Written by Nejc trošt
Photo: Nejc trošt in Mark Greenberg, Scaled Composites
The interview was made with Brian Binnie, 435. astronaut, test pilot
I am honoured to have the opportunity to speak to one of the pioneers of commercial space travel. Thank you for taking your time for this interview. Why did you become a pilot and what were you doing before you started working for Scaled Composites?
I always wanted to fly. I don’t know whether it was due to the influence of my father or mother, but I grew up fascinated by aeroplanes and birds and anything along those lines. I would draw, make and fly model aeroplanes As far back as I can remember that’s what I wanted to do, there was no doubt about it, and aviation was kind of what I fixated on initially. I went to school and got a degree in Aeronautical Engineering and Aerospace Engineering, as well as a Masters in Fluid Mechanics and Thermal Dynamics. I then joined the Navy as I thought that Navy flying on the aircraft carriers would be exciting and I did that for 20 years. I also went through test pilot school. After my time in the Navy I came to Mojave and joined Rotary Rocket Inc. We built the Rotary Rocket and flew it for two years. I became friends with Burt Rutan along the way and he invited me to Scaled Composites. I arrived about a day after they signed the contract for the SpaceShipOneprogramme. It all worked out very well and the timing was good.
What is your relation with Burt Rutan at the moment and how do you collaborate?
We met on the golf course as we both enjoy the sport and the competition and we also like each other’s company. He appreciated the work I was doing at the Rotary Rocket Inc. and thought he would be able to find an opportunity for me at Scaled Composites. While I was there I got what we call programme management work for the company and I dovetailed that with the flying as a test pilot.
Why do you think Scaled Composites is always a step ahead of other aerospace companieswhich are trying to develop new revolutionary technologies for commercial spacetravel?
I think that Scaled Composites is very unique in the sense that we have as a business, what other bigger companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman do as RND. Most of the bigger companies internal expenses or overhead expenses derive from their research to develop follow-up products. At Scaled Composites we get people to pay us to do that. It’s been successful because Burt had this idea that instead of taking the classical approach of handing the customer the writ report or PowerPoint presentation about what a new vehicle or new technology might be able to accomplish, he thought: “you know, with the same amount of money that NASA would spend on a study, I can build it.” The customer can then watch it fly and write a flight test report on it and that’s much more satisfying, not only for the customer but for Scaled Composites as a company. He had that vision, he had the interest to do it and I think he has been successful. The name “Scaled Composites” came from his concept that instead of building a full size protocol he could build, at a cheaper price, something a little bit smaller but that still enables you to understand how the end product might work. That’s how the name came about and he has made a business out of it for the last 30 years. Big companies are generally looking for a product that they can sell to a lot of people so they focus on production quality, documentation and tooling with the idea that once you get something you like, you can build a thousand of them. We have never done that. We just build one-of-a-kind, proof of concept type vehicles, so we can do it without a lot of paperwork or the sort of details and difficulties associated with the production.
You know Burt Rutan very well. Where does he get his creative inspiration from? Nature? How does he manage to combine the beauty of his aeroplanes and spaceship designs with functionality?
He became involved in aviation at a very early age too. He has an older brother and I think they were always in competition with each other. Burt’s way of demonstrating his independence from his brother was to develop his own area of expertise through conceptualizing different aeroplanes. He was unencumbered as a boy, he was never afraid of building something from scratch, flying it and crashing it. He would then look through the flight records and see what broke and why he couldn’t control it and he would learn from that. It was always a great learning experience for him and he became very adventurous in terms of what he thought he was capable of doing. There is a saying; form follows function in a lot of design processes, but I think sometimes Burt had it the other way around. He could see shapes and liked nice sloppy lines and would build out of composite materials just to create those shapes. His attempts were not always successful but the forms looked appealing to him and he would build them anyway and see how they worked.
Can you briefly describe how SpaceShipOne works and what is the difference between SS1 and SpaceShipTwo?
Well, they are both similar in design and like many of Burt’s aircraft designs; they are both canard configured vehicles. The front wing is really the canard part of the design and the tails are really the main wings. Canards, unlike regular aeroplanes, balance themselves in pitch like a sea saw and the most important feature of the canard is that the back wing, or in this case the spaceship tails, must continue to lift after the front wing stalls. You always want the front wing to stall first so that the vehicle will pitch down, gain the speed and fly away. This represents a nice safety enhancement feature of Burt’s aeroplanes and is the same with SpaceShipOne given the whole articulating wing tail for the re-entry that naturally stabilizes the craft when it starts to hit the atmosphere; the feathering mechanism as we call it. We also developed a hybrid rocket motor to boost it up in the first place. The performance of the hybrid we picked wasn’t necessarily the best in the world but we didn’t need a lot of performance. What we really wanted was something that is safe, reliable, didn’t require a lot of fancy handling procedures or turbo boost pumps and all of those complexities. That was our approach: to build the simplest spaceship you can imagine. We built it and instead of launching it from the ground, we thought that an air launch would be safer and provide more operational flexibility. If you separate from the carry plane and you can’t light the rocket motor, or if you don’t like it you can shut it down and you glide back to land, which is what you intended to do anyway. That was the whole concept and we thought it worked very well. SpaceShipTwo is based on the same idea and principles but is bigger in size.
What was your main concern and what were you thinking about during the famous X-Prize winning flight in 2004?
Well… clearly there were several concerns. In the flight prior to mine, the ship had exhibited a directional departure error as it was leaving the atmosphere and since all the video from the flight was being screened down on the ground for the big jumbo drama, people could see it and it was played over and over again in the news which meant that a lot of people thought that we didn’t understand the vehicle or how to fly it or control it, and that what we were doing was dangerous and not ready for promotion as a commercial concept. We had Sir Richard Branson wanting to sign up for the next generation vehicle, but only if we could demonstrate to him that we knew how to control it. So… we still wanted to get 100 km of altitude on my flight and we needed to perform with precision so that we would leave the atmosphere in a very stable manner. That was a big deal for me as I hadn’t flown the vehicle for almost 10 months and I didn’t have as much currency as Mike did and there were all those people watching. There were cameras everywhere. They were in the cockpit; they were even in the dressing rooms when we were getting in the flight suits. Any number of things could have gone wrong that day and I was concerned that if something did go wrong, I might not be able to control it. It was a great relief when it all ended successfully!
Is there any flight computer, namely the fly-by-wire flight control system inside SpaceShipOne and Two which assists your flight commands for better flight stability?
It is just like for conventional aeroplanes here... it’s stick and rudders with the electric trims. Flight stabilization with computers means more complexity and more systems that could fail. It is another system that requires software development to get it to work right. We didn’t have the time and the money for that. Maybe we should be thinking in this direction for the future. The trick of flying out of the atmosphere was a pretty good one because when you are starting at 40.000 ft the air is already fairly thin and the forces on the structure are limited, unlike on the ground launch where there is much more aerodynamic force. So we avoided a lot of that just by taking the vehicle out of the atmosphere first.
You have gained approximately 5000 flight hours on many different combat and experimental aeroplanes. You are used to the accelerations and stress which are present on such flights. How do you think people without any aviation experience will handle such psycho-physical conditions on the suborbital flights? Is it possible that people will feel unwell like on zero gravity parabola flights?
I think that preventing people from getting too nervous is one of the biggest challenges we face. It takes about an hour to climb to the altitude and in that time you have to keep them occupied and thinking positive. We have a plan to providesufficient training, either on centrifuge training or acrobatic aircraft flights, through putting people in the Spaceship mock-up and exposing them to zero g’s and some of the re-entry type g’s in that aircraft so they get a feel for it. But when it comes to the rocket motor boost … you can’t simulate that, you can just sort of tell them that it’s going to be noisy, there is going to be a lot of vibration and things happen really fast. You have nothing in your DNA to tell you whether it’s good or bad. You will just have to sort of trust us in that manner. If you find that you are still breathing after 10 seconds, then you are doing great. The boost flight won’t affect people so much as this happens on zero gravity parabola flights. People will not get sick from this, although they will be scared, but I think that’s ok. Alongside being scared there is also a lot of excitement. After 10 or 15 seconds the initial acceleration will be behind them and they will see the vehicle is pitching up. They will be able to look outside and see the sky starting to turn. They will see the curvature of the earth and earth’s fragile atmosphere. For a minute and a half it’s just a very exciting ride and then the magic feeling comes when you shut the motor down. That transition happens very quickly and it’s like stepping into an entirely different dimension. The noise goes away, the shaking and vibrations go away and you become weightless. At the same time you have a tremendous view; you will never have viewed anything from this perspective before. You can see for 500 miles in every direction; it’s stunning and it’s marvellous…
Do you think it’s possible to prepare passengers for this unique experience through the architecture of passenger terminals / spaceport designs on the ground?
The important part of the experience is to ensure the background elements are correct. Some people will like to be alone in order to get themselves into the right frame of mind, whilst others will like to be with their families. There is a broad mix of possible feelings that people will experience when preparing themselves. The proper ground facilities have to recognize and accommodate to these different emotions. At the beginning of commercial space travel, it will cater predominantly to wealthy individuals who are spending a lot of money and are probably used to being pampered and to state of the art facilities, restaurants, accommodation etc. I think that in order to properly pull this off spaceport will have to cater for these kinds of people.
Who will be the pilots and what will be the required training?
Well… our goal is to make the next generation vehicle one where pilots with common skills, good stick and rudder skills and an interest and ability to be trained can step in and fly them. The first pilots will come from the airlines and they may have a military background but I don’t think that will be a necessary requirement. All the FAA requires at this moment to fly the SpaceShip is the glider license. I think at the end of the day, somebody with good intuition, good flying sense and a willingness to learn is going to be able to fly this vehicle.
Do you plan to fly it again? What about the maiden flight of SpaceShipTwo in the future?
Well… yeah... that’s why I am here…he, he… but we’ll see who gets the maiden flight. We have the simulator up already and if we have coded it correctly the new vehicle should fly very nicely. The mother ship “Eve”, which is named after Richard Branson’s mother, is already flying and it also fulfilled our expectations and predictions. The SpaceShipOne was a very difficult vehicle to fly. Your normal intuition in aviation did not work well with that aeroplane. It had lots of features that weren’t very pleasant and they could really beat you if you weren’t careful.
How well are Scaled Composites and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic collaborating with each other?
Really very well. The most difficult part of the relationship is legislation as we are burdened by the State department to control the kind of information that flows between the
What is your opinion on the first commercial spaceport that is under construction by Virgin now in
Do you think it will work as a self-promotional object for future space travel?I think it has many attractive features, some of which are quite novel, but having looked at the overall drawing, I am not sure that it is big enough. The spaceport itself is pretty much in the middle of nowhere and people won’t have much to do whilst they are waiting for their flight. In that respect, I think it should be a little larger and more accommodating compared to what I have seen in the drawings. Although there are hangars inside this spaceport, I am not sure about their safety when it comes to handling the fuels and assembling the rocket motors. At Mojave we do everything in the hangar but it will be different there given that it’s a public space. I am a little fuzzy on how you work through some of those issues with the given architecture but I think they have the right people to work on this …
SpaceShipTwo will fly to a suborbital altitude of approximately 110km which is still not enough to escape earth’s gravity and that is also why there is only 5 minutes of zero gravity during the flight. Is it possible to modify this spaceship in the future to go to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) or even on to other planets?
Getting to LEO or escaping the earth’s gravity is just a matter of impulse or the extent to which you accelerate the vehicle. A hybrid rocket motor is probably not the best motor in the world to do that. On a vehicle that needs that kind of thrust, we have to switch to a different type of motor. The other part of the problem is that eventually you will come back and the feathering configuration and geometry on the SS1 and SS2 is also not one that lends itself to orbital speeds in the re-entry environment. It works great for what we use it for but I don’t think you can extrapolate it to more demanding regimes for orbital or planetary travel. I think other solutions are needed.
Who do you think is the Lindbergh of today’s aviation or space travel? Maybe Sir Richard Branson can be compared to Henry Ford…hehe…
In aviation circles I think Lindbergh is pretty unique. In the rocket world, I think that what we did through the SpaceShipOneprogramme was of a similar magnitude. We conducted our first powered flight on the hundredth anniversary of the Wright brothers first powered flight. We picked that date to sort of say to the world “hey look, aviation started 100 years ago by doing simple, modest things and here we are doing the same thing for space.” We were able to go to space on our first flight and win the Ansari X-Prize. I think the parallels are pretty good. Since we did that, other companies have started building their vehicles to compete with us, which makes for a good innovative atmosphere.
What is your biggest concern regarding future commercial space travel?
Honestly speaking, I think there will be accidents, you can count on that. The accidents per se I don’t think are really the issue. People will learn, modify and consequently change the designs. The main concern is that the government will step in if there is an accident and say:”here are all these new rules you have to comply with before you can proceed.” I think the government can very quickly harm the industry. I think that’s the concern; one little hiccup and you get burdened with so much bureaucracy that you can’t proceed any further on such projects. Aviation wasn’t threatened like this but times are different now.
When do you think tickets to space will drop to the price of today’s business class commercial air travel?
I think within 5 years of starting the commercial flights…if it is done safely. The price could come down to the price of a nice car, say $50.000. I don’t see any reason why that couldn’t happen. We have 300 people that have paid the full price of $200.000 and another close to 1000 people who put down a deposit of $.20.000 There is a lot of interest out there. It has to be done safely and people need to believe that they are going to have the experience of their lifetime, which they certainly will have, and then they will come back and talk about it. If we can achieve that then people all around the world will appreciate it and enjoy it.
Slovenian rocket pioneer, engineer Herman PotoÄnikNoordung, in his book written in 1928 titled “The problem of travelling in space”, explains how rockets with small lifting wings could be used for fast commercial air travel in lower parabola flight. Can you use Suborbital spaceships for that type of travelling instead of going so high into space?
Yes and no… hmm.., actually …more no than yes… Going from point to point, whether its across the US or from the US to Asia, Africa or Europe, the energies to get up above the atmosphere and sort of downrange are very close to orbital type speeds. I think the biggest issue here is the fact that the re-entry requires the dissolution of a lot of energy and again this feather configuration does not work as well for that application as does it for the orbital one. I think it’s the right way to look at it. With the SpaceShipTwo we can do the vertical trajectories but we can also go downrange for a couple of hundred miles. You still get the weightlessness, you have the great view but now you get the real sense of the speed which is sort of another dimension to the flight. Just as with aviation, the first powered flight was less than 20s and just a few hundred feet long, but they built something they understood and was reliable and the performance came later. I think it’s going to be the same with all these rockets. You build something initially that you understand, you can afford, you get the reliability up to a level that you are comfortable with and then you can start improving the performance. That’s the natural way that things grow in a technology cycle. That is the way we have developed space travel today in the US: we built Red stone rocket, we flew it a couple of times and then we abandoned it for the Titan rocket, which we flew a few times and then abandoned it for the Saturn rocket, which we flew a few times and then abandoned it for the Shuttle. At each step along the way there was no effort made to improve the reliability of these rockets. We always wanted something more complex and more expensive. Now we are retiring the Shuttle and we’ve got nothing. If we have done the space business right, with different people trying to do things, I think there will be somebody in the next generation who will come along to Burt Rutan and say:” Well look,… if we do this and that we can do point to point, cross the globe or across the country in a short time frame.” I think it’s the right next step in the evolution of things but it may also be nice, if you go into orbit, to have a destination-like hotel business or you take your architecture up there and let people enjoy that for a few days.
Last question: what are your wishes and maybe a message to those people who still don’t believe in commercial space travel and what is happening here at Mojave Spaceport?
I believe the natural orientation of the human spirit is to be free and when you are free you get to do things that you enjoy and give you pleasure. For some people that may be sitting on the beach, climbing a mountain, walking through the forest and for others it is flying or looking at the stars and saying:”how can I get there and understand them better and see them for myself?” I have found that people that are passionate about space and space travel are unable to help themselves in this pursuit. It is part of their makeup. If they are successful they can provide dividends for everybody. Eventually statistics say that the earth will be bombarded in its history by asteroids and the only way that the human race can possibly survive one of these incidences is if we have learned how to migrate to other planets. The only people interested in doing that are those who look upwards. There is still lot to learn. It is good for kids as it is something you can engage them in and it’s exciting. The education required to understand and build rockets is phenomenal. You need engineering and physics, thermodynamics and chemistry, and you need to understand economics. It’s a very trans-disciplinary area. With regards to those that want to pursue it, I say: “give them a chance, let them and encourage them!” We have not really done that for the most part and it’s about time to try it!