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.
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.