X Prize: The Motel


OK, sometimes I think I’m immune to learning anything. Kate and I went down to the SpaceShipOne launch in June and wound up staying in Lancaster, about 25 miles from the Mojave Airport, the staging site. That meant we had to get up ridiculously early (2:30 a.m.) to make sure we got to Mojave by 4 a.m. to avoid getting stuck in a monster traffic jam that never really materialized. Ever since then, I’ve been telling myself that the really smart thing to do for the X Prize launch, which logic dictated would happen in September sometime, would be to call a motel in Mojave to see if anyone would put a room on hold. But since that was the eminently sensible thing to do, I hesitated to act.

Then Burt Rutan announced yesterday the first prize launch will be attempted September 29. So first thing, I filed my story. Then I called the Best Western down there in Mojave, which is just outside what turned out to be the press entrance to the airport. Rutan announced the launch about 11 a.m. When I called the motel at 1:30 p.m. or so, the clerk told me the entire 50-room joint was sold out from September 28 through October 6 (Rutan hopes to do the second flight on the 4th of October, the anniversary of the launch of Sputnik I in 1957).

The clerk directed me to another motel, the Mariah Country Inn. They already had a waiting list, and the clerk there told me it would take three or four days to get back to people about room availability. Then I called the Econo Lodge, which advertises “nice clean rooms, away from train” (Mojave’s got a fairly substantial railroad yard).

The clerk there checked the nights I asked for — from September 27 through October 6. Yes, they had a couple rooms still available. But he wanted to tell me about a few ground rules first. The rate would be $159.95. I could cancel, but only with 30 days’ notice. And once that 30-day notice deadline passed, I’d be on the hook for the entire 10 nights I had reserved; I couldn’t cancel a couple nights in the middle or cut the stay short without paying for it.

I asked the normal rate for the room we were discussing. “Oh — 69 dollars.” “So you guys are really making out on this deal.” “Yes, but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.” Ah — the beauty of the free market at work.

All of which reminded me of two comments from our June visit. A couple of California Highway Patrol cadets who were directing traffic all night before the launch said they had never seen so many people in Mojave. “All the motels are booked,” one said, “even the ghetto ones.” Later, Kate overheard another woman in town telling a friend about the launch: “Wow — this really put Mojave on the map.” And her friend answered, “And tomorrow it’ll go back to being a ghost town.”

Yep, one with plenty of cheap motel rooms. I finally threw up my hands and booked a room in Tehachapi, again about 25 miles away, for half the price of the Econo Lodge room.

X Prize News 7.27.04

In Santa Monica (a Starbuck’s on National Boulevard, the first wireless place I could find)). Just filed my Wired News story on this morning’s announcement that Burt Rutan’s group will launch SpaceShipOne on a prize attempt at the end of September. I was far from first to get the story online; would have done better if there had been an open Wi-Fi node at the airport, but I couldn’t find one. Anyway, I did get a story written and, soon, posted.

More later, including some snaps from the press conference.

And later: Wired News posted the story at 2 p.m. So: The press conference was all done with about 11 a.m. I was finished writing about 12:45 p.m. (hmmm — that seems on the slow side, but whatever). Drove off to find a place to get online and emailed the story at 1:12 p.m., and it was live just after 2.

X Prize News 7.22.04

Wednesday, the X Prize Foundation put out a release announcing a press conference in Santa Monica next Tuesday, July 27. The subject: “Several announcements” about the $10 million prize competition. You don’t need to be a rocket surgeon or a brain scientist to know that the Number One announcement will be dates for a prize attempt by Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne team (earlier news on the possible timing on Wired News and MSNBC.com).

An official involved in X Prize launch planning — I interviewed him for Wired News, which chose not to do a story yesterday; since we spoke under that understanding, I don’t want to quote him by name — wouldn’t confirm the SpaceShipOne news. But he did says this about the announcement: “They’re just going to announce the dates of one of the applicants’ next flights, their next prospective flights.” The official said his organization, which I would describe as being a key partner in Rutan’s launch preparations, would participate in next week’s announcement.

The X Prize people say that in addition to Rutan, Brian Feeney of Toronto’s da Vinci Project will participate. Feeney likewise wouldn’t comment on the announcement. He did say that his group will be holding a press event up in Toronto on August 4 (it was orginally planned for Wednesday, July 21, but was cancelled partly because of the imminent X Prize press conference, he said. He also said that since the da Vinci Project is an all-volunteer effort, “Sometimes it’s hard to tell people what to do” and pull off something like a press day. But he said the August 4 session will definitely happen.

X Prize news

Wrote a story yesterday for Wired News on how aerospace guy Burt Rutan says his team is all ready to go for the X Prize with SpaceShipOne. It was a little nugget of breaking news, since for the most part the last word anybody had was that Rutan was working to figure out exactly what caused control problems during the June 21st flight during which pilot (now astronaut) Mike Melvill flew SS1 to 100 kilometers.

It’s cool to see that the story was blogged by MSNBC’s Alan Boyle and others.

The New Space Age

A nice column from the Philadelphia Inquirer, by way of the San Jose Mercury News (registration required), on the new private space race:

The night before SpaceShipOne vaulted into history, the desert wind gusted at 60 miles an hour around the RV camp next to the runway. The dust flew, the weeds tumbled and people dreamed about flight.

For 10 bucks, you could park your Westphalia, Streamliner, Suburban or Minnie Winnie, hunker down until the desert dawn, and, once the wind fell dead at sunrise, climb on your roof and watch America’s first private space shot.

Those RV people, and the tens of thousands who joined them to watch SpaceShipOne unzip the sky, are the ones who hold the future of space flight in their hands and minds. Not the VIPs, the starlets and politicians who got the good seats in the shade. Not project designer Burt Rutan or moneybags Paul G. Allen, co-founder of Microsoft and sponsor of SpaceShipOne.

The folks in the campers, tents and converted vans won’t go to space, but their kids will. And in those hands, the Gen Next of flight will look and feel very different from the first two Gens, and I, for one, am glad.

Me and Kate and SpaceShipOne

Just back from covering the first private manned space flight in history. It was a beautiful event, really, and a busy 38 hours spent driving down to the launch site in Mojave, California, attending a press conference on the launch of SpaceShipOne, driving to our motel 25 miles away, writing, sleeping four hours, getting up, driving to the launch site, talking to folks, watching the launch, writing, going to another press conference, writing, and driving back to Berkeley. Kate came along and acted as aide de freelancer and commiserator in chief and solutions czar(ina) during my freqent tech crises (motel DSL, nonworking cellphones, etc.).

What reading about and seeing pictures of SpaceShipOne and its carrier plane (somewhat dorkily called the White Knight) hadn’t prepared me for was how beautifully unusual they are. I likened the White Knight to a giant dragonfly; someone else said it looks like it’s an origami plane. The impression it gives is fragility, but during a post-launch fly-by it did a roaring brief climb to show that it’s a real honest-to-goodness gutsy jet plane.

The launch process is a long one: It takes the carrier plane a full hour to get to the 50,000-foot launch altitude, and the whole time the aircraft are circling the airport. The ships are both white, so what you see looks like a seagull wheeling higher and higher into the heavens. Eventually, the carrier plane leaves a gently arcing contrail in the perfectly clear blue desert sky. It’s space and technology, but there’s plenty of poetry in this launch system, too.

My stories on the flight — a successful one and a true milestone in aviation history, are on the Wired News site:

The prequel: Space Shot on a Shoestring.

And the launch story: Private Space Shot a Success.

We Regret the Error …

Well, a couple posts down, I mildly celebrated the first story in my renewed freelance writing career, about a private space launch this coming Monday. And in the first couple of hours after my story was posted on Wired News, I got a couple of very nice notes from readers. But instead of wanting to tell me what a genius I am, they wanted to point out a mistake. I reported that SpaceShipOne rode on top of its carrier plane. That’s not necessarily logical, but that’s the way it looked to me in the pictures, and I’m not an aerospace engineer, so that’s what I wrote. It turns out that the spaceship is carried below the plane, not above it. As someone once said somewhere about a situation like this, or not at all like it, “Shitfire.”

One beauty of online publishing, as opposed to the print kind, is that you can fix an error like that right away. So within about 20 minutes of sending off a correction, my original prose was changed to more accurately reflect reality.

And Speaking of Spaceflight

BoingBoing is hosting a blog account of preparation’s for Monday’s launch of SpaceShipOne from Mojave. Two posts so far: part one and part two. Nice on-the-ground color, along with valuable advice for the mini- or maxi-horde that might descend on Mojave for the launch: “BRING LOTS OF WATER! … Our rule of thumb out here: if you’re not peeing every couple of hours, you’re not drinking enough.”

Back In Print …

Or back online. Or back in the saddle. Or something. In any case, I’ve got a story this morning on Wired News, about the first private manned space launch:

“Something big is supposed to happen in the sky above the California desert town of Mojave early Monday. Just after dawn, a spindly white jet plane is scheduled to ascend from an airstrip with a rocket ship strapped on top. …”

Feels good to have something out there in print, or in bits, or whatever, again.