Brian Binnie, SpaceShipOne test pilot who won XPrize, dies at 69

Brian Binnie, the second person in history to pilot a private spaceship into space in 2004, died at the age of 69. On Sunday, his family revealed Binnie's death on Thursday (Sept. 15). There was no mention of the reason for his death.

On October 4, 2004, Binnie took flight as a test pilot for Scaled Composites, the aircraft design corporation established by Burt Rutan (and now owned by Northrop Grumman). His 24-minute flight achieved a high height of 69.6 miles (112 km), shattering the record for a winged vehicle set by the X-15 rocket plane in 1963 and breaching the widely recognized von Kármán line dividing Earth's atmosphere from outer space.

Binnie was the 442nd person in history to enter space.

People dubbed it the perfect flight in 2021, according to Binnie. The spacecraft exhibited zero rolls, pitch, and yaw rates when it left the atmosphere while I kept the motor operating to 215,000 feet. It was very solid and went past the X-15 height. It was a fantastic experience.

Scaled qualified for the Ansari XPrize, which promised $10 million to the first privately built spacecraft to go twice into orbit in two weeks. Binnie's flight came after test pilot Mike Melvill flew the identical vehicle 63.9 miles (102.9 kilometers) on Oct. 29. (For the flight, Bonnie piloted the WhiteKnight mothership.) Binnie was the final person to fly SpaceShipOne, which was presented to the Smithsonian Institution for exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. The spacecraft served as the inspiration for Virgin Galactic's bigger SpaceShipTwo, which can carry two pilots and up to six paying passengers into space.

Binnie, I don't see any single-seat spacecraft appearing anytime soon. So maybe I'm the last man to go to space by himself.

William Brian Binnie was born in West Lafayette, Indiana on April 26, 1953. However, from the age of 5 through his adolescence, he resided in Scotland with his family. He returned to the United States and got a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering as well as a master's degree in fluid mechanics and thermodynamics from Brown University in Rhode Island. Binnie also has a master's degree in mechanical and aeronautical engineering from Princeton University in New Jersey. Binnie learned to fly there, first onboard a glider as a member of the school's Soaring Society, then as a student at Princeton's flying research lab, testing experimental designs.

That event prompted him to enroll in the United States Navy in 1978. Binnie served five operational deployments, including 490 arrested landings on aircraft ships and action in operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm, and Southern Watch. He graduated from the United States Naval Test Pilot School in 1988 and served as a naval aviator for 13 years, testing systems for the A-7 Corsair II, A-6 Intruder, and F/A-18 Hornet. He retired from the Navy in 1998, with the rank of commander and over 4,300 flying hours.

Binnie served as a test pilot for Rotary Rocket before joining Scaled in 2000, establishing that the company's Roton vertical take-off and landing vehicle could return to Earth while spinning rotors.

Binnie stated, "We did what we said we would do... demonstrate vehicle control in the landing pattern."

Binnie flew SpaceShipOne twice before his space mission, including its maiden powered flight on December 17, 2003, the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers' first powered flight. He also took part in 12 combined flights with SpaceShipOne on WhiteKnight. Binnie left Scaled in 2014 to join XCOR Aerospace as a senior engineer and test pilot, working alongside former NASA astronaut Rick Searfoss on the development of the company's Lynx suborbital vehicle family.

Binnie was awarded Civilian Astronaut Wings by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) for his suborbital flights in 2004 and was recognized by the Gathering of Eagles Foundation. As a member of the SpaceShipOne team, Binnie received the Space Foundation's Space Achievement Award and the National Aeronautic Association's Robert J. Collier Trophy. In 2006, Binnie starred in a series of Miller Lite beer advertisements as a member of the "ancient order of men" as recounted by actor and narrator Burt Reynolds. Binnie became a brand spokesperson for Ball Watches in 2009.

In 2021, Binnie self-published "The Magic and Menace of SpaceShipOne: A First-Person History of the World's First Commercial Spaceflights," recounted in more than 400 pages his experience with the XPRIZE-winning spacecraft. Binnie is survived by his wife, Bub, and their three children, Justin, Jonathan, and Jennifer.

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