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Tuesday, June 22, 2004
 
Rocket-Scooters Ho!

Impatient futurists take note: the coming era of flying
cars
, wise-cracking
robots
, sleazy orbital
space motels
, and colonies on the Moon took one solid step forward yesterday, when
test-pilot Michael W. Melvill successfully rocketed a vehicle called
SpaceShipOne into the edge of outer space. It was the first
non-governmental vehicle to carry a human into orbit, giving Melville
the distinction of being the first private-enterprise astronaut in
human history.


Human space exploration, after a long
and rather frustrating dormant phase
, seems to be on the verge of
some sort of critical mass of new development. While NASA may be
stuck in a funding-starved
rut, the advances of the Chinese
and Indian
space programs, coupled with this new development in commercial
spaceflight, indicate to me that this is so.


Despite the apparent success of the SpaceShipOne crew,
however, the likelihood of them achieving the coveted X-Prize
remains hazy. It seems that there were some
serious complications during the flight
:


Mr. Melvill earned those wings with
some tense moments. During the rocket-fired ascent, he and Mr.
[Burt]
Rutan
[President of Scaled
Composites, the builder of the craft]
recounted in a news
conference, SpaceShipOne suddenly rolled 90 degrees to the
left.


Mr. Melvill quickly corrected,
rolling the plane 90 degrees to the right, but then found that his
trim controls, which are supposed to help control lift and drag, had
a malfunctioning motor. He switched quickly to backup controls,
stabilized the errant trim system and left it alone until he reached
the ground again.


I was afraid to touch it,”
Mr. Melvill said.


...


Mr. Melvill also said that during
ascent he had heard a loud bang, which was apparently caused by a
cover over the tail nozzle that buckled during the flight.


I was pretty scared,”
he said.


Yeah, Mike. A loud banging noise accompanied by crazy gyrations at
liftoff is not standard behavior in yer average SpaceShipOne
model low-orbit rocket scooter. You might wanna have that looked at.
Maybe take it back to the dealer and see if she's still under
warranty.


Then again, it might just be a software problem. Maybe you should
have thought twice before accepting
all that funding
from a retired
Microsoft executive
.


Better getcher ducks back in a row pretty quick, though. The
X-Prize is only awarded to the first private organization that can
send a human into space twice, within a two-week period.


The clock is ticking; and other
groups
are vying for the
prize
too.



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