Test pilot Mike Melvill wrestles with the controls of SpaceShipOne, as its liquid nitrous oxide rocket motor blasts him beyond the speed of sound to a target altitude of 100 kilometres. After reaching the top of his parabolic flight path, the horizontal stabilisers refuse to line-up for reentry. The back-up systems fail to respond and Mike has seconds before going into a fatal spin.
On that cliff-hanger Julian starts her story of the how the XPrize competition came into being, to inspire commercial manned flights into space that would achieve what only Governments had done before.
She flashbacks from Mike’s 21st June 2004 spaceflight, to the home of 8-year-old Peter Diamandis, where on the 20th July 1969 he is transfixed by the television images of Neil Armstrong emerging from the Eagle lunar lander to become the first man to walk on the Moon.
From that date Peter, like thousands of other kids glued to their TV screens that fateful day, wanted to be an astronaut. Unlike most of us, Peter doggedly pursued his dream of getting into space. This took him from making rockets with his mates to studying aerospace engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as a sideline to him gaining a medical degree at Harvard. In his student years he founded the Students for Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) organisation, followed by the International Space University and a satellite launching company, Microsat Launch Systems.
Frustrated by the reliance on large, slow, bureaucratic governments to build spaceships for human flight, Peter was inspired by reading that Charles Lindbergh’s epic non-stop flight over the Atlantic in 1927 would never have occurred if it wasn’t for the prize of $25,000 for the first person to accomplish this feat. He soon realised that his dreams could be blasted into reality if a prize of $10 million was offered to the first company to launch a person into sub-orbital space.
A number of companies took up the XPrize challenge, including Steve Bennett in the U.K., Dumitru Popescu in Romania, Armadillo Aerospace, Jim Akkerman and TGV Rockets in the U.S.A., two teams in Canada and Pablo de Leon in Argentina. Julian mentions their different approaches to achieving the goal of getting a craft capable of carrying three crew into space twice in two weeks, but most space is given over to the main contender, Burt Rutlan and his SpaceShipOne air-launched rocket.
This is a fascinating insight into how childhood dreams are translated into hard won reality.
HOW TO MAKE A SPACESHIP / AUTHOR: JULIAN GUTHRIE / PUBLISHER: BANTAM PRESS / RELEASE DATE: 22ND SEPTEMBER 2016