Local writer scores big with a debut about a revolutionary spacecraft.
Thursday, July 3, 2008
Monterey scribe Dan Linehan’s name may not be familiar to many, even on a local level, but maybe it should.
His just-released first book, SpaceShipOne: An Illustrated History, is the only book published on the first privately funded craft to reach space, SpaceShipOne. That makes Linehan the man charged with definitively documenting an achievement comparable to the Wright Brothers’ first flight and the Apollo 11 mission to the moon– and places Linehan’s finger on the pulse of aerospace technology that is quickly revising reality to look a lot like science fiction.
“Commercial space flight is now beginning to be technologically feasible and will soon become economically viable,” writes the late Sir Arthur C. Clarke, author of such sci-fi classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey, in the forward. “The rise of citizen astronauts has already begun.”
People are already clamoring for their chance to step aboard SpaceShipOne: More than 250 wealthy sci-fi lovers have signed up for the $200,000 ride, a 90-minute trip that includes four minutes of zero gravity. Similarly, authors clamored for the chance to write the story of its creation. So how did an unknown author get such a sought-after assignment– and get the celebrated Clarke to write the forward just months before his passing?
“I came in as an unknown,” Linehan says, surrounded by a sea of technical books and research at his home office. “I’m not from the air and space fields or a major newspaper; I constantly had to prove myself.”
Linehan proved himself with a diverse set of qualifications. He enjoys both a technical know-how of the subject and a gift for wordplay. An engineer with a bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s in materials engineering from Purdue University, he left his job as a microchip engineer to pursue a career as a writer in 2000. He’s since become a key player in the local literary scene, free lancing for the Weekly, completing the poetry chapbook Spindrifting through Ocean Archways: Poetry of Monterey and helping reinitiate the Ping•Pong literary journal tradition with Henry Miller Library.
But even after Linehan distanced himself from hands-on engineering he continued to take advantage of his technical expertise with his writing.
From 2003-2005 he was the editor and publisher of the Salinas Air Show’s program, which led to a key recommendation as a candidate to write the SpaceShipOne book. In August 2006, Linehan’s publisher, Zenith Press, had been contacted by the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
“I wasn’t the only writer they had contacted about the job,” Linehan says. Several other writers, including a writer for Vanity Fair, were also in the running for the opportunity.
In the end, Linehan was given the go-ahead to write the book with a one-year deadline, which was later extended. This would prove draining, and not just because of the research and writing involved (the captions alone took him two weeks to complete). At the time, no writer had been able to obtain the access necessary to begin to profile the highly secretive aerospace research outfit, Scaled Composites, and their most important project, SpaceShipOne, with any depth.
Earning an interview with SpaceShipOne’s sole private investor, Microsoft co-founder and CEO of Vulcan Inc. Paul Allen was as hard as getting into CIA headquarters. But tapping into Scaled Composites’ heavily fortified world was even tougher.
“Breaking into Scaled Composites was the hardest thing,” Linehan says.
After nine months of calling, e-mailing and networking without any response, he finally got a call back– Linehan speculates that Allen read his manuscript and liked it– and the hush-hush outfit granted him “limited access” into their world. Soon after, arrangements to interview Allen were made.
As Linehan’s book reveals, SpaceShipOne’s is a voyage of determination, achievement and infinite imagination.
Scaled Composites’ aerospace designer and dreamer Burt Rutan began sketching and envisioning what would become SpaceShipOne in 1993; Linehan begins the awesome story of SpaceShipOne with a biography of the craft’s engineer and designer.
“I was going to build something to fly out of the atmosphere,” Rutan says in the first chapter.
The book continues with an outline of SpaceShipOne’s specs, flights and pilot communication transcripts presented through intricately detailed illustrations and photographs. Linehan presents a book designed to charm both casual readers and hardcore aeronauts, using a blend of glossy photos and rainbow-colored diagrams to balance out the complex g-force equations and aviation jargon.
“Youngsters can learn just by reading the captions and looking at the photographs and illustrations,” Linehan says. “For others, [the book] does get nuts and boltsy.”
The turning point of SpaceShipOne’s story came in 2004 when Rutan and Scaled Composites won an Ansari X Prize, a $10 million award given to the first team to achieve a specific goal that has the possibility to assist humankind.
The 2004 challenge entailed building a privately funded craft that reaches a sub-orbit of 100 kilometers two times in two weeks.
It was on June 21, 2004, in Mojave, Calif., that the rocket-powered SpaceShipOne was launched from its White Knight mothership, and piloted beyond the atmosphere, just into the limits of space. The 24-minute trip included three minutes of zero gravity and was the first non-government funded craft developed to reach space.
Intertwined with the documented flights and the technical and data breakdowns, Linehan captures the true soul of SpaceShipOne through firsthand accounts.
“The acceleration is fierce,” SpaceShipOne pilot Brian Binnie recalled after the first launch. “It’s abrupt. It’s sudden. It’s a big slap in the back and whoosh, off you go.”
The book draws many parallels between SpaceShipOne and The Spirit of St. Louis, which revolutionized the world of commercial air-travel.
Currently, both revolutionary crafts hang side-by-side in the grand entrance hall of the renowned Air and Space Museum. Linehan’s book is sold at the museum gift shop.
“You don’t get higher than the Smithsonian,” Linehan says.
Now that the book is written and has hit the shelves, Linehan spends his time making press packets, giving book signings and doing interviews, which leaves little down time.
In early June he had book signings at the Air and Space Museum and the International Space Development Conference in Washington, D.C. The rest of the month Linehan gave signings in Mojave, Irvine, Pasadena and Oceanside Calif., as well as several radio and web interviews.
A June 11 book-signing in Palmdale, Calif., was particularly rewarding– and not so much because of the healthy sales as where the books would end up.
“Someone came up and bought 70 books,” Linehan says. “The books were bought and I signed every one of them and they were given to all the libraries of the schools in the area.”
Linehan hopes to continue documenting aviation history with the emergence of SpaceShipTwo. In January he traveled to New York City’s Hayden Planetarium to see the unveiling of SpaceShipTwo models. The project was funded through a merger between Scaled Composites and billionaire Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.
The Virgin Spaceship Enterprise, one of five SpaceShipTwos, will carry six passengers and two pilots to an altitude of about 68 miles, just inside suborbital space.
Other developments underway include Spaceport New Mexico, which will be Virgin Galactic’s main hub for SpaceShipTwo.
Linehan says the spaceport is designed to look like a green glowing eye from space. Other spaceports are in development worldwide.
Some of the more distant future endeavors include an inflatable space hotel, commercial orbital trips and trips around the moon.
“In a couple of years, people will be able to go to space whenever they want,” says Linehan, who hopes to one day see Earth’s curvature from space himself. Thanks to the success of his debut book, he just might– he’s on the short list of writers being considered to author an account of the first civilian trips into space.
“It would definitely make a great story,” he says.
SpaceShipOne: An Illustrated History is available at www.barnesandnoble.com or www.amazon.com. Published by Zenith Press. $34.95. For up-to-date info on events go to www.dslinehan.com.