DC-X on the launch pad

DC-X: Behind the Scenes at Launch

General
Behind the Scenes of the 1993 Launch of the DC-X Rocket: A story about my experience covering the launch of the DC-X.”
By Caleb Clark, 1993.

WHEN YOU GET CLOSE TO SOMEONE WHO’S BEEN ON THE MOON YOU SEE A GLINT IN THEIR EYE THAT LOOKS LIKE A REFLECTION OF THE PLANET EARTH.

The DC-X Spaceship right before launch

(Photos I was lucky enough to catch)
The two days I spent at the Las Cruces Hilton turned out to be the best two day trip I have ever had. Let me set the scene: McDonnell Douglas flew in all the heads of the various subcontractors; AeroJet, Allied Signal Aerospace, Cal-Draulics, Chicago Bridge and Iron Services, Duetsche Aerospace, Douglas Aerospace, ElectroFilm, General Connector, Harris Comm, Honeywell, Integrated Systems, Katema Aerospace Electronics, Marotta Scientific Controls, Martin Marietta, Pratt and Whitney, Process Fabrications, Scaled Composites, and Simmons Precision products. Imagine getting these guys to build a rocket in only 18 months.

McDonnell Douglas also flew in reporters like Adrian Barry from the London Daily Telegraph and one reporter from each major European newspapers. Add to that the hundred or so media people from every conceivable space oriented group in the known universe, PR reps from the Army, Navy, McDonnell Douglas’s, White Sands Missile Range, and one rep per major contractor, and you have general idea.

I arrived at this affair in a VW van that I had borrowed from my uncle on Thursday at 8 PM and went to the bar to find Hunter S. Thompson. The Monitor in Los Alamos had told me, “if you can get here right after the launch you can use our computers, and if you make the Saturday 11pm deadline we might, and there’s no guarantees, print it. And we can’t pay you much at all.” Hunter couldn’t be found but I did meet a Pratt and Whitney guy and a few other reporters. At 12:30am I wondered out into the southern desert night and pondered my next move- where was I going to sleep? Guards occupied the shadows of the Hilton’s parking lot so I drove around and ended up behind a dumpster at a Red Lobster.

0400 (all the times in the schedule, were of course, in military time) and I was up. I had a fast food breakfast, Jack on The Box was open, and pocketed my toothpaste and hair brush and headed for the Hilton’s bathroom. 0500 I register and get my press pass, thick press kit complete with blown up color pictures, complementary sun hat that says “DC-X”, and sunscreen. A thrill for a cub like me. McDonnell Douglas has provided breakfast and I feel the Jack in The Box kick me.

I meet Martin Chorich from Integrated Systems and talk about the software for the “bird”, as people called it. I meet strange reporters from Kansas who look like Amish space nerds. I meet a National Geographic Photographer who acts so far above the rest of us that I dismiss him as the arrogant isolationist that he turns out to be. I meet a reporter/photographer from the National Space Society who is so excited that he can’t carry on a conversation for fear of missing an overhead tidbit of exclusive info.

0600 we’re corralled onto military bussed by the White Sands PR rep. On the bus I start to realize that this is not your average launch. All the seasoned reporters are very exited and jockeying for positions next to potentially insightful people. Everyone listens with one ear, the other one permanently reserved for eavesdropping. I ask “why this is different” and I’m flooded with the answers like: “the first time…” “cheap” “fast” “totally reusable, not rebuildable like the shuttle” “designed like an airplane,” “Vertical landing.”

45 minutes later we pick up our MP escort at the gates of White Sands. We’re told, “please, no pictures can be taken from the bus at any time.” The bearded military archeologist who’s job it was to assure us that the base was PC, speaks up, “the strange looking antelope you will see are Africa Onyxes that were imported here for hunting.” 45 minutes (at 60MPH) later and we’re at the launch site. “Please only take pictures of the DC-X, and the fuel tank, do not point you camera’s elsewhere,” is politely told to us before we get off the bus.

We rush for the yellow ribbon that is our boundary and there it is, the Delta Clipper Experimental. Small and white with some squares and circles of differently shaded areas making it seem not so slick but just a real prototype, the DC-X rested on its stand. No umbilical cords or braces of any kind to hold this four sided obelisk, Instead only the gravity it was designed to defy held it still, kind of like a salt shaker on an egg stand. I started snapping shots, conscious of only having 36 pictures for this photo op. I noticed that everyone was holding back so I waited with them. An Air Force PR lady took my picture and smiled. “Internal Security” came to mind.

Suddenly the ribbon parted and we were being lead by the tough MPs right to the DC-X! We could touch it, and they’d opened a hatch to the engines! The media surrounded this 42 foot tall icon to Star Trek. Speed winders leapt to life, video reports from the scene appeared out of thin air. I joined in, and then noticed a technician in a “Delta Clipper Team” body suit standing off to the side. I got out my pad and approached. He turned out to be Mike Johnson – design engineer, 10 years with McDonnell Douglas. He told me: “I spent 3 years and had nothing but paper on the last project.” I took a picture of his “team” jacket with the DC-X looming behind him, and then ran over and zoomed in on the open hatch that showed a gleaming golden wire wrapped beach ball and lots of hoses and braces.

Suddenly a technician came over and notified the White Sands rep. that we were not supposed to be this close. We were herded back on the busses, and driven to the bleachers 3.5 miles away. This is were we would get the see the launch from. I found out the we were placed so far away because the DC-X, unlike almost every launch vehicle, doesn’t have on board explosives in case it goes off course and say… heads for me as I’m wondering why I can’t seem to focus my zoom because it just keeps getting closer!! They wanted to save weight, and as one official put it, “we don’t want to have to blow this thing up, we’ve only got one.” Instead the DC-X had a parachute in the nose cone, if anything goes wrong they shut off the engines and it floats down to Earth only crushing whatever is happens to be occupying it’s “new” landing pad. The DC-X also has no redundant systems on board. Part of the reason excitement was continually building around this launch was the seat-of-pants nature of this little gem.

THE BRIEFINGS. Well this was just like in the movies. A conference room in the Hilton was set up with 8 chairs and a center podium. Three full uniformed general/Col. types and six suited contractors proceeded to inundate us with information. What surprised me was that all of them, even the military guys, seemed like kids explaining the latest video game. After years of the same old grind with space vehicles it was obvious that this was a completely new way of doing things, and it was called, “concurrent engineering and rapid prototyping.” At the technical briefing a short balding, portly man sat to the commanding Col.’s left. He turned out to be Pete Conrad, the ex-astronaut from the days when we were king of the moon. Conrad was a kick. He laughed, joked, and was clearly not one of us. He predicted launch at 08:57:57 and after the briefing I trailed him for half an hour until I got him cornered and he agreed to answer two questions. My first was “will you sign my press pass?” He did. My second was about parallels and I used it in the story for the Monitor.

When you get close to someone who’s been on the moon you see a glint in their eyes that almost looks like a reflection of the planet Earth.

After the briefings my new friend Chris Cooper, a college kid majoring in propulsion at Las Cruces State and doing a radio report, got the president of McDonnell Douglas, Gerald Johnson, to talk on tape. I stood by and heard something amazing that would become the underlying theme to the whole event. Chris asked Johnson what the DC-X’s philosophical goal was. Johnson said, “to get the public into space,” he explained the he hoped this was the beginning of what would lead to an infrastructure that would make spaceports, and space travel, to anywhere on Earth, a reality. I almost fell over. In my pea brained concept of how we were going to get the public into space I thought science and asteroid mining would come first, and then the public. Guess again amigos, we’re going to get there because people will buy tickets for thousands of dollars just so they can make it to Tokyo in 1/2 an hour. As Johnson explained smiling with dollars for teeth, “nobody thought anyone would ever pay 70 times the cost of a stamp to get a letter to someone overnight, but look at Federal Express.”

At lunch I started to realize that the software was the real story behind the DC-X. The software makes it so only three people are needed to do preflight, flight, and post flight. The payroll savings along are amazing. I found my friend Martin and got an interview with the heads of Integrated Systems who built the software in only 13 months. To my astonishment I found out that Conrad flies this thing with a mouse and a monitor! This is the future I thought, this is how it is supposed to be done, this is what we’ve been waiting for.

I drove to the State university, lied my way into their computer labs (7 years for a BA taught me something) and wrote pages of notes. When the lack of sleep hit me in the higher reasoning centers, I found a quite parking lot and passed out in the van.

THE LAUNCH. 0630, 15 buses head out for the pad. 13 carrying VIPs that came out of nowhere. After a two hour delay due to a computer glitch, and just as my sunscreen was giving up, the DC-X took off. My 400mm zoom caught the brief flame and that’s about it. The crowd clapped and cheered like it was verbally helping a runner up a hill. 18 seconds later the DC-X stopped and leisurely sidestepped for a while, and then stopped and started down. 63 seconds after launch, landing struts appeared out of the DC-X’s base like out of some Buck Rodgers dream. When the DC-X hit the Earth, those same landing struts shut the engines off using a weight sensor. I, and everyone I was around, was overwhelmed by happiness and the feeling that we had just seen the first formal flight of a history making little rocket. Comparisons to Kittyhawk didn’t seem far-fetched.

Returning to the Hilton on the “help! I’ve got a deadline” bus, I jumped in the van and hit the highway, already in a complete panic about having to drive for six hours to Los Alamos, and not being able to write. 15 minutes out of Las Cruces an old traveling man was hitchhiking. I pulled over and asked him if he could drive? “Sure, but I don’t have a license,” “but can you drive,” I said. His name was Gordon and he was a 50 year old ex-con, ex-alcoholic, but now a dry, legal, well read transient. I fed him lunch and he saved my story by driving all the way to Albuquerque while I madly wrote.

The editor of the Monitor read my piece over at a 1/2 hour before deadline, made some helpful changes, gave me a front page byline, and $25. The biggest rip-off in freelance history didn’t even bother me as I thanked her, grabbed my Pete Conrad signed DC-X press pass, and drove home thinking, “I was there when the DC-X sidestepped into history.”

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