If you are a Sand Canyon resident and were outside this morning, you may have seen the White Knight with SpaceShipTwo attached to its underbelly. They flew directly over Sand Canyon about five minutes before the two fighter jets roared through. You probably heard those, even if you didn’t see them.
My friend Jeanne texted me that the White Knight had just taken off and might be flying over, so I grabbed my binoculars and ran barefoot into the dust outside my back door. I heard the echoing drone of White Knight’s engine as it flew over the house low enough that I could read the Virgin insignia on the underside of the SpaceShipTwo. Climbing higher, the mother ship and its charge eventually disappeared into the wispy layer of clouds that preceded the coming storm. That would be the last time I’d ever see SpaceShipTwo.
I hopped into the car and drove down to meet Jeanne at our viewing spot in the desert due south of the airport. It would take over an hour for the White Knight to reach altitude, and I had just enough time to get there. When it got high enough, the White Knight would drop the space ship. If this were a glide test, the small craft would simply ride its wings back to the airport. But this was a burn test. SpaceShipTwo was going to fire its rockets in flight. I was excited about seeing a burn again, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit worried. Igniting a rocket is always dangerous and the space station bound Antares rocket had just exploded spectacularly a few days before.
When I got to the site on a narrow dirt road running parallel to the highway, the wind had picked up again. Jeanne and I leaned back against her car, keeping a lookout in the direction of California City, waiting to see the long plume of flame that powers the craft toward space. But we saw nothing. Someone tweeted that the burn had started. We still saw nothing. Just wispy clouds beginning to build. I got out my phone and googled the flight test. In a banner with the heading BREAKING NEWS, the words Virgin Galactic and Anomaly scrolled slowly across my screen.
Anomaly is a calm and simple word. It means something that deviates from what is standard, normal, or expected. But over the years I’ve learned that space officials like to use that word when something very bad has happened. So exactly what was it? Did the space plane spin out of control? Did it blow up? Were the pilots okay? What about the White Knight? Or was I just imagining the worst? Perhaps it really was a simple anomaly – just a slight deviation from normal. Perhaps I should quit worrying.
Climbing to altitude can take a long time for the White Knight and its cargo, but the descent is fairly fast. After what seemed like forever, Jeanne and I both agreed, something should have been here by now. I fixed my sight skyward, scanning left to right, top to bottom, wishing to see SpaceShipTwo gleaming in the sunlight as it glided toward earth, hoping to see the mother ship flying several proud loops around the airport, as it usually did before landing. But still I saw nothing. I pricked my ears for aircraft engine noise, but heard only the roar of a small jet as it practiced touch and goes on the runway, the hum of a motorcycle zipping by on Highway 58, and the chug of a train winding its way along the tracks near the Silver Queen mine.
We were about to give up and leave when a solitary White Knight approached without sound or fanfare in a cloak of white haze. The mother ship touched the runway lightly then vanished from our sight. Jeanne and I breathed a sigh of relief for the aircraft and its pilot.
More breaking news. Jeanne read it aloud. “Parachute deployed. One probable survivor.” SpaceShipTwo had indeed crashed. A dark cloud billowed above the airport like smoke— brown and foreboding.
When I got home, I pondered a photograph of the debris left by SpaceShipTwo, remembering how stunning the spacecraft had looked as it flew over my house just a few hours before. The Mojave desert is littered with wreckage, and in an area with ties to Edwards Air Force Base, China Lake, and the Mojave Air and Space Port, every crash is close and personal. There’s really only one degree of separation here. I may not know the co-pilot who died, or the injured pilot, but I probably know someone who does and I am sorry for their loss. I’m sorry for the loss of SpaceShipTwo as well. But I hope the dream lives on.