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The starship enterprise

Published by Sigurd De Keyser on Tue Mar 15, 2005 4:22 pm
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timesonline.co.uk: via hobbyspace: Space travel has long been the dream of millions, and the reality of a privileged few. But before 2010, six passengers will make the first commercial trip beyond the Earth’s atmosphere — and they’ll be travelling in ‘the most ingenious aircraft ever designed’, says Bryan Appleyard

“We as a species are different from other animals because we put our lives on the line to go and see what’s out there. What Magellan did in 1521, for God’s sake! You know how dangerous that was?”

This is Elbert L “Burt” Rutan, the hero of this story. He has long sideburns and eyes filled with a wild surmise. Your children and grandchildren may well be taught about him at school.

But, first, you need to know about the desert. It doesn’t rain much in the American southwest, but, when it does, the water forms huge, shallow pools in the normally dry lake beds. Blowing one way, the wind pushes the water to one end of these beds; blowing the other, it pushes the water to the other end. This rocking motion smooths this flat land even further. And so, for thousands of square miles from the Mexican border up through California, Arizona and Nevada, there are vast tracts of hard earth, ironed by the elements to an unreal flatness. You can land 747s on this ground and any experimental fighter by Boeing or Lockheed can set down safely if it can’t quite make it back to Edwards Air Force Base, Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center, China Lake Naval Weapons Center, Nevada Test Site (Area 51 to all you geeks) or to any of the places so secret they have no names that mark the otherwise featureless maps of this wild and implausible region.

It is a landscape of dreams. “Dreamland”, in fact, is the call sign of Area 51. Here is just scrub vegetation, sand, rocks, distant mountains, parched air, endless sky and, away from the interstates, the silentium dei – the silence of God. What else is there to do but dream dreams of great heights and stupendous speeds?

The mighty, hypersonic and utterly secret Aurora now flies out of Dreamland, as did the stealths, Blackbirds and U-2s. It was out here in 1947, at what was then Muroc but is now Edwards, that Chuck Yeager, supreme possessor of what Tom Wolfe called “The Right Stuff”, flew a Bell XS-1 faster than the speed of sound. It was out here in 1967 that William Knight took his X-15 up to 4,520mph (mach 6.7).

And it was out here, at Mojave airport, a civilian testing site right next to Edwards, that, on April 18, 2003, Elbert L Rutan unveiled SpaceShipOne, probably the most ingenious aircraft ever designed, and White Knight, its airborne launcher, certainly the most beautiful.

“Why this shape?” I ask Burt as we stand in a hangar contemplating the White Knight. Why not?” he replies.

We fall silent for a few moments.

“It’s your masterpiece, Burt.”

“I know.”

He’s not so keen on the aesthetics of SpaceShipOne, but he’s positively aroused by its successor, a larger version, now at the design stage, which, under the brand name of Virgin Galactic, will carry about six paying passengers into space. Burt can’t show me the drawings of the new ship, but you can tell he wants to.

“It’s a sexy-looking thing. It’s something you look at and say, ‘Wow! I want to fly that!’ It’s more than a coincidence that an aeroplane that looks good flies good too.”

Burt’s sideburns are long and dandyish. They are there, I conclude, to absorb the excess Right Stuff that squirts daily from his ears.

The first flight will be in about three years, if you believe Virgin, or “I’m not saying when,” if you listen to Burt. It will carry — and this is very informed guesswork — William Shatner and Sigourney Weaver. Shatner is the favourite, as he will officially name the ship the VSS Enterprise. So both Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise and Ripley of Alien have signed up to pay $200,000 (just over £100,000) for the trip, but they don’t yet know who will be on the first flight. If Ripley has anything to do with it, there will certainly be a giant, homicidal lizard. Victoria Principal, the former Dallas star, has also signed up. Burt and Sir Richard Branson will be on board, as, I think, will Branson’s dad, Ted. Bill Cullen, the 63-year-old chairman of Renault Ireland, might be there too; he’s the only one of the 21,000 applicants for tickets who has paid the whole sum upfront and, boy, is he gagging to be there.

“I certainly think it will be a spiritual experience,” he babbles happily. “One great watershed for me was 2001: A Space Odyssey. That was something else. I saw that film 11 times. I was trying to work out what he meant by the end of it. I’m getting ready: I’ve increased my fitness programme by half an hour a day.”

But, to wake up for a moment from babbling and deserts, the facts are these. Apollo 17 landed on the moon on December 11, 1972, and thereafter the US space effort ground to an undignified halt. Nasa invested in the Space Shuttle, the ugliest and most pointless machine ever built. They told the US government it would be 10 times cheaper to put payloads in space with the shuttle than it had been with Apollo’s Saturn V rocket. In fact, it turned out to be 10 times more expensive. They also estimated they would lose one shuttle every 100,000 missions. In fact, they’ve lost two in 113 missions. And yet still Nasa pours billions of dollars and tens of thousands of engineers into the doomed project of keeping this botched dump truck in space.

“You can’t fix it by throwing money at it,” says Burt, “because you make something that’s bad because it’s too complex even more complex.”

On top of all that, Nasa, having become an insanely defensive bureaucracy, went out of its way to crush all opposition both within and without. Any rival trying to get into space more safely and cheaply was either absorbed or drained of cash and talent. With the collapsing Soviet Union all but dropping out of the space race, and China just clinging onto a precarious toehold, the whole extraterrestrial adventure seemed to be over. A sci-fi generation, now in their fifties and sixties, realised that their childhood dream of roaring rockets taking them up to wheeling orbital space stations and beyond was dead.

Burt made sure that Nasa only heard about his project at the same time as everybody else — when he wheeled SpaceShipOne out on the tarmac at Mojave to be photographed by Aviation Week. He points out sadly that, but for Nasa, we’d be holidaying in orbital if not moon-based hotels already. He has no faith in George Bush’s new decision to spend the next 20 years going back to the moon and then on to Mars, because it uses the same old dumb technology and keeps the government monopoly intact. But it doesn’t matter, because Nasa won’t survive the next 20 years. Burt thinks it is about to be wiped out by a sudden space explosion in the private sector. And so now, at 61, he expects to live long enough to see the first moon resorts.

It all changed and, if Burt is right, Nasa’s fate was sealed on June 21, 2004, when Mike Melvill flew SpaceShipOne up to 328,491ft and became the first civilian to fly out of the atmosphere, and the first private pilot to earn astronaut’s wings. Burt, sadly, couldn’t fly it; he had a heart attack in 1998 and now can’t pass the medical to get his pilot’s licence. Never mind: on September 29 and October 4, Burt’s bird did it twice more and won the Ansari X Prize, a $10m award for the first private-sector team to put a ship in space twice in 14 days. It had cost $26m. Nasa’s budget for 2005 is $16.2 billion.

Meanwhile, in London’s Holland Park, Sir Richard Branson sits at the end of a huge table grinning and nodding. The old hippie trader is 55 this year, which puts him bang in the middle of the generation that felt let down by space.

“I felt as a teenager that space was exciting and I’ve marvelled at it ever since. We have a wonderful telescope in Africa and my father spends a lot of time reading about space. One of his favourite quotes is that there are more stars in space than grains of sand on the Earth.”

Branson’s Virgin being what it is — a let-the-good-times-roll product of 1960s idealistic hedonism, born as the lovely white Saturn Vs were blasting moonwards — it always seemed logical that it should be the first private-sector operator in space. In an act of wishful thinking, the name Virgin Galactic was registered as long ago as 1999. Burt was pondering space back then but nobody knew what he was pondering. Branson had been looking for a promising space project and had been taking an interest in a scheme called Rotary Rocket, also based in Mojave. He was later to ask Burt why all these space projects came out of Mojave. “Because,” replied Burt, “there’s nothing else to do.”

Meanwhile, Virgin had become the backer of the Global Flyer, another Burt beauty which, at the time of writing, was just about to attempt the first solo nonstop round-the-world flight.

In 2002, Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic, a title so gratuitously cosmic that it seems to embarrass him, and Alex Tai, a Virgin pilot, were at Mojave discussing the Global Flyer when Burt suddenly showed them SpaceShipOne. He has, I noticed, this habit of insisting that he won’t talk about future projects and then, suddenly, talking about them. Whitehorn and Tai were bowled over. “It was,” says Whitehorn, “the most fantastic thing I had ever seen. It was like Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. It was something you couldn’t see anywhere else here on Earth.”

Nevertheless, Whitehorn didn’t think that Virgin could get involved. Branson, however, did. He usually does. His financial people know him as “Dr Yes (to Anything)”, and space flight was a definite yes. The strange partnership of Branson and Rutan was coming together.

But SpaceShipOne was the property of Paul Allen. Allen co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates in 1975. In 1983 he left the company, stricken with Hodgkin’s disease. Nevertheless, he is still one of the richest people in the world with a net worth well over $20 billion. It was Allen who had backed Burt’s space project. But his intention had been just to win the X Prize. SpaceShipOne would then have been retired to the Smithsonian and that would have been that. In 2001, when the project got under way, it was a big gamble. There were lots of private space projects around, any one of which could have been successful. Now, the only other one everybody still talks about is Blue Origin, a scheme funded by Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com. Based in Texas, this seems to be pursuing the conventional ground-launched-rocket route.

Burt had never liked the look of ground-launched rockets; they’re too risky because a momentary loss of thrust can destroy everything, and too expensive because you have to lift a huge fuel load from ground level. It was much better to launch from the air. By 2000, he had all but one of the engineering answers to the questions posed by air-launched manned space flight. There was one (literally) burning question left: re-entry. Dropping back into the Earth’s atmosphere from space generates enormously high temperatures as increasing numbers of air molecules crash into the speeding ship. The old Nasa capsules got round this by using “ablating shields” — heat shields that burnt off during re-entry. The Shuttle uses heat-resistant tiles. Both are heavy, expensive and dangerous, and the slightest error in the angle of re-entry would instantly vaporise the ship. Burt wanted something better and then, one day, he found it. Legend says he woke his wife, Tonya, in the middle of the night. This doesn’t seem to be true.

“Awww,” says Burt, “I don’t remember. I do generally do things early in the morning. It’s my most creative time.”

Either way, what Burt decided was that his bird must have a feather.

At this point it becomes necessary to get technical, so here we are, back at Mojave, strolling out of Burt’s madly cluttered office into a hangar. The first thing I see is Proteus, a lovely, high-altitude plane that has been used, among other things, to monitor pollution all over the world. The second thing I see is a project for the Department of Defense. I could tell you what it is, but if I did I’d then have to kill you, so I won’t. The third thing I see is SpaceShipOne and I can’t help myself. My mouth goes dry and my knees weaken. It’s not lovely like White Knight: it’s just so, so cool.

Basically an ovoid blob with a point at one end and a hole at the other, it has portholes scattered, apparently randomly, over its front end, and a complex combination of wings and tail booms sprouting out of the other. Its hatch is open and there, behind an improbably thin skin of carbon fibre, is the black, spartan interior. This is what space flight was meant to be: none of that fancy Nasa clutter, just pure engineering Right Stuff. All of which would mean precisely nothing if you dropped it from 350,000ft. It would plummet earthwards and burn up.

But the point about Burt is that he is, above all, an aerodynamicist. He tries to answer questions not with brute force but with subtle combinations of surfaces, speed and airflow. And so his answer to the re-entry problem was purely aerodynamic. All we have to do, he explained to his stunned engineers, is “feather” the control surfaces by bending the plane in half.

The whole tail assembly hinges upwards at an angle of 70 degrees. This turns the craft into a kind of shuttlecock. On re-entry, its surface heats up, but for less than a minute, not long enough to affect the structure. But then it simply floats downwards until it gets to 50,000ft. The tail is then straightened and it glides in to land. There is no possibility of pilot error on re-entry. In fact, once the tail is “feathered”, the pilot can, as Burt says, “sit back and eat his lunch”. There’s nothing he could do even if he wanted to. Aerodynamics takes care of everything. Even if the rocket never fires or it fails before it reaches its planned altitude, the craft can still be landed safely.

There’s one more thing in this hangar you should know about. It’s a tube with an orange cable wrapped round it and a bell-shaped rocket exhaust at one end. This is the engine.

“A rocket,” says Burt, suddenly didactic, “is a bomb with a hole in one end.”

Burt’s bomb is made of rubber and, er, that’s all. On launch this tube is filled with rubber. On firing, tiny solid fuel igniters scorch the rubber for one second and nitrous oxide, laughing gas, is blown through. This oxidises the rubber, which heats up explosively and accelerates SpaceShipOne to nearly 3,000mph, enough to propel it into suborbital space. The orange cable is a fibre-optic line that detects any breach in the motor and shuts it down at once. Unlike normal rockets, this “hybrid” booster can be turned on and off, and it contains no seriously dangerous fuel. The rubber is just rubber and the worst thing that nitrous oxide can do is make you laugh uncontrollably. The longest burn of this motor so far has been 80 seconds, enough to win the X Prize. But it could burn for 125 seconds, which would take the blob up to 500,000ft, almost 100 miles. What is not known is whether the feather could get it down from that height.

Back in Holland Park, Virgin also like to say that this engine is environmentally sound, producing a fraction of the greenhouse gases of a conventional rocket. I put this to Burt.

“Well, I’m no tree hugger,” he grimaces.

Okay, we won’t pursue that.

All of which is fine in theory, but theory has always been a very bad way to fly. Aerodynamicists can put everything into a computer and produce a simulation that works perfectly, but there’s always something missing, some oddity only revealed by making the thing and flying it. The normal way to track this down is wind-tunnel testing. But Burt, being Burt, doesn’t do wind-tunnel testing. He relies on his own aerodynamic genius and, in the case of SpaceShipOne, the courage of Mike Melvill and Brian Binnie, his test pilots. Its first flight was as a pure glider with no engine. White Knight took it up to 48,000ft and then dropped it with Melvill at the controls. His wife didn’t like it one bit.

“Sally’s always been pretty relaxed about my flying — but she just about came unglued over this one,” he says. So, were you, er, scared flying SpaceShipOne? “Damn right I was. It’s high-risk stuff, but I love taking risks, that’s what I do.” Pools of Right Stuff are forming around my feet like rainwater in the desert.

Melvill had to learn to fly the plane in the few seconds after the drop. This wasn’t easy, as it flew very badly. They later decided this was because the tail was too small and it was extended outwards by 2ft on either side. This improved things, but flying the ovoid remains a specialised art. Melvill hopes to fly its successor, but he’s 64 and time is getting tight. He’s working on it.

“I’m in perfect health. I have a resting pulse of 48. I cycle 400 miles a month on the road and I do a 100-mile race once a month.”

Dour, phlegmatic and driven, he’s a South African by birth. He came to work for Burt in 1978 when the company was known as the Rutan Aircraft Factory (RAF). This designed planes for people to build themselves. Melvill had built one of these and, with Sally, he flew from Indiana to Mojave. Burt gave him a job. Now, 27 years later, he is arguably the most famous pilot in the world, deluged with awards and speaking engagements. It’s totally changed my life,” he says. “I give presentations all over the place.”

Along with Binnie, Melvill flew what may well come to be seen as the most influential mission of our time. They broke the state monopoly on space and reignited the popular flame that Nasa’s clogged bureaucracy had all but extinguished. So now, having broken and relit, what next? Back to Holland Park.

Virgin Galactic not only has a president, it also has a head of astronaut liaison, one Stephen Attenborough. He’d been working in the City, but he turned 40 last year and he decided it was time to live a little and, in October, he sat down with Will Whitehorn and talked himself into taking “the best job in the world”. His key skill was dealing with “high-net-worth” — ie, rich — people. These would be the only ones who could afford the trip. They were to be lured primarily by a website, www.virgingalactic.com, but, in reality, no luring was needed. They poured in. Registrations have now reached 21,000.

“I doubt whether all of them are high-net-worth people,” says Attenborough, “and my initial task was to differentiate between enthusiasts and genuine long-term clients. About 33% of applicants came from the US, 15% from the UK, South Africa, Australia, Canada, France and then a long tail from just about everywhere in the world.”

The initial goal is to fill the first 1,000 seats. Some may well be Volvo drivers. In the US, Volvo is offering a Virgin Galactic ticket as a prize to people who take test drives. And, though Burt may turn awkward about this, the first flight is scheduled for spring 2008. Initially there will be just one ship, but this will rise to five. Branson is very excited by the numbers involved.

“Nasa has never been interested in sending humans into space,” he says. “It’s been a very closed, privileged shop. Only about 400 people have become astronauts in the last 50 years.

We will make 1,000 astronauts in our first year.” Alex Tai, Virgin’s operational head of the programme, breaks in. “No, no, we start off with one flight a week through the first year — that’s 250 people and that may come down to 200. As we see the safety and reliability and we’re confident of it, then we’ll scale up.”

Either way, the goal is to fly once a day and then the prices will start to come down.

“Most people’s grandchildren should be able to go into space,” says Branson. “Millions will be able to afford it if we are right in our calculations. Taxi drivers will be able to go into space.”

Where they will fly from is still being discussed. Burt wants the spaceport to be in Mojave because, he says, the weather is stable, unlike, he adds pointedly, Florida. I suspect the truth is he wants to fly from Mojave because that’s where spaceships belong. But almost every state in the union, and most of Australia, seems to be bidding for Virgin Galactic’s business.

But there is a big question mark hanging, usually unacknowledged, above all this. Will the trip be worth it? The basic experience is this: White Knight’s bigger successor will fly you up to 50,000ft. It will drop you, and the rubber will fire. You will experience high acceleration forces and, as the engine cuts out, the sky will go dark. As the ship reaches the top of its trajectory, you will experience five minutes of weightlessness and then, as it re-enters, you will feel high deceleration forces. Then you will glide back to base. The whole thing will last between two and three hours, and the time spent in space will be about 20 minutes.

Virgin is working on gilding this lily. A three-day or one-week spaceport experience will be offered with high G-force and weightless training in small jets. On board you will lie in a flat bed that moulds to your body shape and you will have a personal console that can video everything. In the weightless phase, your straps will automatically unfasten and you can float around the cabin. A cable will then pull you back on to your bed and you will be automatically strapped back down. And so on. Is it enough? Those 21,000 seem to think so, but will they still think so after the first thrill wears off?

The question is vital for Virgin, which is investing $120m, but even more so for Burt. For the company is committed, if the flights are a commercial success, to investing in the next phase — commercial orbital flights. At this point things start to get tricky, even for Burt. To achieve orbit you need to be moving not at 3,000mph but at over 17,000mph. You need 350 times the energy involved in SpaceShipOne. And the feather won’t work for re-entry from orbit — though, in fact, Burt seems to be thinking about a re-entry system that would include the feather in its second phase. He says mysteriously that he’s solved one of the problems in his head, but he doesn’t say which one. If he had solved all the problems, he says, he wouldn’t be bothering with this suborbital programme, he would be going straight for the big one.

But that’s all, so to speak, up in the air. If orbital flight comes off and your grandchildren are holidaying in orbit or on the moon, they will have first heard about Burt in school. If not, he’ll be a footnote, though a big one. Either way, he’s still the hero of this story. So what is it with Burt?

Well, there are two Burts, both of them obsessives. The first is the wide-eyed boy who used to build model aeroplanes and experiment with their aerodynamics. This was the Burt that took me round the hangars and stared in wonder at White Knight. The second is the Burt with whom I had lunch — in his case, navy-bean soup and beef tacos — at the Voyager restaurant at Mojave airport. This is a colder, harder Burt, caustically analytical of the failings of Nasa and fiercely dismissive of governments’ abilities.

“They should have gone into a smoke-filled room before the Shuttle flew and admitted to themselves that they’d f***ed up.”

He looks on the era of paralysis caused by the Space Shuttle with dismay and contempt, and he believes that now the state monopoly has been broken, the real golden era of space is about to begin. “In 1908, Wilbur Wright flew his aeroplane near Paris and the whole world started to look at it differently. They thought: if this guy who owns a bicycle shop in Dayton can do it, so can we. Within four years there were hundreds of different types of planes in 39 different countries. There were two factories in Paris that built 500 planes! All from nothing in four years!”

Something like that four-year phase may be about to begin in space and that would make Burt the Wilbur Wright of rocketry. He was born in Oregon but brought up in California. His father was a dentist and home life was comfortable. Both he and his brother Dick became obsessed with flying in early childhood. But Dick was into flying them; Burt into designing them. He did, however, do a good deal of flying for the US Air Force as flight-test project engineer at Edwards. But in June 1974 he went into the private sector with the Rutan Aircraft Factory and then, in 1982, with Scaled Composites. He finally pulled out of RAF because designing planes for people to build at home left him open to potentially colossal liability suits if there were any accidents.

He worked like a madman and, in the process, went through rather a lot of marriages. “I think the first marriage failed because I worked too hard and never saw her and the kids. The second wife helped me build the home-build business [RAF]. It was the most fun in the world and we made a lot of money, but the liability exposure meant we would stay up at night worrying about the next accident. I think we both realised we would be penniless if that happened, so she took her half and left. The third one was a mistake, and then Tonya came along 12 years ago and she was the good one!”

Since the heart attack, he says he’s slowed down, started playing golf and “eating right”. Inside his chest there’s a pacemaker and a stent (a tube inserted into an artery). He’s on borrowed time. The son from the first marriage is now a software engineer and the daughter runs a Christian school, a fact that seems to embarrass Burt, who says he emphatically does not think about God or any such things. He was brought up as a Seventh-Day Adventist, but it didn’t take.

“I don’t think about it a lot. I don’t feel the need to get benefit from church. I don’t think about the existence of God. It’s not something that drives my thinking.”

This is an odd response — not quite one thing and not quite the other. But then Burt as a whole is pretty odd, almost scarily intense over lunch but lovably boyish in the hangar. As a result, I left him not quite knowing who I had met. He could be a fierce backwoods survivalist, spitting fire at the government, or he could be an amiable old dad, with his hobby shop in the garage, flamboyantly at home in his land and the world. But that, I suppose, is America, all things to all men and all things in all men.

Early the next morning I drive out of Mojave, east across the desert towards Arizona. It is dark and, above me, dreams and sundry secret stuff zoom across the sky. First and last, you need to know about the desert.

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