Thank God the Monkeys Lived

9:45 PM

Today, those interested in all things space celebrate the 50th anniversary of manned space flight, or at least 50 years since the first NASA presser was held:

From They were seven men, all military pilots, in peak physical shape with above average IQs. They were college educated and men of faith and family. And they were America's first "astronaut volunteers." Announced to the press at 2:00 p.m. on April 9, 1959 in Washington, DC, M. Scott Carpenter, L. Gordon Cooper, John H. Glenn, Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Walter M. Schirra, Alan B. Shepard and Donald "Deke" Slayton immediately rocketed into history as heroes, two years before any of them would leave the ground for space.
From our space program's wonder years when we strapped actual humans instead of monkeys inside exotic flaming cylinders and blasted them towards Andromeda, we mere mortals have been fascinated with space travel. And when you think about how many billions of years our universe has been around, it seems like magic that we've gone from Mercury to Virgin Galactic in just half a century:
"Virgin Galactic expects to be the first company to provide sub-orbital flights to the general public. We will launch as soon as possible, but only when we are happy with the results of the exhaustive WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo test flight program. The test flight program for WhiteKnightTwo is already successfully underway and that of SpaceShipTwo is expected to begin after the summer."
There can be no disputing the fact that Branson and Virgin are out front in the quest to be the first (and best) company to offer public space travel. This is the case because of what we find on the Virgin website:
"Virgin Galactic is the only company with the rights to Burt Rutan's design and technology, proven by SpaceShipOne, which is unrivaled in its potential to give passenger astronauts a fabulous experience, safely."
Yes, Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites is certainly a card you want in your hand if you are pushing to start charging people money to launch them into space. I have always been a huge fan of anything Rutan and Scaled builds, and have written before about how his lectures on the oncoming wave of commercial space travel seem like he is writing the rulebook for this next phase of aviation.

Of course you know that Scaled's team of engineers have built SpaceShipOne, and GlobalFlyer, and Voyager, just to name three mega-success stories from Team Rutan. But I'll bet you've never heard of some of the lesser-known designs that have been born in Scaled's Mojave, CA Skunkworks:
Proteus is a twin turbofan high altitude multi-mission aircraft powered by Williams International FJ44-2E engines. It is designed to carry payloads in the 2000-pound class to altitudes above 60,000 feet and remain on station up to 14 hours.

The Model 133-4.62 Advanced Technology Tactical Transport (ATTT) proof-of-concept demonstrator is a 62% scaled version of an airplane designed to challenging STOL and long range requirements. The ATTT was developed and test flown by Scaled Composites, Inc. under contract to DARPA.

The Roton is a reusable, single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) space vehicle designed by Rotary Rocket to transport up to 7000 lbs to and from low earth orbit. The Roton is conical in shape, 22 feet (6.7 meters) in diameter at the base, and about 63 feet (19.2 meters) tall. The Roton deploys the rotor system to provide a controlled gliding approach to the landing site.

The ARES, Scaled Model 151, was designed initially in response to a U.S. Army request for a Low Cost Battlefield Attack Aircraft (LCBAA). It also was designed around a 30mm chain gun. Its mission goals were low-altitude, close air support, with long endurance, and with adequate field performance to operate from roads. The ARES first flew on February 19, 1990, with Scaled test pilot Doug Shane at the controls. Since that first flight, the ARES has flown more than 250 hours, and demonstrated all of its design performance and handling qualities goals, including departure-free handling at full aft stick.

The Raptor Demonstrator high altitude long endurance UAV program began with a contract award from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to Scaled Composites on June 5, 1992. In order to reach altitudes of 65,000 ft, the Raptor used a two-stage turbocharged, 100 hp, highly modified Rotax engine.

The all-composite Triumph, an 8500-lb, 41,000-ft capable, pressurized 8-seat corporate aircraft, was designed around the then-unflown Williams FJ-44 turbofan engine. In 1988, Scaled performed the first flight of the Triumph, which was also the first flight tests of the FJ-44. Our subsequent test program, which consisted of over 100 hours of flight tests, confirmed the performance and operating characteristics of both the engines and the airplane.

VisionAire Vantage - In early 1993, Jim Rice and Tom Stark of the fledgling VisionAire Corporation visited Scaled Composites with conceptual designs for a new single-engine business jet. Under a $2.5 million fixed-price contract, Scaled rolled out the Vantage to a large group of customers and press just 8 months later (8 November), and performed a picture-perfect first flight on 16 November.
I consider myself lucky to have watched the VisionAire Vantage do a flight demonstration at AOPA Expo in Palm Springs in the mid-90s. What dropped the crowd almost to their knees in disbelief was the supernatural slow flight characteristics of the Vantage. Had it been a drag race with a J3, I'm guessing the Piper would have won. And from that dirty, low and slow pass, the Vantage went wheels up and full thrust, blasting off at light speed as if monkeys were strapped inside headed off to Mars.

Yes, we've come a long ways from Mercury to today. What is out there around the corner in space travel is anyone's guess. But we can be reasonably sure it will involve high rolling whales with serious disposable coin chatting it up with flight attendants in tight-fitting space suits as they sip on flutes of 2000 Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque somewhere between here and Mars.

Rutan says commercial space flight will do to global travel what the 747 did to intercontinental travel in 1970. I think he's right that since then, there has not been a significant leap ahead on aviation of that importance. He equates the leap we took forward with the -47 to the leap we took forward with the DC-3. And, he says commercial space flight will be that next big thing coming to a sky near you.

I will predict here for the first time that at 52 years old, I might be able to actually envision myself being in space before I "Go West" to fly with Lindbergh and Papa Louie. But they had better figure out a way to get the price down to everyman's range, 'cause this space passenger won't be paying out six figures to leave these surly bonds, with or without monkeys and champagne.

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