“Excuse me sir, I’m a federal agent, why are you photographing this building,” the voice called out.
I looked down to see a moustached man looking up at me from his unmarked car’s front passenger window, which was wound down.The agent opened his wallet and sure enough his badge said federal agent, “We’d just like to pull up and talk to you”.
I never thought that during the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer Ultimate Flight press trip I’d be faced with armed federal agents, as I boarded the Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747-400 on Sunday 5 February – but I was.
And it had all started in such a relaxed fashion.
“First we moisturise, then we exfoliate, then we moisturise,” the beautician said as I clambered onto the table at the Virgin Atlantic Gatwick Club House salon.
Having had my shoes shined and a coke and an “English” breakfast, minus bacon, I was ready for my facial.
I can highly recommend it to anyone who wants to feel extremely relaxed; sadly it’s no protection for sunburn, as I found out.
Sauntering onto the -400 at Gate 34 at around noon the press pack of over a dozen, Virgin public relations staff included, found their seats in premium economy and sat back for the 9h flight to Orlando International.
Landing at about 5pm local time we eventually got through the heavy US customs security and with darkness having descended, piled into the bright red Virgin Holidays coach.
Settling into the Radisson Cocoa Beach hotel we gathered around the pool for the generous buffet meal amidst burning torches.
Little did I know I was just 100m from my federal agent encounter. The morning of Monday 6 February was a bright Florida day, our red, whte and blue Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Visitor Center’s bus arrived at the hotel and we jumped aboard for the drive down to the NASA News Center, opposite the huge Vehicle Assembly Building – originally constructed for the Apollo programme’s Saturn V rockets and now used to assemble the Space Shuttle stack of Orbiter, External Tank and Solid Rocket Boosters.
Jumping off the KSC bus we walked up the steps to the News Center for the 10.30am press conference with Sir Richard Branson, Globalflyer pilot Steve Fossett, Scaled Composites’ GlobalFlyer chief engineer Jon Karkow and James Ball, NASA’s manager for the aircraft’s launch from the Shuttle’s 15,000ft runway.
Hopeful sound bites uttered the press conference began to break up, an ordered room became chaos as people milled around getting nowhere. This is one of those moments when journalists can steal a moment from a chief executive and get answers they don’t want other reporters to hear. I made my way towards Sir Richard as he headed towards the exit.
Trying to introduce yourself to anyone in this business can be an art. Like any meeting you want to make sure a first impression is a good one – especially when they’re a high profile airline owner. Thankfully doting staff and NASA personnel were hindering his progress, if I could just get to him before he reached the door and was ushered away to his awaiting car.
I found myself behind Branson, and tried to manouvere around to say hello, but the wall was a bit too close, it was going to be a squeeze, I could brush past and get in front of him, I was almost there! Ouch! Branson had stepped backwards and trod on my feet.
“Oh sorry”, he says, turning around to look at the journalist now squashed against the wall – this wasn’t going to plan.
“Hi I’m Rob Coppinger from Flight International.”
Confusion over I got the answers I wanted – see the 14 February issue for the results – and we went our separate ways. I headed to the buses for the trip out to the runway to see the world record breaking Globalflyer aircraft.
In the searing heat Branson and Fossett played fuel technicians holding a gas gun to the aircraft’s wing and did interviews with television crews and photographers, and even print journalists, taking photos.
Then it was lunch back at the KSC Visitor Center and time for the tour, but we weren’t to get any NASA guide. I’d heard of Brits who had worked in the US space programme. Mission control legend Gene Kranz names the Brits he worked with in his book, ‘Failure is not an option’.
John Tribe didn’t work with Kranz, but he knew him. John’s story began when he left the UK when its Bluestreak project was virtually abandoned in 1960.
Citing as his inspiration an article in Flight International in the spring of 1960 about the US space programme John headed out to Cape Canaveral in 1961 and got a job with General Dynamics.
He got to work John Glenn’s orbital launch, the entire Apollo programme and Shuttle until his retirement in 1997 – as Rockwell Orbiter chief engineer.
If you wanted a guide for KSC, you weren’t going to get any better.
So with John Tribe we headed over to the Orbiter Processing Facility’s bay three, where Space Shuttle Discovery is right now being prepared for its expected May launch.
Standing agog under the tiled belly of the oldest remaining Shuttle we took picture after picture and spoke to the thermal protection system team.
After what was the highlight of the tour it was once around launch pad 39B and then we started the journey back to the hotel.
A couple of hours later I found myself in the hotel bar, with a beer in hand, standing in a group of four; me, John Tribes, Sir Richard Branson, and Bill Readdy, recently retired as NASA associate administrator for Space Operations Mission Directorate and a three-flight shuttle astronaut.
Bizarrely I had one of those small world moments when it turned out that all of us, bar Sir Richard, knew International Space Station docking system designer Vladimir Syromiatnikov – graduate of Russia’s leading space hardware development centre, Bauman-Moscow State Technical University.
Admittedly Bill and John had met him during the days of Soviet-US space co-operation, Vladimir had just been trying to sell me his new book, and the Russian version at that, at a US space conference last year.
Piling onto the buses we headed off to KSC’s Visitor Center and its Saturn V show. Standing in a recreation of the Apollo booster control room we watched, heard and felt the simulated launch. Impressive even when you’ve experienced it twice before!
Underneath the KSC’s Visitor’s Center’s suspended Saturn V – made up of stages from the abandoned Apollo 18, 19 and 20 missions – I chatted with British born NASA astronaut, and now deputy associate administrator for exploration opertations, Michael Foale CBE.
Michael – who has more time in space than any other US astronaut – takes a keen interest in UK space policy and we talked about the sudden decision by the Royal Astronomical Society to become pro-manned spaceflight.
But all good things come to an end and after the dinner, with speeches from Michael and Sir Richard and others, it was back to the Radisson.
At 3am local time my alarm clock went off and it was time to get organised for the GlobalFlyer launch.
Aviation adventurer Steve Fossett and Sir Richard “rebel billionaire” Branson were awaiting us at the top of NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center’s 15,000ft Shuttle runway.
As Branson gave interviews things didn’t sound too good. Not all the over flight permissions had been granted, there was concern over the winds. And where was Fossett?
We got back on the KSC buses and head down to the mid-point Midfield area where a breakfast of Muffins and Danish pastries and coffee was laid on.
Then it was down to the 10,000ft mark in cramped vans where GlobalFlyer was expected to take off. We weren’t there five minutes before the scrub call came through. Tail winds were too strong we were told. We got back in the vans and headed back to the runway. It was about 0630 local time.
It turned out the problem was a fuel leak, from the fuel system that was modified after Fossett lost 3000lb of fuel on his last wound the world trip.
I typed up the story on my Blackberry with Branson, looking rather glum, standing next to me with his PR people.
It was back to the hotel. It looked like we were to fly out that night.
I spent the rest of the day working while sitting on the sun lounger in t-shirt and swimming trunks on the pool side. Between writing stories I took dips in the pool, the things I do for journalism.
Just after 4pm we were told it was all go for a Wednesday launch. Would it be groundhog day?
Standing at the 10,000ft mark again 14hr later it was just after 7am and felt very cold. Finally the call came through, take off roll had started. Cameras poised GlobalFlyer came into view. It reached 10,000ft, nothing happened, 11,000ft, still nothing – was Fossett going to take off? 12,000. I thought it was going to be another abort.
And then a sudden climb. Fossett was away, we got back on the bus. It was back to NASA’s News Center, file the stories and back to the hotel and the flight home.
Getting off the bus at the Radisson I walked up the road, camera in hand. Peering through my digital camera’s viewfinder I squinted in the bright sunlight to get a good picture of the building opposite. Its sign said, “USA, Shuttle Logistics Dept.”
“Excuse me sir, I’m a federal agent, why are you photographing this building. We’d just like to pull up and talk to you”.
Stepping from the grass verge onto the pavement the Cadillac style car pulled up off the road and the moustached agent got out, “Got any ID?”
I fumbled in my clear plastic Virgin Atlantic bag for my business cards, but they were back in my hotel room. Fortunately I had my passport with me. The agent flicked through it, “That’s my I-visa I need as a journalist to work in the US, I’m a reporter for Flight International magazine.”
“Why are you here?”
“I’m covering the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer launch”, recognition of this filled the eyes of the agent. I looked through my wallet for any spare business cards but no luck.
“What’s that?” asks the agent, he tugs on a card sticking out from between my AMEX and my gym club membership.
It was John Tribe’s business card, “OK that says NASA”. The agent peered at the card, “You can go”.
Thanks again to the British engineer turned space programme veteran, I turned and walked towards the hotel. Note to self – curiosity killed the cat and the tabby was probably Taser’d by federal agents…
Standing in my living room, remote control in hand, BBC News 24 showed GlobalFlyer landed at Hurn Airport just outside the southern coastal town of Bournemouth. Electrical failure had brought it down early but Fossett still had his record. Mission accomplished.