Saturday, September 27, 2008

Flying to Space from Mojave

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the August 28 edition of the Mojave Desert News, and is reprinted here with kind permission from Bill Deaver. I've added some left-over photos of WK2 that I took back in July at the rollout ceremony (with the exception being the photo of Brian Binnie, below, in the simulator, which is a Virgin Galactic media release image).

by Bill Deaver

I flew to space from Mojave last Thursday. It was my second time sitting in the pilot's seat of a Scaled Composites spaceship and aiming it at the stars.

The first time was back in 2003 in a realistic simulator built by Peter Siebold and crew for SpaceShipOne and White Knight. Like the first time, it was an exciting and realistic experience. But it was nothing compared to my ride last week in the simulator Siebold and Terry Agold have created for SpaceShipTwo!

The view from the SpaceShipOne simulator was displayed on several computer monitors Siebold bought from Jim Balentine's Radio Shack in Mojave. It was realistic, but no match for the newest version.

The view outside in the new simulator is projected onto a surface similar to the inside of a very big ball. Imagery from satellites is projected from projectors mounted on the ceiling. As the simulation began, I was in the left seat of SpaceShipTwo with the two fuselages of WhiteKnight2 visible on eather side of me. As soon as we were dropped from WhiteKnight2, the fuselages slid away realistically as we headed to space.

Powered by three electric motors connected, like the imagery, to a cabinet full of computers, the control stick and pedals have the pressures a pilot will feel flying the real thing. Sound is realistic, rumbling when the rocket engine is fired and shutting-off with the silence of space as the spaceship's momentum carries it to apogee as the sky changes from the deep blue of the desert to the dark skies of space.

In atmosphere-free space, the spaceship is controlled by several rocket motors, whose firing was heard when I pushed the stick. As we headed back to Mojave Airport/Spaceport, Agold pulled a handle on the control panel to raise the shuttlecock-like tail booms into the "feather" position to slow our rentry. Lights on the panel confirmed it was up and locked, and later, when it was back in its normal position after reentry.

As we dropped into the atmosphere the control wheel and rudder pedals began to regain feeling, and Siebold and Agold helped guide me to the airport by lining up lines on a box-type display similar to that of SpaceShipOne. That display, Agold noted, will be refined as the real SpaceShipTwo is developed.

My landing could have been better, as I was reminded by a "stick shaker" that vibrated on rollout.

"That's activatyed when you make a rough landing," Siebold said. Not being a pilot, I didn't feel too bad after the same thing happened to a veteran pilot who was flying the simulator when I arrived.

I'm not a video game enthusiast, but this is pretty close to the ultimate video game. as I drove home in my mundane Ford Fusion, I began to wonder how long it would take to master this latest version of Scaled simulators - and then there's the real thing....

"We took a lot of experience from SpaceShipOne into this," Siebold said. the much-improved graphics help make the landing experience much more realistic. "It's a better training tool," he said.

The body of the simulator is a mock-up of the spaceship's cockpit Scaled's talented technicians developed as the design evolved. "It has minor differences from the final version but not enough to bother," Siebold said.

Following Scaled's first spaceship experience, the cockpits of the spaceship and White Knight are similar. A section of the instrument panel can be installed in the simulator to simulate WhiteKnight2, and is connected with only one USB connection.

Agold said the simulator was developed ahead of the spaceship. "Because of that we have been able to help drive the design" of the cockpit, especially in human factors issues, including the controls and instruments. "This has dovetailed nicely with designing the spaceship," Agold said. "Having the simulator really helped."

The simulator is controlled from a control room upstairs from the former paint booth the land-based cockpit occupies. A console behind the simulator is used by an instructor who listens to the cockpit conversations and can creat "challenges" to the mission, such as technical glitches and other events that pilots may encounter on their passenger-carrying flights into space from Mojave.

One minor problem the team encountered is that the scenery projectors are mounted on the ceiling. "When the Mojave winds are really blowing, the scenery jiggles," Siebold said with a smile.

My landing of SpaceShipTwo was perfect until about half-way down the runway when I began to veer to the right off the runway. Not being a pilot I forgot to use the rudder pedals to control my rollout. My patient mentors stopped me before I could run into one of the Boeing 747s parked realistically in the airport boneyard, another of the many realistic touches (including the Mojave Public Utility District sewer ponds) that replicate the electronically-generated scenery that makes the simulation so much like the real thing. I could almost smell the fumes from the ponds!

When SpaceShipTwo begins to carry real passengers into the dark skies of space, their flights will be possible because of the genius and ingenuity of two guys named Agold and Siebold....

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