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Tales of the 'Rocketeers'

There are reasons why "rocket science" is the quintessential hard thing to do. Last week's fatal explosion at Scaled Composites' desert test site, where the historic SpaceShipOne rocket plane was born, showed just how hard and tragic rocket science can be. Even SpaceShipOne's greatest successes came amid great risk - and that message comes through loud and clear in "Rocketeers," the fruit of more than three years of research, interviews and rocket tours by freelance journalist Michael Belfiore.

The book is subtitled "How a Visionary Band of Business Leaders, Engineers and Pilots Is Boldly Privatizing Space," and chronicles the work in progress on the frontiers of private-sector spaceflight. Belfiore journeys to rural Texas, where millionaire video-game developer John Carmack assembled a volunteer crew to build "vertical dragsters" from scratch … to the outskirts of Las Vegas, where real-estate billionaire Robert Bigelow has created his own factory to build inflatable spaceships … and most importantly to California's Mojave Desert, where engineers and test pilots are trying to build the future of flight.

Scaled Composites
SpaceShipOne rises during a test flight in 2004.

Three years ago, Mojave Air and Spaceport - the very place where three rocketeers died last week - provided the setting for SpaceShipOne's privately funded flights to the edge of space. The rocket plane and its swoop-winged mothership, the White Knight, were built by aerospace guru Burt Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites with backing from software billionaire Paul Allen. Those flights won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for private spaceflight, and thus it's only natural that SpaceShipOne is the center around which Belfiore's book turns.

At the time, Rutan and his team downplayed the troubles they encountered along the way to winning the X Prize. But in the "Rocketeers" retelling, the tale takes on far more drama. Belfiore touches upon the gremlins that bedeviled the development effort, the close calls that could have ended in tragedy, and the human story of a test pilot's fall from grace and ultimate redemption.

"Rocketeers" is about much more than SpaceShipOne, however. Belfiore surveys the main players as well as some of the wild cards in the entrepreneurial space game. Rocketplane Kistler and SpaceX, two companies that are sharing $500 million in NASA funding for low-cost spaceships, each get their turn in the spotlight. So do Carmack and Bigelow. A host of other ventures – including the Rocket Racing League and XCOR Aerospace, Masten Space Systems and t/Space – come in for at least a mention. There's even a chapter about the DaVinci Project's Brian Feeney and Advent Launch Services' Jim Akkerman, rocketeers who were in the X Prize race early but have (so far) failed to achieve launch.

Smithsonian Books
"Rocketeers" highlights the Rocket
Racing League and other privately
backed rocket ventures.

It's ironic that "Rocketeers," which tells how Rutan and others reached the high points in their push to space, is coming out just as the private spaceflight industry is facing its first true low point. But the timing may well add to the book's instructive value. "Rocketeers" makes clear that the race to put regular people into space is just getting started, and no one can yet predict who will succeed - if anyone.

Who knows which entrepreneurs will be worthy of having their stories told when paying passengers are at last able to board suborbital spaceships, in 2009, 2010 or whenever? The winners could well be among the rocketeers profiled in "Rocketeers," but they might include someone else altogether.

Even in a 320-page book, it's hard to touch all the bases. For example, Space Adventures, arguably the world's only profitable space tourism venture to date, goes virtually unmentioned – most likely because it currently depends on Russia's government-backed space program to provide the ride.

Belfiore addresses the unfinished nature of the spaceflight saga by providing updates in an epilogue, as well as including a chapter that looks ahead to the year 2034 – a vision in which commercial ventures dominate the final frontier while NASA is still stuck with space station duty.

Even if that vision comes to pass, will "Rocketeers" stand up as a classic history text in 2034? That's not likely, just because there will be so many more high points (and low points) between now and then. But for 2007, Belfiore's book is as good as it gets.

Update on the Scaled Composites explosion: Scaled's Web site includes this notice:

"The outpouring of support from around the world has been incredible, and we can't thank you enough for all the support you have given us.

"As of this morning (Saturday), three that were injured remain hospitalized: Keith Fritsinger (critical), Gene Gisin (critical), and Jason Kramb (serious).

"Glen May's family has advised us that his funeral is Friday, August 3, in Collierville, TN. They have requested that anyone at Scaled that has special memories of Glen that they would like to share with the family to please email aprildmay@aol.com. Other arrangements are pending, and will be posted when we have them. We're trying to do what we can to support the families during this tragic time. We will plan to show our respects as a company at the appropriate time, as well.

"Several Scaled folks have spent time with Eric Blackwell's family over the last two days, and will continue to support them in these difficult days. Todd Ivens' family is enroute to California.

"A fund is being established to help the families. We will post the information on our website as soon as it's available.

"The accident investigation has begun. We spent several hours at the site on Friday morning. Late Friday afternoon, California OSHA arrived and has sealed the site for their own investigation. We are working closely with them.

"This is an incredibly hard time for all of us. We continue to ask you to keep those people and families who were hurt or have died in your thoughts and prayers."

Later, Scaled provided the same information on the fund for the families that we saw from the National Space Society over the weekend. Here's the information again:

"Please send your donation for those involved in the accident on July 26, 2007, to:

Scaled Family Support Fund
c/o Scaled Composites,
1624 Flight Line,
Mojave, CA. 93501

Acct # 04157-66832
Wire transfer ABA Routing #0260-0959-3 (Bank of America)

"This is not a tax deductible contribution."

Rocketeer Tim Pickens, who was part of the SpaceShipOne team at Scaled and now runs Orion Propulsion in Alabama, wrote a not-to-be-missed eulogy to May that was published today by The Space Review. Editor Jeff Foust also recaps a recent discussion on how rocketeers have been preparing for the worst. As always, keep an eye on RLV and Space Transport News for further updates.