February 23, 2005: Features
By Kathy Kiely ’77
When he was a small boy, Brian Binnie *78 played with model planes to amuse himself. Now, he flies them to shatter the government’s monopoly on the heavens.
Binnie, 51, was at the controls of SpaceShipOne last October when the prototype space plane won the $10 million Ansari X Prize by completing a second trip beyond Earth’s atmosphere and back in less than a week. That made Binnie just the second civilian space pilot in history, hard on the heels of colleague Mike Melvill, who flew SpaceShipOne for its first Ansari qualifying round.
The two men’s achievement won international headlines. Aviation experts hailed it as a technological and psychological breakthrough that would open the door to civilian space travel, and even a space tourism industry.
If it does turn out to be the latest giant leap in man’s exploration of the last frontier, some of the first small steps were taken at Princeton University. Princeton is not just where Binnie earned his master’s degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering — it’s where he learned to fly.
“It all started with a little glider at the Soaring Society of Princeton University,” says Mark Maughmer *75, laughing. Maughmer, a founding member of the club of engineless-plane aficionados, gave Binnie his first flying lessons when they were both graduate students. Binnie was “bar none, the best natural pilot I ever flew with,” says Maughmer, now a professor of aerospace engineering at Penn State University. Binnie’s hobby complemented his academic work at Princeton, where he completed a thesis on the use of side-force panels, relatively obscure bits of equipment used on specialized airplanes.
After Princeton, Binnie became a Navy aviator, eventually qualifying for the elite test pilot corps. He flew more than 30 combat missions during Desert Storm and returned to Iraq to participate in Operation Southern Watch. He says he would have stayed in the Navy, but after 20 years, his superiors wanted to put him behind a desk. Binnie wanted to remain in a cockpit. He could have followed the path of many military pilots and flown commercial jets. But Binnie wanted something more adventurous. He ended up in California’s Mojave Desert, working for aviation pioneer Burt Rutan at Scaled Composites, a company with a reputation for innovation and a name only an engineering nerd could love. The name precisely describes what the company produces: small (scaled) versions of aircraft in a high-tech version of fiberglass (composites). This allows potential buyers to see the proposed planes, rather than imagine them. “Customers like it much better than getting a bunch of blueprints,” says Binnie.
The approach proved effective with Richard Branson, the British airline and music tycoon. Last September, on the eve of Scaled’s Ansari award-winning flights, Branson’s Virgin Atlantic airline company announced a $25 million technology-licensing deal with Rutan. The plan is to create a fleet of vehicles similar to the one Binnie flew into space, but large enough to accommodate four to five passengers. Branson’s new company, Virgin Galactic, hopes to take its first paying customers into space within three years.
“The notion of getting the general public into low-Earth orbit I don’t think is far-fetched at all,” says Binnie. Virgin Galactic’s first passengers are expected to pay about $200,000 for the chance to experience what it’s like to fly at three times the speed of sound on the way up and to be weightless on the way down. “But will there be a snack cart?” asked David Letterman when Binnie appeared on his talk show last October. Binnie, who serves as a program business manager at Scaled as well as a test pilot, laughed noncommittally.
As far as he is concerned, the selling point for a flight on SpaceShipOne is the view. Despite his vast aviation experience, nothing prepared him for the “spirituality” of “seeing the Earth in a way you’ve never seen it before,” Binnie says. “It really is a small planet. I think that to see the Earth from that view is eye-opening.”
Binnie’s journey toward that eye-opening moment began in West Lafayette, Ind., where he was born while his father, a Scottish physicist, was a visiting professor at Purdue. The young Binnie would launch his balsa gliders onto the golf course that backed up to his family home, thereby forecasting two future obsessions. When he was 5, Binnie’s family returned to Aberdeen, Scotland, where he picked up the national pastime. “Golf is a working man’s sport in Scotland,” says the studiously unpretentious Binnie, who is still an avid player. (He has even found a nine-hole course in the Mojave Desert.) But he never got over his childhood fascination. “I always liked airplanes and I decided I was going to go to school to study them,” he said
The family moved back to the United States when Binnie was a teenager. At the Boston high school he attended, he quickly learned to lose the Scottish burr. “Guys used to corner me and say, ‘Listen to him talk.’ I didn’t like that,” Binnie recalls. He went to Brown University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering, and decided to pursue his interest in flight. At a time when many of his contemporaries were exploring ways to avoid military service, Binnie wanted in. But the Vietnam War was winding down and there was a glut of pilots. The Air Force told him to come back in a year.
Binnie whiled away the time by picking up another degree at Brown — a master’s degree in fluid mechanics and thermodynamics. But when he returned to the Air Force recruiters, he got the same message: Wait a year.
“I was disappointed and discouraged,” says Binnie. He found a consolation prize in New Jersey. “Princeton had this flight research center run by a guy named Edward Seckel,” he says. Binnie applied and, in July 1977, arrived at what his thesis supervisor, Princeton professor Robert Stengel, describes as “a really unique laboratory.”
It consisted of a 3,000-foot runway and a quarter-acre hangar just off Route 1 on the Forrestal campus. Inside, the University maintained a fleet of five experimental planes, “small, but very sophisticated,” Stengel says. Special equipment on board enabled them to simulate various types of much more powerful aircraft. “A pilot could actually feel what it was like in an F-16 or 747,” says Stengel. The flight-testing center was always busy with projects for one of the branches of the U.S. military or for NASA. Binnie quickly fell into the routine, rising at 3:30 a.m. to help perform experiments in the still, pre-dawn atmosphere. “We were doing a lot of really neat stuff. I had never been so happy,” he says.
Also participating in the program were a group of students who inspired Binnie’s next career move: Navy test pilots. “They had a lot of great stories about landing on carriers,” recalls Binnie, who joined the Navy immediately after obtaining his Princeton degree. In a sense, Binnie is the embodiment of the unusual Princeton program, where blue-chip academicians rubbed shoulders with daredevil rocket jocks. Friends say he combines the qualities of both.
Stengel believes that Binnie’s training as an engineer has made him a better pilot. “He knows the vehicle,” he says. For his part, Binnie is convinced that his hands-on experiences with airplanes have made him a better aircraft designer. He thinks that a combination of theoretical mastery and practical know-how is essential for a successful engineering career. “Go talk to Tony on the shop floor or go bend some metal,” he advises today’s students. Elegant theories that can’t fly have no audience at a company like Scaled Composites, where “what we’re interested in is making money,” Binnie says.
With NASA struggling to overcome two catastrophic space shuttle accidents, Maughmer believes that Binnie’s flight aboard SpaceShipOne “is the most exciting thing in years to inspire the young” about space. But the program that launched Binnie as a young man “regrettably, no longer exists at Princeton,” says Stengel. The University no longer has its fleet of planes; Stengel says that Princeton sold them off in the early 1980s because research money from the federal government dried up. Princeton was not alone. At Penn State, which also eliminated its test planes, Maughmer says its insurance and liability costs were a big factor.
Alumni of the program aren’t particularly happy with Princeton’s decision. Asked if he thinks ending the program was a mistake, Seckel, now in his 80s and living in Princeton, snaps: “I certainly do.” Binnie suspects ivory-tower syndrome. He thinks flight testing “fell out of favor” in academe because “the science wasn’t pure enough.”
It also may be because the private sector took over. Research that once was underwritten by government grants at universities like Princeton is now being pursued by commercial enterprises like Scaled Composites. And if they manage to do what NASA so far has not been able to accomplish — make space flight routine and widely available — Princeton’s flight-test program will own a piece of that legacy. “The people who came out of that program are movers and shakers now,” says Maughmer. “For what it was doing, it was the best in the world.”
Kathy Kiely ’77 is a reporter at USA Today.
For video footage of the October flight of SpaceShipOne, including scenes of Brian Binnie *78 at the controls, go to www.scaled.com/projects/tierone/video.htm.