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How to Make a Spaceship



Julian Guthrie and Dan Kreigh tell the story of the Ansari X-Prize, a competition driven by outsized characters—Burt Rutan, Richard Branson, John Carmack, Paul Allen—and discuss the construction/testing of the bullet-shaped SpaceShipOne. SpaceShipOne was a historic feat of aerospace engineering that produced the first privately built manned reusable spaceship to fly to space twice in two weeks.


Julian Guthrie is the author of “How to Make a Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, an Epic Race, and the Birth of Private Spaceflight”. Dan Kreigh works as a Structural Engineer at ScaledComposites. He was the lead structural analyst for SpaceShipOne, making sure that the structure was strong enough to withstand expected flight, pressure and landing loads yet light enough to make it to space.

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Yeah, so it is with great pleasure but, like, particularly personal pleasure, that I introduce Julian Guthrie and Dan Kreigh, they are talking about how to space a spaceship. It comes from a book that Julian wrote, which my son and I read, so I got it for my 11-year-old son as a Christmas present last year, I bought him this book that I thought he would really enjoy, and we then went to the Hiller Aviation museum in San Carlos, 25 miles south of year, which we are members of, and Julian was doing a signing with the guy who piloted SpaceShipOne. That was a fantastic signing, we ended up getting connected after that, and now here she and Dan Kreigh are.

So Julian is an award-winning journalist, she worked many years at the San Francisco chronicle, she is the author of How to Make a Spaceship, also the author of The Billionaire And The Mechanic, about Larry Ellison's quest for the Americans cup, she is working on a book, Alpha Girls, about women in Silicon Valley and the struggles they have gone through and the achievements they have made. That is already optioned for TV and movie rights, and How to Make a Spaceship was optioned for a TV series. So that is pretty cool.

Dan Kreigh is the engineer's engineer. He is a structural engineer and helped make sure that the SpaceShipOne was space and air worthy, it had to be both. He was instrumental in making sure that this goofy and amazing feather design was a flyable thing, he has been a structural analyst on more aircraft than anybody else in the world. Because he works for scaled composites, they continue to build at least once a year a new air frame, a new aircraft from scratch, and Dan's the guy that figures out if this is going to fly. So please welcome Julian Guthrie and Dan Kreigh.

Julie Gunthrie: Good morning, everyone. Thank you for that great introduction. It is fantastic to be here, and I appreciate, again, the invitation.

Follow Your Passion

You may think about what does making a spaceship have to do with what you all are doing? It is something that is very similar, that is architecting; designing the future that you want. And I'm going to go through this pretty quickly. I wrote this -- this book that was about 340 pages, and I have winnowed it down to five key takeaways that I hope will inspire you at the conference and going forward with your own moonshots, your own crazy dreams, and with whatever it is that you are trying to succeed at that may be difficult.

The first is follow your passion, this gets very important as the story goes on here. If we can get the clicker to work. There we go. I don't know if I have to get closer here. It is not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me. So the reason why, now we're clicking ahead. The reason why this is so important is because there's a lot of people in your life, and this may speak to the Sebastians in the room, the young people in the room, to all of us, where there are others that have an idea of what you should do or what you should be. This is a story about finding your passion.

So the story starts with this boy named Peter Diamandis, the child of Greek immigrants, and his family came to America, struggled, his father became a doctor, and it was expected that his son of Greek immigrants follow in the father's path. Here he is, as a little boy, with his toy medical kit, checking his mother's pulse. When people met him, they said, hello future Dr. Diamandis. He was really on this path. And he loved science, he loved tinkering and to make things. He was not as interested in medicine. And this is really a key thing.

So, between the photo that you saw and this photo, something really important happened. It was July 1969; Peter Diamandis was 8 years old when his parents let him stay up late and he watch the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon. He was his wide-eyed boy that was transfixed as he watched man set foot on another celestial body for the first time. And he sets out, that really set him out on this entrepreneurial kind of adventure story, where he so wanted to become an astronaut.

And here, you see him in this picture, he's a rocket boy, he is making, tinkering, building, he is testing out all sorts of chemicals, he and his buddies were hoarding explosives in their bedrooms, and dividing up the stash so that if one stash were discovered, the other would be safe. Making -- starting with Estice rockets, making motors of all kinds and rockets. So remember this, we're going to come back to him.

Take Big Chances

And the next takeaway is take big chances, a key theme in this story all along. If you can dream it, you can do it, Walt Disney.

So next, we're going to introduce you to a key person who Randy referenced, that is a fellow named Burt Ritan, here he is, you met and saw Peter as a little boy. And you see that he has this love of space and love of rocketry. This is Burt Ritan as a little boy, and his love is always planes and aviation. He's a kid, there is no way if a plane is flying overhead that he could not look up, he has to study planes and dream of planes, it was in his marrow, the same way that rocketry was for Peter.

So by the time he's a teenager, he is building these very impressive, national award-winning model planes, and it is interesting because this is true to Burt throughout his career, and that is he never wanted to build anything from a kit. He always wanted to build something of his own design. His brother, Dick Ritan, who will go on to become a famous military pilot, would build and fly these model planes from kits, and crash them, and the younger brother, Burt, would pick up the basal wood pieces and build something of his own design. Again, he didn't want to make something that someone else had already built.

So, here he is, looking a lot like Elvis, if you can see him in this plane. He starts making these kits so you can build a plane in your own garage. This is the cool delta wing there, and Burt is flying it, I love that picture. So he is making, again, planes of his own design, and very improbable flying machines. You know, and this was -- I took a picture of this in the Mojave desert, this is Burt's old drafting table, which I thought was pretty amazing. And this is when Burt Ritan became famous. And this was the start. This was the taking big chances -- what it embodied.

This plane, The Voyager, flown by his brother, Dick Ritan. They set out to do what others said was impossible, build an airplane that can fly non-stop, non refueled around the globe. They succeeded; 1986, this lands on Edwards Air Force Base, they're on the cover of every magazine across the globe, a small team doing big things, which is another takeaway here, and a big plane, improbable, and a flying gas tank, they had 17 gas tanks in the wings, all the way down the wings. So super innovative.

Small Teams Do Big Things

The next takeaway: small teams do big things, this applies to all of you and what you are doing here, and trying to do, and I'm sure succeeding and doing. And so I love this quote, very high-brow, where are we go? We don't need roads. Back to the future.

That is true about innovating and making things of your own design, and not making things out of a kit, as Burt Ritan has done successfully.

Now we're back to Peter Diamandis, this quintessential space geek, who is doing everything he can do to become a part of the astronaut core, and still trying to please his parents. He goes to MIT, and to Harvard and gets a medical degree to please his parents. He has no intention of practicing medicine. Here he is, getting his degree. And he thinks secretly, this is how badly he wanted to get to space, maybe if I go to Harvard, it will advance my chances of going to the astronaut core and I can glean details so I can live really long that will eventually allow me to get to space.

So he, again, he goes to MIT, he goes to Harvard, gets an aerospace degree, gets a medical degree, and -- but, at this point, once he gets out with these degrees, he is sure that space is his mission. He founded a national student space club, he founded an international space university, he has started a rocket company while at Harvard, he is clearly an under achiever.

Here, he is meeting Arthur C. Clark, the scientist, and science fiction writer. And I like his feathered hair-do. You can see some pictures here. So here, at this time, this was the early 1990s, and the space shuttle, to many space dreamers, the space shuttle was flying, but over budget and under delivery. Peter is thinking he is not going to get to space and he needs to come up with another way to get to space. He doesn't think he will get into the astronaut corps, and if he does, the chance of it flying is slim. He meets with space geeks and rocket scientists, and I love the mantra, small teams can do great things, he is writing all of these propulsion aspects, he is in his element.

So this is 1993, so he has his a-ha moment in an unlikely place, or as the writer says, a likely place. In a book. He is at home, Christmas of 1993, he reads the Spirit of St. Lewis by Charles Lindberg. He thought that Lindberg flew as a stunt to get from New York to Paris, and he realizes it was not as a stunt, but to win a $25,000 prize, put out by a French hotelier, Raymond Orteg. So when Lindberg lands in Paris, he is the most famous man on earth and he jump-starts the commercial airline industry. And Peter thinks, what if I could do the same thing that Orteg did through Lindberg, through an incentive competition, for commercial space? What if I could jump-start an industry again that did not exist at this time?

Experts Are Clueless

So in 1996, in St. Lewis -- St. Louis, he announces a $10,000 prize for the first man that can drive a manned rocket to the start of space in two weeks. It is at the Van Carmine line, at the internationally adopted start of space. He has Buzz Aldrin with him, and this is the start of the race. And he announces this prize, and again, the key thing is private companies, non-governmental. And, at this time, only the world's three largest governments: China, the US, and the Soviet Union had managed to get man and space to back. This was an impossibility in many minds. It was launched, $10 million, and you should note that experts are sometimes clueless, don't listen to the nay sayers.

But a good thing, it is definitely key to this story, and so I love this part of it. So, once this is launched- so success is being able to move from one failure to the next with enthusiasm, said Winston Churchill. What do you get when you announce this $10 million prize, an incentive competition? This can be utilized by many different companies today. So you get this maverick who is living in the Mojave Desert in a burned house of his own design, you get a guy who has, for his mail box, the tail section of an airplane. Conventional, right?

You get Burt Ritan, there he is behind his computer, who is intrigued by this, who has always loved space. You get Steve Bennett, from the UK, who drops his job in the Coligate factory. You get Demitrius who drops out of engineering school, who builds a rocket in his father-in-law's backyard in Bucarest.

You get these different types when you launch this competition. You get Paublo DeLeon in Brazil, a fellow, John Carmack, who launches Armadillo Aerospace, he takes what he learned in programming for video games, Famous Quake and Doom and applies it to rocket science. Can he do that?

So they are all in the quest to win this $10 million prize and to create a private path to space that just did not exist.And so, here we have, we're going to move forward, you saw that briefly, if you didn't blink, inside the cockpit of SpaceShipOne, the feather mechanism that Dan will talk about, he will tell amazing stories from the inside and building this. This was Burt Ritan's a-ha moment.


And the another take-away is to persist. I'm going to move forward here. So as these teams are madly building these, you know, these crazy contraptions and flying machines; you have Peter Diamandis- key point, he launches the $10 million prize in St. Louis, and $10 million for the first team that can build and fly a manned rocket to the start of space. Minor detail- he didn't have the $10 million when this was announced. Very bold.

And as people are building these rockets, he is knocking on these doors, he is told no 150 times, why isn't NASA doing this, what if someone dies, risk-averse, there's Elon Musk, talks to Jeff Bezos, and he finally finds someone that is willing to take the risk; I love it that it was a woman. This is Anusia Ansari, an engineer who had a successful exit with her own company. This is Anusia when growing up, she was a dreamer of space, a lover of space, she told me a fun story- when she would sleep out on her grandmother's patio in Teiran and playing to the aliens, please, please, take me away. This is a true story.

So we will go back to her. So the day has come, I'm flashing forward here, the building -- the spaceships are being built. In the Mojave Desert, Burt, and his team, and Dan, they have the spaceship ready, they built the mothership, the hybrid motor, the rocket, their test pilots are out of the right stuff, tens of thousands of people descend on the Mojave desert on the first flight to space and the prize flights.

These are people coming in for what they hope is history in the making, this beautiful SpaceShipOne, pushed out of the hangar in the dark of night, in the very early morning. Everything on the line, here it is in that beautiful morning light, taking flight, will it work or not, will it succeed? Every flight was full of anomalies, the pilots risking their lives, this is Richard Branson looking at this.

And next up, I think we're going to see another famous figure who started this whole captivating adventure, buzz Aldrin, and the woman in the sunglasses is the wife of the test pilot, and that's a very special woman here. And this is Peter Diamandis with his father, everything on the line, watching this, and his father realizes that his son is not going to be a doctor.

And in this moment, though, all of these dreams, so here you have SpaceShipOne drop launched, going faster than a speeding bullet, 3,000 feet per second, almost straight up, the pilot white-knuckleing it there, thousands of people on the desert floor below, all the media there, what a spectacle it was on this day.

There is victory, there is 8 years in the works, there are dreams that have been on the line, there is the impossible that was suddenly made possible after 10 years of hard work, of course. And Anusia Ansari, the whole team, and there was a secret backer. He stayed secret for some time, of the scaled composite SpaceShipOne program, that was Paul Alan, you can see him in the cap, behind Burt. Here is Peter, the quintessential space geek, after victory was made.

Dream Big - Change the World

So dream big, change the world, which is what this story is about, and I was so proud that I got to tell it. This is a great line by Burt Ritan, the day before something is a break through, it is a crazy idea. So remember that, if somebody says it is a crazy idea, it is probably full of promise and probably something you should be pursuing.

And I'm just going to wrap up here so I don't cut into Dan's Time. So we have small teams building big things; the world's first private spaceship, pretty amazing. This girl, who dreamed of space, went on to become the world's first private female space explorer, spent 10 days at the International Space Station, John Carmack, the CTO of Oculus Rift, still working on rocketry, and the rocket boy himself made history with this dream. SpaceShipOne hangs in the Smithsonian Air and Space museum, the Gallery of Flight, the Milestones of Flight Gallery in the Smithsonian, hanging next to the spirit of St. Louis.

Thank you, I hope you take this talk and find your ways to innovate and do great things in small teams. Thank you very much. Dan, c'mon up.

An Insider’s Story to SpaceShipOne

Dan Kreigh: All right, SpaceshipOne. The last time SpaceShipOne flew was 14 years ago, but the story behind SpaceShipOne is timeless.

Three, two, one.

Let me fly in space.

Let me see that black sky.

We are all set, copy that.

On June 21, 2004, a privately-made rocket plane launched into history. Its mission? To become the first commercial man space vehicle. This is not good. If successful, the flight of SpaceShipOne will open a new era of space exploration.

Wow, you would not believe the view.

It was horrid to see that black sky.

How many of you have seen the documentary, Black Sky? A few? All right. The -- it was pretty dramatic, like over dramatized, but it was that stressful. It was a crazy program. I'm in awe of you, you are in a different world than I am, I'm a mechanical engineer. You amaze me.

How many of you have seen SpaceShipOne in the Smithsonian, or came to the high desert to see it fly? Cool. That was a crazy time when the little town of Mojave tripled in population by three times, it was an interesting time. So, SpaceShipOne, the first non-government manned spaceship to make two flights to space in two weeks, and winning the prize that Julian talked about. Built and flown in less than three years by a few dozen people.

Burt Ritan

I have still asked, how is that possible? It was such an amazing program. And the simplest answer is the incredible leadership of SpaceShipOne designer, Burt Ritan, is what made the program successful. Up to that point, since 1972, Burt's companies developed over 42 manned aircraft types. This airplane in the upper left hand corner is what we are used to, we spent 4,000 hours on it, it is a striking airplane, and able to go over 60,000 feet.

So Burt comes to us and says, we're going to build a spaceship. And so, the cluster of points in the lower-left corner, that's the performance that you just saw, it the the same graph, at altitude versus air speed. What makes you think we can get to the capabilities of a spaceship that goes three times the speed of sound? We thought that Burt lost it at that point. I like the David Copperfield -- and Burt laid out points for success and won us over.

Keep It Simple

Keep it simple. How do you keep a spaceship simple? It sounds like it would be complex. There is no heating or cooling for the pilot, which sounds ridiculous; the flight from the mother ship to when it comes back is only five and a half minutes, not that long. And I emailed Burt and the head message of the engineer to confirm that was true; it is amazing to me that there was no -- the pilots wore a lot of socks and clothes, I guess. So no cabin heater or cooling for the pilot, small, round windows, managing structural stress and weight. Maybe not pilot stress.

That would make my job easier. No pressure regulators, and no active stability augmentation, no throttle, it is on or off.

Yep, again, sacrificing pilot comfort. No front wheel, you are not landing or taking off.

Yeah, that's Burt, I tell you. No propellant pumps, no real thermal protection, no separate pressure and tank, the nitrous pressurized itself at 700PSI. There is only one rocket motor control valve, only one part, and no in-flight gear retraction method. There is just one gear, it comes down, that's all you need to do. And rocket motor assembly was glued to the fuselage with silicone, the walls were bonded to the rocket motor.

This shows you the rocket motor arrangement; the ball is the liquid nitrogen, and the solid grain is the tube in the back is coming off of the back of the pressuring tank that routes the fuel. So the valve is in between the two, the way the combustion starts, it opens up, spills nitrous and there are sparkler things that get it hot and the combustion process going.

One cool thing about SpaceShipOne, it has to fly sub sonically and super sonically in space. It requires three control systems. So sub sonically, that's all the push rods that you see; the control stick. So it is just like you are still sitting down at the local airport. And once you go super sonically, those do not work. So you have actuators on the tails that control it super sonically, in space it does not work because of no air. But there are thrusters that control altitude. This is like a SCUBA bottle, with 6,000PSI, it is not too much.

Basic Steps

So these are the basic steps that Burt laid out that won us over, maybe we can actually do this. This was the turning point for me. I had been with the company for 13 years at that point, and the first step was to build the mothership as identical to the SpaceShipOne as possible. And that was just -- that was genius. And so, it is no coincidence that the cockpit of the mothership looks like the spaceship, it is from the same tools, same materials, windows, everything. And as many systems were replicated from the spaceship to the mothership, the navigation, the pressurization, and the pneumatics of the feather, the landing on the mothership. So every time they flew the mothership, they exercised all of the structure and systems in the spaceship, so you can quickly identify any problems.

And plus, the pilots can fly as many times as they want to simulate the landing and cockpit environment.

And next point, build the spaceship. And after that, it was just test flying, you know, it makes sense, of course, to curate the spaceship on the mothership and see how the two interact, and drop test the spaceship. And so, it is a lightweight glider, so the pilots can evaluate how it flies and glides. Very incremental test pilots that come out, I can see how it is happening, it is amazing. The feather is what folds the spaceship in half, a very unique feature.

Fill the nitrous, and then you have thrust. Fire the rocket motor for a short duration burn. All of this makes sense, fire the rocket motor to get high enough, and the feather folds the ship in half. And now we are ready for the X-prize, two more flights and we are done.

Almost that easy.

And so, this is kind of a fun graphic. This one on the side of the mother ship, to record each one of SpaceShipOne flights. So the first two are the Captive Currey. And Bryan Binney was the first to take the rocket motor, and will be my hero for being the first guy to hit the rocket fire button.

I put this picture up, does anybody know the significance of the number N328 kilo fox trot? It is 328,000 feet above sea level, so which also translates into 328 -- (speaker far from mic).

I'm impressed, future aero nautical engineer, yes, that is 328,000 feet. So the third, the third from the last flight. The altitudes of each one of the flights is put above the airport. So the third from the last flight, 328,000 feet. So that was the first time when we went to space, Mike Novel took the flight, they are watching the altitude, and they just barely got to 328,000 feet. And so barely over what is defined as space.

And there's a matrix, every pound that the SpaceShipOne is over weight by, it cuts off 129 feet in altitude. And after it landed, Burt says, it is a good thing you had a light breakfast this morning.

The Breakthrough

So here is the break-through, Burt was concerned about safely reentering from space. And one day, it came to him, if he folds the airplane in half, that can do a couple things for him. It creates a very stable configuration, where it can reorient itself for reentry. In the 60s, it had to orient itself carefully or it would break apart at an off angle coming back into the atmosphere. So you can reorient anyway way, it will reorient itself, and it gives a lot of drag, you need to decelerate as quickly as possible when you come back in. So it is an active, simple, and safe, and no active control required.

SpaceShipOne Mission Profile

This is the basic profile, when you drop, the boost is a minute, three and a half minutes in weightlessness, coming back in is a minute, the max deceleration is 5 and a half Gs, and the deceleration coming back in, but 16 seconds over 4Gs. It is not that bad, relatively. If you're a fighter pilot, it is not that bad. So, anyway.

Okay. So, as we are getting closer and closer to flying this spaceship that folds in half, you know, these guys -- the bravest guys in the world to me are test pilots. I think the world of them. And you don't want to call them scared, but they were curious. And so, I could -- I could sense the tension.

RC Model Demonstrator

So I went home, built a -- I'm really a modeler, I love modeling. So I built a model of the SpaceShipOne that can do a full feather. Here's the feather. There's the recovery. Victory roll.

So the next day, I took it into scale and walked past Burt's office- hey, Burt, take a look at this. I will fly it on the ramp. And Burt said, let me look at it. It is too flimsy, it is not going to fly. Well, it flew okay yesterday. So we go to the ramp, I put it up, he launches it for me, do the full feather, and Burt was so excited, wait, I will have the test pilots line up and watch.

And it was like, see, I told you it would work! And interesting, also, there was a university aero professor that contracted Burt that thought his feather design was a bad idea, it would break apart, and Burt said, we have done sub-scale RC model testing, and it works just fine.

There was a concern about super Sonic reentry, and that was -- we said it was CFD. There was no wind tunnel model ever done on SpaceShipOne, it was CFD or model testing. And so, you know, Burt's management style is pretty interesting. He was able to paint this reality that laid out in front of us, and we were seduced by it, you fall into it and you are so excited and passionate and you're a believer. I don't know how he cast that spell, but it is an amazing -- a lot of it, he gives people autonomy, people that he trusts, to, you know -- and he also trusts, if you have questions, you can come back and ask. It is an interesting management style he has. He always showed 100 percent confidence, and he had to, especially to the test pilot. I have never seen anybody work harder than him, too.

One of the questions that I had, though, I said, Burt, I worked on a lot of composite structure, but not with a rocket motor back here, I don't know what it will do to the air frame. Burt said, suspend it in silicon, and when you are space, the acoustics -- whatever. He knew my concern.

This is Burt Ritan in the back, and Julian and I liked the same slide, in the Milestones Gallery next to the X1 in the Smithsonian. That was 14 years ago, and Burt wanted to inspire kids, they wanted to touch it and be next to it. A bunch of us rented buses to drive them out to watch historic space flights. I would like to think that they are the engineers with what is currently happening, in Virgin and Bigelow, these are amazing programs. It would be interesting to see SpaceShipOne fly in. Do you want to see it? This is the economy version. Oops, trying to do a roll. Oh, well. It needs some trimming, I think. Oh, well. My best feather imitation here.

Live captioning by Lindsay @stoker_lindsay at White Coat Captioning @whitecoatcapx.

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Recorded at:

Dec 02, 2017