By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
IN SEPTEMBER 2004, I DRAGGED my 14-year-old son out of bed before 5 a.m. In the predawn darkness, we headed north, arriving two hours later at Mojave Airport, where a crowd of 20,000 had gathered.
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Alien craft: Like two jets joined at the wings, powerful White Knight Two will haul SpaceShipTwo to 48,000 feet for its launches into space.
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The early-morning silence was broken as a gleaming white aircraft, the White Knight, took off. High above us, the big plane released its payload: Propelled by its rocket engine, the Volkswagen-sized SpaceShipOne rose out of sight as it climbed 300,000 feet to the edge of space. The tiny spaceship glided home and into history, ultimately winning the $10 million Ansari X Prize for successful private space travel and later flying into the Smithsonian.
Clearly, this was the best excuse ever for ditching Walter Reed Middle School.
Impressed by the success of the dreamers in the desert, another dreamer, entrepreneur Richard Branson, allied his Virgin Galactic space start-up with Burt Rutan’s firm, Scaled Composites, which built SpaceShipOne.
Four years later, the press was back at Mojave this summer, traveling on a Virgin America airliner with space celebrities like Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, and Peter Diamandis, the tireless Santa Monica–based space promoter who created the X Prize and is now launching the Rocket Racing League to create $1 million rocket planes capable of racing each other à la NASCAR.
Branson and company arranged the press junket to promote the initial launch of “Eve,” the giant, four-engine, double-hulled white mother ship that looks like two jets joined at the wings and will transport Virgin Galactic’s upcoming SpaceShipTwo to its high-altitude launches. It was also Branson’s tribute to his 92-year-old mother, Eve, a former flight attendant, who popped the cork on the christening champagne.
SpaceShipTwo will carry six passengers and two pilots, reaching a speed of up to 2,600 miles per hour as it flies 60 miles high. Once they get up there, the passengers can unstrap and float for a few moments. The maiden flight has been reserved for the Branson family.
After that, if testing goes well, passengers who’ve paid deposits on the $200,000 ticket price, like Talia Page, 27, of New York, might be flying to — and floating in — suborbital space by 2011. Page wants to use her flight to raise awareness for international nonprofits. “Safety is a concern, but I love adventure and don’t mind a little risk.”
George Whiteside, 34, of Washington, D.C., put down $400,000. “For $400 K, my wife and I could have the first honeymoon in space, or the first anniversary. I’ve always wanted to go to space. It’s the next thing in human history — a transformative experience. People can drive up from L.A. and watch the future being made. It’s like restarting the flame.”
Despite the “space tourist” hype, Scaled Composites and other space start-ups have a second, even more solid business opportunity — providing space-flight services to NASA, which is planning to retire the aging Space Shuttle by 2010, with successor vehicles not available until 2014 or later.
“The private sector is going to be strongly subsidized by the government because we need redundant access of humans to space,” predicts former astronaut Aldrin.
Jeff Greason, CEO of Mojave-based XCOR Aerospace, who builds light, powerful rocket engines, says his company’s business plan includes both “space tourists” and suborbital payloads for private customers, the Navy, the Air Force, NASA and the federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Although not a return to Cold War prosperity, the new space push is bringing some fairly unusual new jobs to Southern California. The world’s first commercial space suit was recently unveiled for XCOR — designed by a Hollywood costume maker.
BEHIND AN AUTO-BODY SHOP in the San Fernando Valley toils Hollywood costume creator turned space-suit builder Chris Gilman. His old brick warehouse is packed with creatures from Ninja warriors and aliens to Vampirella look-alikes. But it’s the space suits that catch your eye.
Gilman’s father was a self-taught engineer whose company, which worked for NASA, lost 80 percent of its business when the Apollo program was canceled. The younger Gilman went to Hollywood, where he created costumes for such epics as Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Meet the Spartans. Gilman won a 1991 Academy Award for developing the Actor Climate System, or “cool suit,” which keeps actors from sweltering under fake fur, feathers or plastic.
NASA was so impressed with the space suits he designed for Deep Impact and HBO’s From the Earth to the Moon that it contacted Gilman for design advice. The new, Washington, D.C.–based company he co-founded, Orbital Outfitters, worked on the redesign of the External Mobility Unit — an important element of space suits — so that it now properly fits the smallest U.S. astronauts.