Scaled’s victory in the Ansari X-Prize competition and
why it was the biggest event of the year
By ANN Senior Correspondent Kevin O’Brien
We knew it was coming.
We didn't know we'd be a part of it. In 2003 pictures of a new Burt
Rutan design had leaked out. It was reminiscent of the
high-altitude Proteus, with its unusual but pressure-friendly round
portholes, sleek fuselage, and twin booms. Burt was up to
something, but what?
On December 17, 2003, he let the world know. The Scaled team
launched a powered flight of SpaceShipOne, the Mojave Aerospace
Ventures entry in the Ansari X-Prize competition. That first flight
in 2003 was as successful as the first flights of December 17,
1903. The date was not a coincidence, but a homage to the Wrights.
And like the Wrights' first flights, the day ended with the craft
that would test a new element for mankind back in the barn and a
bit the worse for wear, as SpaceShipOne suffered a gear collapse on
What they did
While Rutan was paying conscious respect to the Wrights, it's
possible that 100 years from now the Wrights will look like
foreshadowing to Rutan and Scaled. because the team's
accomplishment cannot be overstated, or denied, or gainsaid. They
put a man in space -- two of them in fact. They did it a
total of three times, and they are prepared to do it again.
Two of the space flights were the qualifying flights that
brought the $10 million Ansari X Prize home to Mojave in the fall
of 2004. The third was the first space flight on June 21, 2004; the
culmination of preliminary testing of the system.
Who did it
The major media have
zeroed in on Burt Rutan, the head of Scaled and the principal
conceptual designer of SpaceShipOne, and the two pilots who flew
the record flights, Mike Melvill and Brian Binnie.
To the extent that, for the first time in their lives, Mike
doesn't have to correct people add an unnecessary trailing "e" to
his last name, and Brian doesn't have to point out that there's no
"y" in his.
The stories of derring-do written by so many reporters who
evidently long for heroes as in the olden times embarrass these
men. Mike is not the reckless maverick that USA Today
depicted in a story bordering on fiction.
Neither is recognizable as the cardboard cartoon cutout of him
that shows up in an overheated story in Popular Science. If you
were to corner one of these celebrities, you might get an earful:
and it would contain multiple instances of the words "team"
While Burt Rutan may be
the Wernher von Braun of the team -- technically, Mojave Aerospace
Ventures -- the LBJ of this lash-up, the guy who provided the money
and the backing, is just as important: Paul Allen, a co-founder of
Allen may be the most unsung member of the team, and that may
be how he wants it. I wish I could introduce him to every kid
I see who equates wealth with conspicuous consumption. I saw a
couple of celebrities at the launch in thousand-dollar threads, and
a whole bunch of people had GDP-of-a-small-island-nation
He comes across as the guy next door, a guy who just happens to
own sufficient wealth to sponsor a world-changing enterprise
-- and who spends his money on that, not bling-bling from the pages
of the Robb Report. One of the amusing things about the mainstream
press was the sheer number of them that could not recognize Mr.
Allen. He had a lot more freedom to move around than, say, Burt, or
the Ansaris, or Richard Branson, whose every move was attended by a
phalanx of... hmmm... people who do phalanx for celebrities, I
There many other
people who made it happen. Doug Shane, the project's answer to
Apollo's Chris Kraft, and much, much more. Peter Siebold, who is
equally comfortable with computers and airplanes. Cory
Bird, known to people in sport aviation for his eye-popping,
award-winning Symmetry homebuilt. Many others toiled in
relative anonymity, but don't have to worry about media
stalkers finding their names in the Palmdale telephone
book. Fame is a two-edged sword.
Aero-News was there
Aero-News was there for the first space flight in June, and for
both of the qualifying flights in September. Most of the nation
slumbered, but those who knew flocked to Mojave. A new century's
optimism scented the crisp desert air. We covered the story in a
depth and detail than no one else could have done. We almost became
part of the story ourselves, as you'll see in "The Trouble With
Pilots," and "Will Anyone Take My World Record Data?" below.
Our coverage team included Jim Campbell, our Publisher,
who double-hatted as the X-Prize organization's lead
photographer; yours truly, for the record flights; Wes
Oleszewski, the only man in history to have fathered a spacefaring
ant; and Pete Combs at home base. (Pete was supposed to join us,
but duty overcame his desire to join in. So all of you who
appreciated the updates, send some love Pete's way.)
While at Mojave we drank in the unique vibe of that place,
immersed in local lore and tuned in to the happenings at XCOR,
Orbital Sciences, and other vendors. I got an update on the sad
fate of one of my favorite ventures, the ill-fated Rotary Rocket
Roton. I got spun up on regulatory issues and almost got a picture
of the world's only flying Martin-Baker MB5. I met friends I had
known online for years... and many that I see at every show.
However, I was surprised at the thin turnout of aviation
Didn't people know that this was the time and place where the
world would change forever? Evidently not. Maybe they couldn't
get a flight into Burbank, or they got lost in the desert and some
day we'll find their bleached bones. Some of the terrain around
Mojave reminded me of Afghanistan but the roads were better and the
bandits that exacted a highway tax wore Highway Patrol
uniforms, instead of warlord threads. Of course, the
rockets here were all friendly.
Scaled is different
Scaled Composites is probably the first 21st-Century
enterprise -- it is structured and operates like no other business
on Earth. Where most businesses grow until they become unwieldy,
Scaled stays compact and flexible. Lines of authority may be
somewhat fluid, and job titles are, frankly, a joke. The very idea
of a job title implies that someone has one specific job, and that
just doesn't happen at Scaled.
In technology companies
where I have worked, even the most flexible and modern had distinct
classes of employees. The dinosaurs among them practiced strict
discrimination between engineers and technicians or fabricators; it
reaches an administrative feudal age. An engineer who knew his way
around the shop floor was viewed by peers and superiors with
suspicion; a mechanic who got too friendly with the engineers would
be put in his place.
On the other hand, everyone at Scaled is a jack of many
trades. All the engineers can and do build things with their hands
-- in a surprising number of cases, they've built a Rutan-designed
or -inspired airplane. In fact, that's what got Mike
Melvill hired all those years ago -- his workmanship on his own
Long-EZ. Furthermore, there is no job at Scaled -- not even
Burt's -- that excuses a worker out of sanding
fiberglass. If you're going to change the world with
composites, you are going to have to do finish work. Engineers at
Scaled have calluses on their hands, and assemblers use their
brains. In a world where every company gives lip service to ideas
over egos, it's astonishing to see what sort of miracles
happen when someone actually runs a company that way.
Technically, the X-Prize competitor was Mojave Aerospace
Ventures, a sometimes awkward melding of folks from Scaled
and Vulcan Capital, Allen's firm. Not everyone in Scaled was
involved in this particular project -- there are a lot of things
going on in the secretive civil skunkworks, only some of which are
When the question
arose as to what would become of the $10 million Ansari X
Prize, Burt Rutan answered that, as the man that put up all the
money for the winning team, Paul Allen deserved it. Burth went
on to say that Allen had generously decided to share it with
Scaled, and that some of the money would be shared among the whole
SpaceShipOne/White Knight team. More so than in other enterprises,
the Scaled crew know that each of them contributed in multiple ways
to the success of the X-Prize entry.
Every business in America is choking on "teamwork" buzzwords and
catch phrases -- here's an outfit that is actually doing it.
The trouble with pilots
With some of the best pilots in the world on hand -- all of them
people who also do other jobs in the Scaled -- four candidates were
chosen to train on and fly White Knight and SpaceShipOne -- you'd
think that the program would have no pilot worries. That didn't
happen. One of the selectees, Doug Shane, was also running the
To keep the external pressure on the pilots down, Scaled did
something that Burt has made a religion in the company: it played
all cards very close to the vest. For the first prize flight, the
pilot's name was announced as the machine taxied out. It was the
man who'd flown the first space flight, the crowd favorite,
63-year-old Mike Melvill, the gently-accented voice of the Rutan
Aircraft Factory to many Long-EZ builders, a legend in the small
world of canard aviation, and an unknown to the mainstream
Mike was in fact a last-minute choice to fly the mission.
Another pilot had been on the schedule, but due to personal
stresses in his life, he decided the best thing to do was step down
and not have his divided focus present any risks to the program.
This was a rare, and selfless, action.
Prior to that, project manager Doug Shane had decided that he
should do less flying and concentrate on mission control.
Pilots got ill; pilots had health scares; pilots had babies
coming. In the end, Burt turned as he had so many times to his
friend, Mike Melvill. He would later joke with a TV reporter that
putting a good friend on board was proof he was confident in the
design. If he hadn't been, he quipped, he could have used a
After Mike's flight, speculation about the pilot for the second
qualification mission started everywhere, except at Aero-News.
You see, we knew already -- an awkward knowledge. A very highly
placed Scaled insider sent an email to a friend of his revealing
the next pilot. The friend sent the message on to a couple of
friends -- including Jim Campbell. The story was written, but we
didn't feel right releasing it. Sure, the guy had sent it to Jim,
and hadn't said "not for publication..." but still, it felt
smarmy... and they probably really did want to hold the information
Jim finally called Scaled, and told them we had the information.
Burt called back: please don't release it. We sat on it until 20
minutes before the information was officially released, which was
OK with them -- we had our scoop, but not so early as to disturb
preparations for the flight. Burt's main concern? The new pilot,
Brian Binnie, had a listed phone number. "He'll have to take his
phone off the hook, or move out of his house," commented
Rutan. Indeed, most of the key personnel at Scaled had listed
phone numbers in the Palmdale white pages. They had never been
subjected to the plague of media locusts from hell.
The trouble with the media
The general-interest press generally does a poor job covering
aviation and aerospace stories, but they outdid themselves this
Rather than just cover the story, or try to actually understand
the complex organization and the people involved, many reporters
kept trying to fit the tale into some kind of preconceived plot, as
if they were screenwriters for some made-for-TV epic in their own
Starring Burt Rutan as Tom Swift and Mike Melvill as Buck Rogers
in the 25th Century, it was entertaining to watch the
reporters obvious discomfort as Burt waxed eloquent on
freedom, government, and various politicians. Most of Burt's
political asides didn't make it into the stories, but his frequent
disparagements of NASA (pronounced "naysay" if you're Burt)
certainly did. To Burt and many of the Mojave gang, who have
the rugged libertarian outlook of frontier people, government
agencies are good at being government agencies, not
necessarily at doing anything.
Two media moments stick out in my mind. The first is USA Today's
story after the Melvill's first record flight. That reporter
sat in the same press conference as I did, but she described a
completely different flight than I recall hearing about. She
reported that Mike Melvill defied ground control and continued
flying, at great risk to his life, and so on and so
forth. The fanciful story was accompanied by a graphic that
showed the machine doing a series of wild spirals on its climb.
SpaceShipOne had in fact rolled on its axis.
The roll looked alarming. "Is it supposed to do that?" a
NASA wheel asked Wes, with some concern. It was,
however, easily enough explained, after Rutan's people had
taken time to go over the data. A bit of rudder had caused the
roll, just as the aircraft was approaching the edge of space. Just
as Mike put in opposite aileron to stop the roll, the spacecraft
reached the point where aerodynamic controls were ineffective.
Without atmospheric friction, the little craft would have spun
indefinitely, but Mike stopped it with reaction controls, otherwise
known as thrusters.
The re-entry and landing were normal... all but
Will anyone take my world record data?
Between flights, everybody but the Scaled crew had down
time. The Scaled pilots practiced landings in Mike Melvill's
Long-EZ, with a special panel made to reduce visibility to the
looking-through-a-Swiss-cheese effect of the round-portholed
Most of the major media lit out of the hills, hopefully to look
up the difference between a spiral and a roll. (Nah. Not likely.)
The X-Prize organizers blasted off to Los Angeles and other
places to organize. We decided to continue digging
up other stories in the Palmdale/Mojave area, stories like
Blackbird Airpark and how the county Fire Department prepared for
the unwanted possibility of a spacecraft mishap. One day, Wes
and I are sitting in the X-Prize offices in Mojave and in comes
this guy with an Edwards shirt. He tried to give us a stack of
papers and videotapes, and when we were puzzled, said, "Hey, wait a
Turns out the data he was holding were the proofs required for
the X-Prize -- tracking profiles from the powerful radars at
Edwards, certified by NAA and FAI as well as the X-Prize
certification team. After having a little fun with ideas, like
trying to trade a genuine Aero-News shirt for the record date, we
put the guys from Edwards in touch with the head of the
certification team, Greg Maryniak. We kept having fun with ideas.
The best one came out of Wes' warped brain, of course: "I wonder
what that stuff would bring on eBay?" -- For the record, the
Ant Man and I never touched the data.
The second flight
The second, qualifying flight was so routine that it nearly was
another anticlimax, even though it went flawlessly. Brian
Binnie blew away Joe Walker's X-15 altitude record on a flight
that wrote Binnie's name into the record books, like Melvill's, for
all time. After the flight, he spoke modestly... he pulled his wife
to the podium.
Brian Binnie is always conscious of the team behind him, whether
it's his family or the dedicated crew at Scaled. He knows that it
could as well have been Mike, or Doug, or Peter -- they're all
great pilots, and we'll hear from them again. The official name of
the White Knight/SpaceShipOne combination is "Tier One." Nobody at
Scaled denies that there's Tier Two ... or more... in development.
They just smile.
So where do we go from here?
The key personalities outside of Scaled were those at the
X-Prize organization. They are trying to organize an annual space
competition, the X-Prize Cup -- a preliminary round will take place
in New Mexico in 2005, and it will get seriously underway in 2006.
A representative of the New Mexico state government was at the
press conference, and he found himself challenged by a legendary
Mojave pilot who was not directly part of Tier One. Dick Rutan,
Burt's older brother, warned that Mojave will not give up its
space crown without a fight. So even the spaceports are in
competition -- which can only mean great things.
We'll certainly see a lot more prizes and competitions. They
worked, as Peter Diamandis, Greg Maryniak, Erik Lindbergh and the
other key folks on the X-Prize Foundation never tire of saying, in
the early 20th Century to expand flight. They can work in the 21st
to expand spaceflight. Along with the X-Prize Cup,
the first natural-for-TV space spectacular, we'll have the orbital
Bigelow prize, a prize for space elevators, and who knows what
Scaled has undertaken to construct a fleet of space tourism
ships, like SpaceShipOne but larger, for Sir Richard Branson's
Virgin Galactic space tourism line. The time will come when the
well-heeled can see what only government-sponsored astronauts and a
couple of Scaled pilots have seen: the view from suborbital
Orbit? Now, that's a tough nut to crack. Much higher velocities
will be needed on ascent; much more energy will need to be shed on
re-entry. The Bigelow Prize is a lot bigger than the X-Prize, but
then, so is the challenge.
Is Burt Rutan or anybody at Scaled planning an orbital vehicle?
Or anybody else at Mojave? Nobody would answer that question. They
What were the technical breakthroughs?
Many people were left wondering what the technical breakthroughs
were that made SpaceShipOne possible, when the entire project from
conceptual design to flight operations has run on half the
incremental cost that NASA incurs when they fly a politician on the
space shuttle. Rutan would say his greatest breakthrough is safety
-- he considers SpaceShipOne 100 times safer than previous
spacecraft. But safety is a result, not a technology. Here's what
sets this design apart:
- The feather -- The aerodynamic "feather"
recovery is a remarkably ingenious system. It makes for what Rutan
calls "carefree reentry." The spacecraft can enter the atmosphere
in any attitude, even inverted, and the feather will orient it
upright, decelerate it and keep it under control.
- The powerplant -- The innovative hybrid rocket
in SpaceShipOne can't explode, unlike traditional rockets.
- New ablative materials -- Both the
material in the rocket nozzle and the heat shielding on the belly,
which is painted-on during preflight, are designed to burn
off, essentially sacrificing themselves for the sake of the
- Simplicity and lightness -- These two
Rutan trademarks are found throughout the ship. For one thing, it
remains the world's only shirtsleeve environment spacecraft, ever.
The control system of SpaceShipOne is simple as they come -- it
wouldn't be out of place in a Long-EZ. But simplicity and weight
reduction isn't done at the expense of safety or strength.
- Training and simulation -- A complete
training and simulation package was part of the design from the
very beginning. To reinforce the training, the cockpits of
SpaceShipOne and the carrier plane, White Knight, are identically