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« Good Grief | Main | Radio Gig »

New Face In The Cockpit

My former co-worker at Rotary Rocket, Brian Binnie, will be piloting today's (hopefully) prize-winning flight.

[Update a couple minutes later]

After a little surfing, my recommendation is to watch on MSNBC if you get it. Intead of John Pike, they've got Jim Oberg to provide commentary.

[Update a couple more minutes later]

Oops. He just misspoke, saying that the FAA would have to certify the spaceship that Burt builds for Branson. Not under the current regulatory regime. All they will have to do is get a launch license.

[Another update]

I switched back to Fox, where Bridget Quinn was interviewing Walt Cunningham. When she asked him if this meant that we'd be able to go into space, he splashed cold water on the idea, saying that maybe her "children's children" would do it. He then went on to explain that what Branson wanted to do would be much more expensive, because SpaceShipOne didn't have all the redundant systems that "safety regulators" would require.


He doesn't know what he's talking about, since there are no "safety regulators" when it comes to passenger spaceflight. The FAA is concerned only with third-party (uninvolved people on the ground) not first or second parties. As I said, there is currently no such thing as certification for such vehicles--only launch licensing, and that is a process that doesn't oversee passenger safety.

[Update after launch]

Well, that was a lot smoother than the first two. I don't know if Brian is a better pilot, or if he was on the lookout for things based on his discussions with Mike Melvill.

Shortly after apogee, someone said that he's won the prize.

Not yet. He has to land safely first...

[Update at 11:10 or so]

OK, the nosewheel just touched down. The prize is won, once they verify the altitude, which if it holds up at 368,00 feet will be a new altitude record, beating the previous one long held by the X-15 by almost three miles.

Dale Amon (who just called me to inform me of that) has been covering this as well.

Posted by Rand Simberg at October 04, 2004 06:47 AM
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X-Prize Attempt 2
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Excerpt: On the 47th anniversary of Sputnik, Rutan and crew claim the X-Prize. Meaning there is hope for private space enterprise. Don't worry, the Ansari Foundation will continue to promote innovation in space flight. Rand Simberg blogged it live. Read the com...
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Tracked: October 17, 2004 09:24 AM

I saw Brian's face last night on the Discovery Channel. Around 11:30 PM CDT, I turned to the Discovery Channel and caught part of "Black Sky: The Race for Space". I was too tired to stay up much past midnight (or, I knew better than to stay up). It was a pretty interesting program, and a second one is scheduled for Thursday, 7 Oct, called "Black Sky: The X-Prize" or something like that.

Here's hoping that today goes off without too many hitches!

p.s. - am I the only one that's bugged by the news reports the last few days talking about how last Friday was "the first privately funded flight into space" and today being billed as the "second"...

Yes, the press coverage and sponsorship is A Good Thing, but it would be nice if the news was factually correct...

Posted by John Breen III at October 4, 2004 07:00 AM

Cunningham's remarks make me wonder if he is just holding the "party line" on civilian space tourism. You know the Right Stuff and all that kinda' horse puckey. You can't go into space without your PhD in your back pocket, etc.

I think most of us old Heinlein fans see Burt Rutan and his crowd, the way we saw the D.D. Harriman character, in The Man Who Sold The Moon. A man with a vision and the personal drive and leadership to carry it off.

I am glued to the TV just like I was in July 1969, I'm older but my eyes are still wide with wonder.

Posted by Steve at October 4, 2004 07:30 AM

I kinda wish I were at home right now, personally. As a sign of how popular this event is today, the webcast from is spotty. I can't hold a streaming connection for much more than 20 seconds at a time, whereas Friday's launch streamed without any difficulties.

Searching around for more webcasts right now.

Posted by John Breen III at October 4, 2004 07:36 AM

Watching on CNN. Miles O'Brien has Dick Rutan doing commentary. Much better than the ignorance on display at FNN.

Posted by Stewart at October 4, 2004 07:37 AM

The Heinlein vision is wonderful, but in the real world we have lawyers and insurance. Will Branson fly without the latter? If not, then who will cover his business without some form of vetting/regulatory coverage?

Posted by Derek L. at October 4, 2004 07:39 AM

I agree we have lawyers and all those other hangers on who would squash this. Or regulate it to death. Maybe Branson will buy an island somewhere in the south Pacific where the government will be "friendly" to the enterprise.

Holly Mackeral!!! Well I hope Fox or someone will re-run the drop and launch again in its entirety, just as we were about to see the drop, I lost the feed for the weekly test of the EBS. I can't belive it!!!

Posted by Steve at October 4, 2004 08:14 AM

368,000 feet!

Posted by Mumblix Grumph at October 4, 2004 08:16 AM

I think that a lot of the old timer NASA guys like Cunningham are caught up in the "only the government can and should do this" mindset.

I remember arguing the point that we needed private industry, like Burt Rutan, to encourage more space exploration with Hans Mark. He dismissed my idea with contempt. Of course, who was I but a snot-nosed undergraduate?

Posted by Astrosmith at October 4, 2004 08:25 AM

Touch down!

Posted by Mumblix Grumph at October 4, 2004 08:25 AM

They haven't won yet - the pilot has to survive for at least 24 hours after the landing. So, here's hoping that Brian doesn't have a sudden heart attack in the next day...

Posted by bob at October 4, 2004 08:38 AM

Brian Binnie just said during the post-flight press conference that his mother-in-law spilled "a pound of coffee" on him before the flight.

Hopefully this won't become a preflight tradition (like steak and eggs for breakfast at Kennedy, or "watering the tarmac" at Baikonur).

Posted by Joe at October 4, 2004 09:03 AM

Rand, I liked your reminder a couple of posts ago that today is the anniversary of Sputnik's launch, the "dawn of the space age." Like you, I hope today's date will now serve double duty, commemorating both the dawn of the [governmental] space age, and the dawn of the private space age.

Posted by John Lanius at October 4, 2004 09:42 AM

Let Walter Cunningham live out his miserable luddite life thinking that space is only for big governments. If those men were the chosen few, then this is the Reformation.

Here I stand, I can do no other.

Posted by Andrew at October 4, 2004 10:32 AM

Well you got it Rand. You predicted that Burt was big on anniversaries and sure enough they won the prize the day Sputnik was shot into space. Good job!!

Posted by Josh "Hefty" Reiter at October 4, 2004 11:04 AM

I agree with Glenn Reynolds also, we need to see you ,Rand, on a TV show to set the masses straight on how we should really be thinking about space flight.

Posted by Josh "Hefty" Reiter at October 4, 2004 11:07 AM

I am wondering if the roll "Problem" was caused by excessive rudder and an over abundance of adrenalin.

Posted by Ryan at October 4, 2004 11:59 AM

> After a little surfing, my recommendation is to watch on MSNBC if you get it. Intead
> of John Pike, they've got Jim Oberg to provide commentary.

The Science Channel had five hours of coverage with Greg Marynak and a woman from the Science Channel who is, in my opinion, much cuter than Jim. YMMV, of course. :-)

Posted by Edward Wright at October 4, 2004 12:49 PM

I see that the 7UP company is sponsoring a "Free flight into space" contest. I think this is a BAD idea. The current regulatory regime regarding this type of spacecraft allows for the pilot and his passengers to be "risk takers" who have taken up responsibility for their own safety, or lack of it.
By letting people enter this 7UP contest, and then winning, you will be attracting people who may or may not be truly willing to take this incredible risk. What happens when this "innocent" winner gets killed during an unsuccessful flight?
For the current time, I think only those who "put up or shut up" and plunk down their own hard earned cash, and sign all the forms BEFORE getting a ticket should be passengers.
The pilots, of course, are on their own.

Remember, this venture, I would estimate, has a one in one thousand chance of killing an individual passenger. Roughly 1000 times more hazardous than commercial jet passenger flight, and 100 times more hazardous than light helicopter flight.

Posted by j.pickens at October 4, 2004 04:21 PM

Just to clarify, I am completely in favor of this commercial space passenger venture. I just want to avoid getting it tangled up in legal and government interference as long as possible...

Posted by j.pickens at October 4, 2004 04:24 PM

j.pickens, you really need to pay more attention. Considering there have only been 3 private human spaceflights, and all 3 of them have been successful, how can you possibly claim that the risk of failure is 1000 or 100 times that of commercial air? So far, the success rate is, well, 100%...

Also, if you paid ANY attention, Burt repeated a line (that he's spoken before) after SS1 touched down today. He said that he now has an obligation to Virgin Galactic to provide flight capability, and he also has a responsibility to see to it that his flights are 100 to 1000 times LESS hazardous than commercial airliner flight.

As far as the 7-Up prize goes, it's a contest which will likely contain a LOT of waiver forms, etc. Anyone who takes one of these flights will be assuming a risk, whether they pay for it or someone sponsors their way. If they can't pass the pre-flight prep (and there is pre-flight prep and training involved), then they don't go. It's up to them to assume the risk as an adult capable of making their own informed decisions. Also, you don't seriously think that the lawyers at 7Up/Dr Pepper would allow this contest to run if they hadn't already weighed the risks, do you?

All in all, a pretty poor attempt at trolling. Either that, or you've been paying WAY too much attention to the (grossly misinformed) MSM.

Posted by John Breen III at October 4, 2004 04:30 PM

Hey John -- before you go off accusing anyone of trolling, you might want to listen more closely to what Burt said. He said that he was aiming to be safer than the "FIRST passenger jetliners" -- which I believe had a safety record a lot closer to 1-in-1000 than their current 1-in-10 million. There is no WAY that Burt would even ATTEMPT to be safer than that; he's no safety fanatic, and has said many times that spaceflight is a risky business, and that if nobody ever gets killed, then you aren't trying hard enough.

That said, I'm sure that the 7-up Prize winner will have to sign several dozen very gruesome waivers, and if they're unable to do so, can take an equivalent cash prize home. If they go through the waivering process, then whatever else happens is on their heads.

Posted by Nathan Koren at October 4, 2004 05:07 PM

Speaking of paying attention, Mr. Breen, Mr. Rutan didn't say he'd make space flight "100 to 1000 times LESS hazardous than commercial airliner flight.". He said he'd make it "at least 100 times safer than anything that is ever flown into space.". He's seperately said that he expects it to be at least as safe as the first commercial airlines, but he has explicitly disclaimed making it as safe as current commercial airlines: "No one is going to be able to claim or guarantee that commercial space operations is going to be as safe as a 747. Airlines have had seven decades of maturity."

If we consider the Shuttle's benchmark of approximately 50 flights/failure what Ratan means by "anything that is ever flown into space," then he'd be shooting for one failure every 5,000 flights. In 1996, there were approximately 7,300,000 flights, with 323 fatal accidents, for a rate for something like 22,600 flights/fatal accident, much better than Ratan's presumed safetly goal.

I do completely agree that it's utterly impossible to come up with any kind of risk number for SSO with only 3 flights any more than Shuttle managers with fifty flights under their belts were justified in claiming a failure rate of one in a hundred thousand. But Ratan has never claimed he'll be as reliable as commercial airlines, and I think he's shooting for a risk of something like 1:5000, not 1:22000.

Posted by Brett A. Thomas at October 4, 2004 05:13 PM

DOH! I just noticed my 1:22,000 number is utterly meaningless - it's the General Aviation fatal accident number with the Commercial Aviation flight total. In 1996, there were only 3 Commercial Aviation fatal accidents, for a fatal failure rate of 1:2,433,333. Which I'm sure Ratan has no intention of meeting.

Posted by Brett A. Thomas at October 4, 2004 05:16 PM

Good points, Brett! With one minor detail: it's "Rutan"... ;-P

Posted by Nathan Koren at October 4, 2004 07:46 PM

Double-DOH! :) I had knee surgery last week and wish to claim the "Vicadin" defense. ;)

Now if I'd only been paying more attention perhaps I could've avoided these errors...

Posted by Brett A. Thomas at October 4, 2004 08:18 PM

Hey, I'm just trying to be a little preemptive here.
After LOTS of Serious arm twisting, the private rocket industry has been "allowed" by the FAA to do its thing without too much interference.
The only thing the FAA has required is that the participants be fully responsible for their actions, so that safety can be correctly, in my opinion, the responsibility of the participants.

By having a large corporation bestow a ticket to space on someone, the chances for a big media broughhaha if anything goes wrong pose a threat to this industry. The FAA would have to "act", and that action could easily shut down this enterprise.

Posted by j.pickens at October 4, 2004 10:28 PM

Oh, and as to my safety estimates. I stand by them.
My one in one thousand passengers mortality estimate would be correct if a single fatal accident occurred which killed all passengers in a three passenger rocket once in three thousand flights.

I would be willing to bet a lot of money that there will be someone killed before three thousand flights of this or similar craft have been undertaken.

Again, I am a proponent of this effort, but one should be realistic about the prospects. These are explosive, energetic materials encased in lighweight composite structures undergoing major mechanical and aerodynamic loading.

Sh*t will happen.
But we may also get back to the Moon and to Mars out of the effort.
It IS worth the risk. Underplaying the risk does NOT help.

Posted by j.pickens at October 4, 2004 10:37 PM

You said, "this venture, I would estimate, has a one in one thousand chance of killing an individual passenger." You then said "as to my safety estimates. I stand by them." My point is that, with a grand total of three flights, no meaningful safety estimates can be made, by anyone, including Burt Rutan. The Space Shuttle managers famously used to claim a "1 in 100,000" failure rate for their product before the Challenger accident, and I think we have seen today that the number is probably more like 1:50. It is not prudent to claim a predictive, "I think the accident rate is 1:X" where X is substantially larger than the number of flights flown without an accident. Especially if you have very little in-depth personal knowledge of the product, and I'm guessing you don't work for Scaled Composites.

I believe Burt Rutan is shooting for 1:5,000 as a minimum for his next generation. But unexpected things happen, and I don't think any of us - including Burt Rutan - can make a meaningful estimate of the reliability of a craft that has made three flights. Mr. Rutan has a goal - and I certainly hope he makes it - but I don't think anyone can make meaningful predictions of what the actual accident rate will be, now. I could say "I think it'll be 1:100" or "I think it'll be 1:10,000," and I'd have exactly as much evidence for my position as you do.

Posted by Brett A. Thomas at October 5, 2004 10:17 AM

I am reading your comments about safety concerning the 7Up contest with great interest, as my husband is a winner of one of the 100 tickets in the final drawing. We assume the winner will have about two years to make a final decision, although we have a certain, probably naive, confidence in Rutan that we have lost in NASA.

Posted by Linda B. at June 25, 2005 09:11 PM

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