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"I was a big aviation buff as a boy," says Brian Binnie. "All I knew was that anything that left the ground was going in the right direction, like birds and aeroplanes and that's what I spent my youth on."
'I was a big aviation buff as a boy,' says Brian Binnie. 'All I knew was that anything that left the ground was going in the right direction, like birds and aeroplanes and that's what I spent my youth on.'

To infinity and beyond: the tourist generation

Sunday interview It seems like science fiction, but the US astronaut Brian Binnie is set on making space tourism a reality.

For as long as he can remember, Brian Binnie wanted to fly. When he was 15, his father took him to see the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey and that was it. Just flying was never going to be enough. He was going to be an astronaut.

Forty years on, the former US Navy test pilot, who made history in 2004 when he won the $10 million (Dh36 million) Ansari X Prize piloting SpaceShipOne to an altitude of just over 111km, is likely to be flying the first space tourists on their epic journey in two or three years' time. Binnie, 55, is relaxing at the Burj Al Arab Hotel in Dubai after meeting some of the enthusiasts who have signed up to the Virgin Galactic space programme. More than 70,000 people have registered their names on the website and Binnie says the first trips are "just around the corner".

He is currently helping to build SpaceShipTwo for Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Atlantic, and the eccentric space entrepreneur, Burt Rutan, and he just can't wait to get up there again. For the past four years, Binnie has been whizzing around the celebrity speaker circuit, including the recent Orion Conference on tourism in Dubai. Hearing him talk about flying into space transports, the listener is taken into another world. "Flying the vehicle is like riding a bull," Binnie says. "Bull riders have about eight seconds to see if they can manage it. That's how long you have to see if you're good enough. Your option is to turn the motor off early, but then you wouldn't be going to space. It's just like somebody opens the gate and this thing comes alive with a tremendous surge of energy. It sweeps through the cabin like some sort of tsunami. You have nothing in your DNA to tell what to do from previous experiences - good or bad - and you're making decisions based on training you've done in a simulator, but that's inadequate for what goes on."

He speaks with quiet awe of the view from the top of the world and the emotions it evokes, something that few people get to see, but which is soon going to be within the grasp of the well-heeled and courageous. "You have just survived one and a half minutes of riding a rocket. Towards the end of the burn, it sounds like a possessed cat. It's screeching and howling and when you shut it down and throw the switch, you go into another dimension and all that noise goes away. If that isn't enough, you are weightless and your legs float free. It's such a sweet, rewarding, very delightful feeling and something you really appreciate, because you have never felt it before.

"I liken the view to someone pulling back the stage curtain and there's this black void of space. It's a mystery and a bit of a menace, but there's something majestic about it as well. It's a world of contrasts and it kind of smacks you in the face. If you look out below, you see a peaceful panorama like you've never seen. You get 500 mile vistas, so from Dubai you could see up past Kuwait. At one point, I could see San Francisco to the north, Baha, Mexico to the south, the Pacific Ocean, the Sierra Nevada mountains. You can see weather patterns that you usually see on the news, highs and lows and the cloud formations and how they spiral clockwise or counterclockwise and what kind of system is coming in, so you could ring your wife and say, 'Honey, don't wash the car today, it's going to get wet again'. Separating the two extremes is this thin, electric-blue, shimmering line. It's like neon, only fuzzy and you just think, wow!"

"The first phase is what I call the 'Holy Moley' phase, when the rocket motor lights. You've got five to eight seconds to decide if you're in the loop or if you are just along for the ride. If you decide, 'OK, I can influence my environment and keep this thing upright and pointed in the right direction', then we'll see how it goes. With every nerve of your being focused on the flood to your senses, you know without a doubt you are very much alive. The dominant thought if you could focus on it would be screaming, 'Yikes! I'm riding a rocket.'

"By 10 seconds, you're going through trans-sonics, where you get shock waves forming on the vehicle. They form unpredictably and asymmetrically, so it can start rocking and rolling. You are hand-flying the vehicle, so as all this is going on, the stick forces required to make anything happen are going from very light, a couple of pounds, to hundreds of pounds. You're no longer physically strong enough to move these controls and so you have to adjust it by using electric trim motors.

"By the 15-second mark, the whole vehicle is supersonic. Then comes the catch-up phase when things smooth out and become more predictable. Whatever errors you have made up to that point, you have 45 seconds to put them right. At 60 seconds, there is the liquid to gas transition, where the vehicle shakes and shudders for about five seconds. This is the wake-up call to Phase Four, the endgame, the most demanding from a piloting standpoint. You are trying to balance the effects of the decaying rocket motor and the thrust line of the motor is going off in some random direction. If you guessed it right, you leave the atmosphere in a graceful fashion with a steady platform. If you don't, you could spin."

By the time the intrepid space tourists are ready to be catapulted out of earth's atmosphere, these problems will hopefully have been ironed out. There will be at least 50 powered flights before commercial flying begins. Says Binnie, "The thing that is really important about this next generation vehicle is that it opens the doors to a continuation of new ideas and hopes and dreams of kids in their formative years who are wild-eyed and ready to take on the world.

"Nobody has any interest in it these days. Everything that has ever been done in aviation has been done. In aerospace, everything is going up unmanned. It's a great achievement to put a probe on Mars, but it's a robot, and for the guys who programme the software, it's great, but it doesn't inspire. We need to give kids a reason to turn their sights back on to aerospace." Binnie was born in West Lafayette, Indiana, where his Scottish father was a professor of physics at Purdue University. He was five when his parents decided to return to Scotland, where his father taught at Aberdeen University. When he was 14, the family crossed the Atlantic again and moved to Boston.

"I was a big aviation buff as a boy," Binnie says. "I had a hard time getting my head around all the starry-eyed stuff. All I knew was that anything that left the ground was going in the right direction, like birds and aeroplanes and that's what I spent my youth on. I would study them and draw them, build them and fly model aeroplanes out of balsa wood." To the majority of people, space travel was a mere fantasy, but the young Binnie approached it from a clear-headed and practical standpoint. "I was never a Trekkie, nor a science fiction guy. I was very much grounded in what I think reality is. If I have a criticism of space, it is that so much of it is hyped.

"I remember going to London with my father in 1968 to see 2001: A Space Odyssey. I just soaked in that movie. To me that was real, it was going to happen. Whatever queue I had to get in, I was going to find it. "Then, in 1969, Neil Armstrong reported back from the surface of the moon. I was 16 and I thought, 'Crikey, it's happening quicker than I thought it would'. Shortly after that, my parents gave me a painting of Armstrong taking his first steps on the moon. The dream was very alive. I felt that I had the right skills to do that. I wasn't the smartest guy in the world, but I could understand math and engineering. I could see the skill of a test pilot being a nice blend of engineering, sports and co-ordination."

The first step was an engineering degree. Binnie gained a bachelor of science in aerospace engineering and a master of science in fluid mechanics and thermodynamics from Brown University, as well as an MS in aeronautical engineering from Princeton University. He is a graduate of the US Naval Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, Maryland, and the Naval Aviation Safety School at Monterey, California. He reached the rank of commander during 20 years in the US Navy and has logged over 4,600 hours of flight time in 59 different aircraft.

"I never declared I wanted to be an astronaut, as I considered that was presumptuous," Binnie says. "Tens of thousands apply and they accept 20 to 30 per year. When I announced I was going to the military to fly, it raised eyebrows in my family because nobody had done that before. The only thing that didn't work out was that my primary opportunity to get into NASA was in 1986, the year of the Challenger accident when the seven-strong crew lost their lives. There wasn't a lot of activity going on in terms of hiring."

The tragedy did not deter him. He was supported by his wife, Bub, short for Bubbles, to whom he has been married for 27 years. They have three children Justin, 27, Jonathan, 22 and Jennifer, 20. "My wife became very accepting after 20 years in the military," Binnie says. "Carrier aviation is not the most forgiving occupation in the world. Flying around those things is dangerous. The last time I was in Dubai was for the Gulf War. People are shooting at you while you try to land. We both have strong faith in God and we said, 'If your time is up, we aren't going to wring our hands day in and day out fretting about it'.

"When I left the Navy, I still had this hankering that I was unfulfilled. Instead of going to the airlines or flying a desk somewhere, I took my chances and went to this tiny little town where there was nothing but this little start-up company called Rotary Rockets in the Mojave Desert. They had this big dream of reshaping how rockets were thought about and how they perform. They ran out of money in two years." Binnie briefly mentioning the extent of the danger he experienced at that time.

"The Rotary Rocket was pretty scary. I actually got my affairs in order, because I wasn't sure we were going to come back from our first flight. I could look at the space ship and say it looks like it should fly. It won't necessarily kill you, but it could humble you. I guess I was younger then," he laughs. A chance meeting on a golf course with the flamboyant Rutan led him to join Space Composites, the private development company founded by Rutan, and Binnie became one of an elite group of test pilots working on SpaceShipOne. Not long afterwards, the programme was given a turbo-boost with its win of the Ansari X Prize for the first commercial enterprise to travel into space in a privately funded reusable spacecraft, twice within a two-week period.

In December 2003, Binnie successfully piloted the first of the three flights of SpaceShipOne, but a problem on landing nearly scuppered his chances of the prize-winning flight. As he was gliding down to Mojave Airport, the wings started to wobble and he feared the vehicle would roll. In his attempts to adjust the spacecraft, he skidded down the runway, making an undignified and costly landing. Binnie knew that he would inevitably slide down the pecking order for the big one and the clock was ticking relentlessly towards the deadline for the X Prize. "That prang really changed the whole dynamic of the test programme from my standpoint. The real concern was that with the other pilots getting in the queue I might never fly again."

When the X Prize flights began in October 2004, a fellow test pilot, Mike Melvill, was at the controls. "Mike flew the first flight on a Wednesday," Binnie remembers. "There were a few problems of spinning and rolling of the vehicle after it left the atmosphere and we spent a day trying to resolve that, but all the time, the clock was ticking for the prize. By Thursday, we thought we could fix it and on Thursday night Burt decided I should fly it. I had Friday, Saturday and Sunday to shore up all the demons that I'd been carrying around since December."

On October 4, Binnie piloted SpaceShipOne's second Ansari X Prize flight. It was a flawless flight, just as Binnie knew it would be. "The whole thing was reinforced by a sense that it was destiny being played out here. The vehicle flew as we predicted it would. There was almost a sense of being guided." @Email:pkennedy@thenational.ae

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