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If it flies, chances are Brian Binnie has piloted it. As a naval aviator, he learned to fly everything from fighter jets to transport planes to helicopters. During Operation Desert Storm, Binnie flew thirty-three combat missions in his FA-18. After leaving the military, he joined Rotary Rocket, a company that attempted to build a commercial space vehicle by attaching helicopter propellers to the top of a rocket. Binnie guided the bizarre-looking craft down a California runway, but the project ran out of funding. “I’ve probably flown seventy to eighty different airplanes now,” he says. “I’ve got a pretty good feel of the range of them.”

On December 13, Binnie was at the controls of SpaceShipOne, a prototype “rocket plane,” as it broke the sound barrier over the California desert. Scaled Composites, the craft’s developer, described the event as the first supersonic flight by a private company operating independently of the government. It was an important milestone in the company’s effort to win the X Prize, a $10 million competition to build a spaceship capable of carrying three people to an altitude of sixty-three miles, return safely to the ground, and repeat the flight within two weeks.

Although the December flight was successful, the landing was less than smooth. As Binnie headed toward the runway, he had trouble controlling the ship and feared it might flip. He managed to land upright, but the left landing gear collapsed under the rough touchdown. “It didn’t actually damage the vehicle a whole lot,” he says. “But it did run off the runway and produce a big cloud of dust. It looked a little more dramatic than it actually felt.”

Binnie, one of three Scaled Composites pilots, is optimistic about the X Prize, and hopes to be one of the world’s first commercial astronauts. He expects the trip to be less relaxing than that enjoyed by Space Shuttle crew members, though, since they spend multiple days in orbit. “We all tend to joke that we’re going to be so busy flying,” Binnie says, “that nobody’s going to be able to take in the view.”

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