Private Astronaut Brian Binnie Had The Right Stuff. A Reporter’s Personal Thoughts

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The first time I met Brian Binnie was at Mojave Airport, in 1999. I was researching a story for Forbes magazine about the fledgling private space movement, and had gone west to interview Gary Hudson, founder in 1996 of Rotary Rocket, a then-promising private space company.

What made Rotary unique among other companies competing for the $10-million Ansari X Prize (two suborbital flights to 100 kilometers in the same private vehicle within two weeks), was that Hudson had a full-size mock-up of his rocket - the Roton - something physical that investors and the media could touch and photograph. None of the others had anything like it. Their assets were mainly visionary ideas and complex schematics. When my turn came to climb through Rotary’s vehicle, none other than Brian Binnie, a cheerful Scottish American chap, was my guide.

Fast-forward a few years to when Binnie had defected to rocket-scientist Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites, to help develop SpaceShipOne, a rocket-plane to be carried aloft by a mothership, then launched mid-air into suborbital space. Hudson’s firm, which had envisioned a more conventional, vertical rocket, had since fallen by the wayside. I still remember on October 4, 2004, hearing the news that Binnie had flown the second leg of the X Prize flight, sealing $10-million in booty for Rutan’s company. Mike Melvill had completed the first flight just a few days earlier.

After his flight, I interviewed Binnie, several times, even had him as a guest on my Exploring Legends series at The Explorers Club as part of Space Stories. (The interview is still available online at C-Span.) Interestingly, our chat that day was just a week before Virgin Galactic’s Oct. 31, 2014, fatal test crash of SpaceShipTwo, a grossed-up version of SS1 able to carry eight people versus three for SS1.

Sir Richard Branson was backing VG, and, partly on the premise that VG’s bigger concept vehicle would work, but also on Binnie and Rutan’s success with SS1, I put down a 10% deposit for a future space ride (I am still waiting). When VG’s crash occurred, I didn’t pull out as some future astronauts did, but kept my ticket, reasoning that things happen during testing to help ensure that commercial space tourism flights, when started, would involve less risk.

In 2010, when Binnie was still working for VG, I had to visit Mojave again, this time for a story about World Class Driving, an outfit that rented out the 12,500-foot-long runway there to allow speed enthusiasts a chance to break the 200-mph barrier in a fleet of supercars. (It wasn’t cheap: $5,000 for a day.) I joked with Binnie that since I was coming out, maybe he wanted a thrill ride. After all, his VG office was right there, at the airport, so it wouldn’t involve much effort. Surprisingly, Binnie agreed, and didn’t flinch as I took him to 202 mph in a McLaren SLR. Later, he told me that his young kids were more impressed that he’d gone over 200 mph in a car than a few times the speed of sound on his SS1 spaceflight.

Yes, Binnie was fearless, but also had a sense of humor. He joked that he would return the 200-mph favor by personally taking me to space with VG when my ticket number came up. I remember another story he told me about the tense day of his historic SS1 flight. On the runway, just before he climbed aboard SS1, Binnie’s mother-in-law ran up eagerly to hug him, in the process spilling a 16-ounce soda into Binnie’s spacesuit. He told me that in addition to being uncomfortable with the sticky liquid next to his skin for the next several hours, he worried that the added weight might affect his chances of reaching the flight’s needed 100-kilometer apogee. (It didn’t. SS1 reached a maximum height of 367,500 feet, or 112 kilometers.)

When I heard of Brian’s death this past week, I was shocked. I had received an email from him just a few days earlier. He had also recorded a recent “good luck” video for a friend who owned a ticket for a suborbital flight. There is speculation as to how Brian died, but nothing definitive. That’s not as important as remembering Brian for who he was. Without his brave, epic SS1 flight, one could argue that there would be no SpaceX (Elon Musk), and certainly no Virgin Galactic (Branson), or Blue Origin (Jeff Bezos). As the second private citizen to fly to space - and, believe me, he had to use his fighter pilot skills to fly that thing, not just joyride in it as a space tourist - he really helped pioneer a movement that will continue to expand much as the airline business has, as more competitors come online, reducing ticket costs.

RIP Mr. Binnie. Like American aviation pioneers before you - Charles Lindbergh, Chuck Yeager, Alan Shepard, John Glenn and Neil Armstrong - your bravery pushed technology - and our society - forward. History will remember you for that. You were old-school, humble, had the right stuff. The world will miss you, as will I. Godspeed.

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