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Rutan and Branson
Burt Rutan (center) and Richard Branson (right) get the rock-star treatment as they emerge from a minivan for a speech at the EAA AirVenture show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. (credit: E. Hedman)

A space junkie at AirVenture

As a self-admitted “Space Junkie”, I had a great time at the 2008 Experimental Aircraft Association AirVenture show. For those of you who have never been to the EAA annual event in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, you are definitely missing something special. There are many reasons a Space Junkie should want to go to the EAA. I also happen to love aviation, so it is doubly special to me.

When I arrived at AirVenture, I rushed to Aeroshell Square, the hub of aircraft on display, to see the public debut of the Martin Jetpack. The Martin Jetpack is one of the latest attempts for a human to fly like a bird. It’s an attempt to bring Buck Rogers to life. While not technically spaceflight, it is straight out of science fiction. I just had to be there. A few thousand other people had the same idea. I was at least fifty meters back from the front row encircling the demo.

For those of you who want to be able to fly out of your backyard to wherever you want to go, thie Martin Jetpack is not ready.

The demo of the Jetpack started late. After a significant delay they were ready. When the Jetpack started up it sounded like a loud lawnmower. Despite the name, it does not have a jet engine. It has a V-4 engine powering two ducted fans mounted to each side of the pack. This demo version does not have the computer controls the deliverable model is supposed to have a year from now. When the engine started, I was expecting, as obviously much of the crowd was, for the pilot to rise quickly above the crowd and fly around showing what the Jetpack could do. The Jetpack, piloted by the developer’s son, never rose more than a meter off the ground and hovered for less than a minute with a person on each side holding it steady. The crowd was not impressed. I heard one guy near me yell, “This blows.” A local television reporter told me after twenty minutes that he had yet to find somebody in the audience that was impressed.

Video: the Martin Jetpack flies—a little—at EAA AirVenture. (credit: E. Hedman)

For those of you who want to be able to fly out of your backyard to wherever you want to go, this product is not ready. It was rushed to what is a big tradeshow for aviation. I know what it’s like to rush a product when the schedule for the demo can’t change. If you’re not ready the audience usually isn’t too forgiving regardless of if the product will eventually be just fine. The Jetpack looks like a magnificently engineered product made mostly out of carbon fiber. However, it won’t succeed if the control issues can’t be resolved.

The next two events I attended were more directly related to space in the forum area of the EAA grounds. The first was a presentation by NASA administrator Michael Griffin that happened to take place fifty years to the day since Dwight Eisenhower signed the bill that created NASA. The second was a presentation by Burt Rutan, Richard Branson and Will Whitehorn from Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic.

The presentation by Burt Rutan, Richard Branson, and Will Whitehorn was most interesting. It took place the day after WhiteKnightTwo was rolled out in the Mojave Desert (see “A White Knight for more than personal spaceflight”, The Space Review, August 4, 2008). The presentation covered some of the plans for commercial spaceflight. Burt Rutan announced that the first commercial flight of SpaceShipTwo outside of New Mexico would take place at a future EAA show in Oshkosh. When talking about the sonic boom that could be heard upon the return from space he said, “It’s better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.” I like the attitude. I hope that the people under the return flight path will be forgiving.

Martin Jetpack
AirVenture attendees inspect the Martin Jetpack. (credit: E. Hedman)

A sophomore at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University asked Burt Rutan what advice he would give a student. Rutan’s response: “Don’t be poisoned by old ways of doing things.” Considering his success with the unconventional, it’s not bad advice. He talked about how to be innovative and at various points said, “You cannot teach innovation in school. You have to be wacky and unconventional. Age three to thirteen is when you learn to be creative by seeing creativity. A teacher telling a student to be creative doesn’t work.”

Will Whitehorn said something interesting for those of us who can’t afford the $200,000 price tag for a flight on SpaceShipTwo. He said that Virgin Galactic is looking into offering seats for $900 to $1,000 for tickets on WhiteKnightTwo for up to eight people. In addition to getting a front row seat to a SpaceShipTwo launch, WhiteKnightTwo will return on a trajectory that will provide a short period of weightlessness followed by a gradual return to 1 G and rolls of up to 6 Gs. This is an experience I would like to try someday.

A sophomore at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University asked Burt Rutan what at advice he would give a student. Rutan’s response: “Don’t be poisoned by old ways of doing things.”

Moving from the pavilion Michael Griffin spoke in to the next pavilion, with the Virgin Galactic team, made for quite a continuum of ideas. Michael Griffin said NASA wants to buy commercial launches when available, including possibly SpaceShipTwo flights for astronaut training. The Virgin Galactic team said that WhiteKnightTwo will be capable of launching small reusable fly-back boosters that can put small payloads into orbit. Michael Griffin said that it looks like SpaceX is making good progress, but wants to see the Falcon launcher work before considering the Dragon capsule. The blurring of the lines between aviation, suborbital flight, and orbital spaceflight, as well as the blurring of the capabilities between government and commercial entities, was interesting to hear about.

The next thing that a “Space Junkie” would want to see was a flight of one of the new aircraft in the Rocket Racing League. To see the flight of a rocket racer is truly unusual. The vehicle flies with bursts of rocket thrust separated by gliding segments. At the EAA the flight of a single rocket racing plane was a demonstration flight and not an actual race. Piloted by former shuttle commander Rick Searfoss, the rocket racer was demonstrated to the crowd. It was fascinating to see the small high-performance aircraft shoot through the sky in an aerobatic performance. Each time the craft was oriented in the right direction, you could hear a short, strange sucking sound when the engine shut down.

WK2/SS2 model
A small model of WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo on display. (credit: E. Hedman)

While AirVenture does always have as strong a focus on space as they did this year, it is still a great place for the hardcore technical junkie who likes anything with an amazing engineering origin. The EAA AirVenture supplies that. There is a vast display of civilian and military aircraft on display. You can see a great number of restored World War 2 aircraft but also a wide variety of currently deployed aircraft that included a U-2 Dragon Lady, an F-22 Raptor, a V-22 Osprey, an F-16 Falcon, a Sikorsky Sea King helicopter, an F-15 Eagle, and KC-135 and KC-10 refueling tankers. The civilian aircraft include every kind of general aviation aircraft from a small single-engine plane to a wide variety of corporate jets. Boeing brought in one of the 747 Dreamlifters used to carry parts for the new 787 from around the world to the final assembly plant in Washington.

Even more impressive than the aircraft you will see at the EAA are the people that come with them. You can see and hear the pride owners of restored aircraft have in their planes. The military personnel remind us that they do indeed have some of the best and brightest of our citizens in their ranks. The pilots and crews of all types of aircraft were more than willing to share their stories and explain how they operate their aircraft. It was especially interesting to hear the current crews talk with veterans from World War 2, Korea, and Vietnam sharing stories back and forth.

One afternoon I noticed something that caught my attention. Burt Rutan was allowed to take a close look at the landing gear on the Boeing Dreamlifter. It made me wonder if he was thinking ahead to the development of WhiteKnightThree. If it’s going to be significantly bigger than WhiteKnightTwo with a significantly bigger payload, it’s going to need a heavier duty set of landing gear. What better example than the heavy-duty set on the 747? It’s another example of the symbiosis between aviation and spaceflight.

Another reason a Space Junkie might want to go to AirVenture is to see an industry that is in a state we’d like to see our space industries in a few years from now.

The flight demonstrations at the EAA are outstanding. If you are somewhat familiar with what most airplanes and helicopters can do in the air you will be just blown away by what you see at the EAA. The Red Bull stunt helicopter did maneuvers that practically freaked out some of the military crews watching. A backwards summersault performed by a helicopter is amazing. The flight demo I watched an F-22 Raptor pull off borders on violating the laws of physics. When you see a computer controlled fly-by-wire jet fighter capable of flying two and a half times the speed of sound fly straight up and then slow down to where it’s hovering in mid-air on its tail for several seconds before tail sliding and then accelerating off at an amazing speed you are very happy that this airplane is on our side. Then when you see this latest jewel flying in formation with war birds that date back to World War 2, you get a perspective on the changes and advancements along the way.

Boeing Dreamlifter
The Boeing Dreamlifter aircraft on display. (credit: E. Hedman)

Another reason a Space Junkie might want to go to AirVenture is to see an industry that is in a state we’d like to see our space industries in a few years from now. There is intense creativity. There are somewhat steady profits and growth. There are new players entering the market from time to time. There is a strong constituency with a strong passion for aviation apparent in the daily crowds at this show. There are many reasons practically anyone should attend this show. You see and get to meet some of the best and brightest in our country. The EAA AirVenture show is just a great annual migration destination for Space Junkies.