Looking up

It was just before our second Christmas in Boise. On December 14, 1986, a long-winged, hand-hand-built airplane, made from lightweight honeycomb-graphite composites, powered by two 100 hp engines, one on the front and the other on the back, filled to capacity with fuel, took off from Edwards Air Force Base in California. On board were two pilots, Jeana Yeager and Dick Rutan, brother of the airplane’e designer, Burt Rutan. I had been following the construction of the airplane since they began building it a couple of years earlier. When an appeal for funds to construct the plane went out to members of the Experimental Aviation Association’s members, I sent a donation of $25. I had friends in North Dakota who were building an airplane to one of Burt’s designers. Their VariEze was a unique design, with a canard wing on he front.

Home built and experimental aircraft were once again leading the process of design and construction innovation. The large corporations, Cessna, Piper, Mooney and Beech were all struggling under a load of product liability lawsuits stemming from accidents that involved their aircraft. Private aircraft design seemed to have stagnated, with all of the factory airplanes costing a fortune for a 30 year old design.

Dick and Jena set a record, flying around the world nonstop without refueling. They landed nine days after taking off at the same airport, having followed a route that was determined by weather, wind, politics and geography.

I first saw their airplane, Voyager, hanging above the front desk at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum when we took our children to Washington D.C. I stared in awe at the amazing plane and the incredible feat that it accomplished. I still pause in wonder each time I see the plane, which is now hanging in Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

Burt Rutan’s company, Scaled Composites, continued to innovate in aircraft design, turning out new designs. You can see the influence of the design of Voyager in the Virgin Atlantic Global Flyer, in which Steve Fossett flew nonstop, solo around the world, taking off and landing at Salina Kansas in just over 67 hours, setting the around-the-world speed record. He didn’t stop there. He flew from the NASA Kennedy Space Center around the world and landed in Bournemouth, England and set an absolute distance flying record.

If you look at pictures of the airplanes, it is easy to see the design connection between Voyager and Global Flyer and VMS Eve, the mothership that carried Spaceship Two aloft yesterday when a new record was set when the smaller ship undocked at high altitude, ignited its rocket engine and flew into space. Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Two wasn’t the first privately funded space vehicle. That record is held by Elon Musk’s Space X rocket. Spaceship Two, however, was the first to carry people into space. The plan is to become the first commercial space tourism company. Virgin Galactic has already booked 600 customers who will pay $250,000 each for a 90-minute ride into space.

I am not among the customers. It doesn’t look likely that the price of space travel will come down into the range of my budget in my lifetime. It is a bit strange, because as a child, I assumed that I would have the opportunity to fly into space. I watched as the astronauts of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs set record after record. The nation’s resolve to conquer space with human piloted vehicles was strong in those days. We all studied our math and science courses and believed that we would be a part of a future that would involve travel away from our home planet.

Space travel, it turns out, is even more costly and complex than we had imagined. Still, yesterday’s historic flight was an amazing feat. Just as I watched Voyageur when Dick and Jenna flew around the world, I pay attention when new records are achieved by amazing individuals who are pushing the limits of design and innovating new ways to travel and explore.

Sir Richard Branson has promised that his company, Virgin Galactic, will be carrying tourists to the edge of space within 18 months. If they achieve that timeline, it will have taken longer than they were predicting. A fatal crash in 2014 set back the program from its original timeline. The company, in cooperation with governmental agencies thoroughly examined what occurred in the crash and although it was determined to have been caused by pilot error, they made necessary changes in systems to prevent future pilots from making the same mistake. It certainly appears that they are back on schedule to soon be carrying space tourists. The pilots were awarded astronaut’s wings by US government officials and their “passenger” a mannequin named Annie. Branson himself is training to be passenger on an upcoming flight. Paying customers will soon follow.

The process is far from inexpensive. The giant four-engined VMS Eve wasn’t built in a backyard garage. The complex systems that power and navigate the mother ship and the smaller, rocket powered spaceship are mind-boggling. The number of obstacles that have had to been met and overcome is amazing.

The news of the flight was welcome yesterday as those of us with our feet on the ground struggled through another day of news of governmental struggle and scandal. My day was filled with routine work and a couple of crises and emergencies to which I responded. The flight of the spaceship wasn’t the most important factor in the lives of some of the people with whom I worked yesterday, and it wasn’t the topic of our conversations. They were facing their own tragedies and crises. They didn’t have time for the news beyond the events in their own families. They won’t remember the day for the news headlines, but rather for a moment of personal tragedy, pain and loss.

Still, as I reached out to walk with them through their lives filled with sadness and loss, I held, in the back of my mind the aspirations and dreams of humans whose ideas have led us into space. There is more to the world than our daily existence and sometimes we need to look up and be reminded that even when our bodies are fixed on earth our spirits can soar to untold heights.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!