Friday, June 25, 2004

SpaceShipOne's First Flight

My old friend Stu Sjouerman of Sunbelt Software, who publishes the popular W2Knews zine for those using Windows 2000 server software, sent out some very interesting links in his newsletter. One of them was to some excellently commented photos of the first space flight of SpaceShipOne, which occurred on Monday, 2004-06-21. The site is published by Richard Seaman, a terrific roving Kiwi photographer. Here are his photos of SpaceShipOne's flight.

Two big problems on the flight got little play in the press - I read about them for the first time in Richard Seaman's comments.

As I understand it, first, the flight was nearly aborted, and the pilot nearly bailed out, when the craft rotated 90 degrees -- it went 20 miles off course in the few seconds it took for the pilot to correct the problem.

Then on the descent, the pilot described a loud bang, which probably happened when the craft re-entered the atmosphere at great speet (but not orbital speed, by a long shot!) which created a sonic boom and apparently did some damage to the rear section of the craft - you can see a crinkle in the shell of the craft just below the nozzle, in one of the pictures.

Live relay of the radio chatter to the crowd was also supposed to be piped in, but was not for reasons never explained.

The gist of it - space flight is a risky business. Even with private funds in great quantity, and plenty of testing, it's still risky.

But when they get the bugs worked out of it--which they undoubtedly will--and it goes through a few more evolutions in size, we'll have an orbital shuttle that will be cheaper, safer, and less prone to the beaurocratic errors that have led to the crash of two of the shuttles. By beaurocratic errors, I mean the beaurocracy that ignored the warnings from the engineers who warned about launching the shuttle with frozen o-rings in subfreezing temperatures, and the other engineers who warned that there could be damage to a wing from falling ice during liftoff.

Much as I hate to admit it, our shuttles are huge, overpriced, over-regulated, and over-engineered in some ways, while under-engineered in others, using antiquated technology. You know the old saw about an elephant being a mouse designed to government specs.

We may not have the technology to do this right, but we're getting there. And private industry will see it done.

Will we have "beanpoles" like those Heinlein described in his sci-fi? Long cables attached to the ground, with the other end attached to a satellite? Will we have ground-based mag-lev launch tracks that simply accelerate something like a boxcar to orbital velocity along an upward-curved track? I don't know. But rockets are risky, complex machines that have too many moving parts to work well ALL the time.

Let's go for something simpler...

Before I forget - here's a salute to the pilot -- no, make that Astronaut! -- of SpaceShipOne -- 63 year old Michael Melvill. Hats off to you!

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