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SpaceShipOne
APRIL 2005
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In some cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.
Photograph courtesy of Jim Sugar



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Spaceship One On Assignment Photographer On Assignment
SpaceShipOne






    Photographing SpaceShipOne pilot Mike Melvill's first X Prize flight was great fun. It was like attending a rock concert. I was in the VIP area with all of Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites employees and their families. Everybody knew each other. After the airplane landed and taxied back, Mike got out and signed autographs, kissed babies, and hugged the moms. It couldn't have been any better if Bruce Springsteen had been playing there or Elvis had made an appearance. But this was 64-year-old Mike Melvill returning from the edge of space.
    It was a beautiful California day. And Mike's flight was a smashing success. It was unbelievable to be standing there when this history-making moment occurred and to see Mike come back safely. At a NASA launch, the press is kept 12 miles (19 kilometers) away from the crowd. But I was right there in the middle of everybody. It was like having a party on the tarmac of the Mojave Airport. So many people had their hearts in their throats. And if there had been a mistake, Mike could have died. But instead he returned a hero.
    While shooting the still photographs for National Geographic's X Prize article, I made multiple trips from my home in northern California to Mojave, a seven-hour drive each way. On one of the trips, my car overheated and stopped at the Caliente exit in 110°F  (43°C) heat. Caliente means "hot" in Spanish, and it was hot. I cooked the car in the process of doing everything it took for the assignment. It was my own car, but it wasn't fixable. So I couldn't give it back to Hertz Rent-a-Car and say "You fix it."     The coverage required three separate trips to Mojave. But I was concerned about getting stuck in a police-controlled roadblock to the airport. I brought in a sleeping bag and an air mattress and slept in the hangar adjacent to SpaceShipOne and its transport plane, White Knight. I got up at about 2 a.m., put the sleeping gear away, walked out the back door of the hangar toward the tarmac, and went to work. I was overwhelmed by everyone's trust in me. It meant a lot. And I didn't sleep through any motel wake-up calls.
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