At Rotary Rocket’s offices in Mojave, California, test pilot Brian Binnie stood before a group of about 20, lecturing on the Roton. Designed to blast off like a rocket and descend like a helicopter, it was Rotary Rocket’s entry for the $10 million Ansari X Prize competition to fly a civilian craft through the edge of space twice in two weeks. Among those in attendance: Burt Rutan, whose SpaceShipOne was also competing. After his speech, Binnie asked if anyone had any questions. Rutan’s hand shot up.
“I thought ‘Oh, boy, I’m going to get hammered by the king of aviation,’” Binnie remembers. “I said, ‘Yes, Burt?’ and he said, ‘If we quit right here right now, we can get in nine holes of golf.’ He had heard there was another golfer in town, so off we went and played golf.”
Binnie comes by golfing honestly: Born in the United States, he grew up in Scotland, golf’s birthplace. Upon returning to the United States, Binnie joined the Navy and became a test pilot. “I left the Navy after 20 years and came to Mojave still interested in the whole flight-test-arena style of work,” he explains. Joining Rotary Rocket, he helped design, build, and then fly the Roton. “The next step was to put a rocket motor on it, and by then the dot.com bubble had burst and funding was drying up,” Binnie says. In 2001 Rotary closed its doors, and Rutan, who had become a fast friend, hired him to fly SpaceShipOne.
Binnie flew two “firsts” in SpaceShipOne: the first supersonic flight, and the flight that took the X Prize. SpaceShipOne flies piggyback to an altitude of 50,000 feet, separates, rockets above the required 100 kilometers, then the aft wing and twin tail booms fold up to increase drag and it reenters the atmosphere. So simple almost any pilot can fly it. Almost.
“When the rocket motor wakes up there’s a huge amount of energy—like a tsunami,” Binnie says. “The goal is to hold on for a minute an a half. It doesn’t sound very long, but your hands are full the entire time.” That’s followed by weightlessness: “It becomes very quiet; all vibrations disappear, and it’s like you step across this threshold into a whole different dimension. It’s an uplifting experience. When you throw in the view, a perspective you’ve never seen before, it’s breathtaking.”
Then reentry. “Compared to the boosted phase of flight it is buttery smooth,” he says, “albeit accompanied with lots of noise and Gs but absent all the shaking and shuddering that the rocket motor brings. I liken it to driving through a thunderstorm. The first hint of atmosphere is heard as a pinging or splatter on the cabin floor that slowly but relentlessly builds in intensity until it sounds like you’re going over Niagara Falls.”
Rutan is building the larger, passenger-hauling SpaceShipTwo, which Sir Richard Branson has backed. “Ultimately, it’s our goal to hand these vehicles over to a commercial operation and go out and make money with them,” Binnie says. “We’re looking to get the handling of these vehicles so an airline pilot can go out and fly them comfortably.”