Good Morning, Mojave
Pulp Syndicate

alt news: Behind the scenes at the SpaceShipOne launch

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How fitting, that on the morning I went to watch a rocket plane soar into space, I was woken up by a man named Cosmo.

I was sleeping in my pal Gianfranco’s 1986 Winnebago, which we’d parked in the designated media area of the Mojave Seaport –- nee Airport -- located near the axis of highways 14 and 58 and home to a test pilot flight school and a jumbo jet boneyard.

Cosmo was five feet away, standing in front of a tripod holding a vintage VHS camera, taping a stand-up shot for his Central California cable access program. Cosmo’s car door was open. His oxygen tank was nearby. Same for his breathing tube. He was going on, loudly, with good reason and at great length about the historic importance of the day.

We’d all gathered in the desert early Monday morning to witness the successful second voyage within five days of the Burt Rutan-built and Paul Allen-financed SpaceShipOne.

Precisely at dawn, the Dalmatian-spotted vessel hitched a ride skyward from her White Knight mothership. T-plus one hour and twenty or so minutes later, SpaceShipOne shuttlecock glided alone back down to Mojave runway three-zero and her owners laid claim to the $10 Million Ansari X Prize for private enterprise extra-terrestrial achievement.

Call it one small trip to weightlessness, one giant opportunity for the assembled anti-federal crowd to crow.

Take Gene Simmons.

“This is going to kick NASA in a well-intentioned location,” the Kiss leader said while being interviewed over the public address system. Or at least that’s what my notes read. It was early.

“The American entrepreneurial spirit is not only alive, but alive and well,” Simmons also said.

Maybe it was, out on the runway, or in the nearby Voyager Restaurant, home of the peanut butter burger. But alongside the tarmac, I didn’t encounter a single hawker selling mangos, bottled water, unshelled peanuts, bootleg copies of “The Right Stuff.” Nothing. Not even alien jerky from that stand in Baker.

“The riches on Earth are nothing compared to space,” X Prize founder Peter Diamandis. “We’ll have our first trillionaires up there.”

They better love Kiss Alive! on Pluto.

Or: Enter Sir Richard Branson.

The rakish British billionaire balloonist was on hand, acting exactly as a rakish British billionaire balloonist ought. Shirt unbuttoned well past clavicle, flowing long hair tussled just so, he began two of his three public remarks with comments related to sex.

Branson eventually mentioned his Virgin Galactic spaceline, to be built by Rutan as a five-seat craft. The mogul then noted the possibility of a Virgin Space Hotel and a Virgin Moon Hotel. Branson and Rutan pledged to be passengers on the first Virgin Galactic Flight. Paul Allen said he’d think about joining them.

That was about as jolly as the Mojave morning went. Maybe it was the austere desert surroundings; maybe the genuine appreciation of space held by spectators and participants alike. The ramrod, boyish-looking 51-year-old pilot Brian Binnie, held an American flag aloft and thanked god that he -- the pilot, not necessarily the deity -- lives in America. A local brass band played the national anthem three times. And from the moment SpaceShipOne reappeared high above to when she landed, a reverential hush came over the crowd.

At this moment, it would take a real spoilsport to bring up Adolph Hitler. But in order to avoid staring directly into the desert low morning sun, most of the crowd followed the directions of a voice over the public address and raised our right arms at a 45-degree angle and held them there. We looked like Nazis at a Hitler rally. Seig Heil, space baby.

More macabre: Last Wednesday, Mike Melvill, another SpaceShipOne pilot, had managed to inject a little six feet under while rising 62 miles high. Inside a canister in the pocket of his flightsuit, Melvill carried ashes of the dead mother of Burt Rutan.

Monday, Rutan’s father, George, repeated that story for reporters. Rutan gris wore a space shuttle button and a beige fishing hat. Not far away, a guy in a black Merle Haggard concert tour t-shirt walked by. Near him, a plump, red-faced security volunteer raged that a TV reporter had snuck into the V.I.P. area. A higher-up came over and said, stand clear for Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock.

A little girl in a brown dress held a bedraggled stuffed animal that made the Velveteen Rabbit seem straight outta an FAO Schwartz window display. She was the only person I noticed not eyeing the sky. It was a wasted opportunity for pickpockets.

A woman in the crowd said, “This is the greatest day of my life.”

An X Prize team member held a radio tuned to mission control.

When pilot Binnie reached 328,000 feet, the threshold of space, en route to a non-government altitude record of 367,442 feet, the tower inquired, “Feeling good?”

Said Binnie: “I’m feeling great.”

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