Monday, June 21, 2004

Neo-traditionalist spaceflight

Congratulations to SpaceShipOneand Burt Rutan on their successful sub-orbital flight. But I give special congratulations to Michael Melvill, the pilot of the flight who has put humanity back into spaceflight.

The history of aviation will not remember the flight for its challenge to federal bureaucracy and its promotion of private enterprise. Instead, it will be seen as a return to the early days of aeronautics in which designers and pilots tried to reach space in planes rather than on the top of missiles. The flight of the SpaceShipOne harks back to the days of the X-series aircraft that broke records for speed and altitude: dangerous and bold experiments in aeronautics that left many test pilots dead (Chuck Yeager excepted). The X-15 was a craft that should have led man to space:
In the early years of our nation's space program, which has been based to a large extent on the unmanned-missile technology that had been developed over the five years prior to Project Mercury, the X-15 has kept in proper perspective the role of the pilot in future manned space programs. It has pointed the way to simplified operational concepts that should provide a high degree of redundancy and increased chance of success in these future missions.

But the shift from aeronautical to ballistic space flight left the pilots out of the equation. Human control was considered unreliable, and automation preferred. The Space Shuttle orbiter returned some of the glamour of aviation as it glided back to earth, but even it could land without the human hand. I hope that we will see a new era for the pilot as astronaut.


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