving.

5:05 AM: The runway lights blink on. The winds begin to drop, and we are looking east across the runway into the beginnings of dawn over the desert. (Photo above). A long row of reporters and photographers begins to form one-deep along the desert runway. Everyone waits or wanders around looking to see if anything interesting is up. Someone is playing the theme from "The Magnificent Seven." As it gets lighter, the line reminds me of people waiting to see the Rose Parade. An announcement we can't quite hear down at our end causes cheering elsewhere. We figure this is a good sign. We think we also hear the distant whine of engines spooling up.

A little after 6:30 AM: with very little fanfare, chase planes begin to taxi down the runway, followed by White Knight and Spaceship One. It passes between me and the rising sun (photo above) and I catch a glimpse of the pilots inside. Then, one after the other, they turn, and take off!

In the heat and the cold and all the preparations just to get there, I think it had not really hit me until I saw air under White Knight's wheels that this was really happening. This wasn't a movie, it wasn't CGI - there were real people in there. I yelled, "YES!" since it seemed someone had to do it.

And then, poof, they climbed out and were invisible, with occasional releases of what was described as "air show smoke" so that we could see where they were. Finally, the PA system told us where to look in the sky (just below the sun) and sure enough, a bright streak started climbing up toward the sun. The streak passed in front of the sun, brilliantly backlit (my attempts to capture this on film did not succeed) and then cut off. We were kept in suspense for a while about the apogee altitude, but finally it was announced; it had been enough, and Mike Melville was an astronaut.

The best visual moment for me was when SpaceShipOne passed overhead on the last leg of its descent in formation with three chase planes. Here were a group of stellar pilots pulling these things around for a final approach in tight formation. All of a sudden, SpaceShipOne streaked in front of us on the runway and went out of sight.

A little while went by, and then in came WhiteKnight. But instead of landing, it flew right on by low, and then poured on power and shrieked back up into the sky. It made the whole day for me - and of all the things I had seen that day, seemed to be the clearest difference from a government space flight - a punch into the sky for no reason except to scream YES!!!

There was a parade of sorts too (photo bottom) and speeches. But White Knight had already said it all as far as I was concerned.

So does the general public believe us yet? Who knows. But it sure isn't going to be for lack of hearing about us any more.

Joan Horvath 6/21/04
(Joan runs Takeoff Technologies.)


See also Joan's reports on the the SS1's first X PRIZE flight on Sept 29, 2004 and the winning Oct. 4, 2004 flight.

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