Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Black Rock Desert - Day 3

Day 3 out here on the Black Rock Desert is much calmer. There's almost no wind, at least compared to yesterday. But the playa hasn't gotten any firmer.

In spite of plans to get an early start, it's still mid-morning before they tow the vehicle out onto the test track. The plan for today is to run the Eagle on the desert road that has been used by cars that head out across the desert. Yes, there are actually roads out here.

There are some initial problems with the huffer cart used to start up the jet engine, but after a brief delay, that gets resolved and the team is ready to go.

In spite of the road being much firmer, there is still a lot of concern. It may be firmer, but there's a definite crown to the road and ruts where the automobile tires have worn into the playa. The concern is that the Eagle, with its centered aluminum wheel at the nose and the large aluminum wheels at the rear won't ride well on that surface.

I drive down range about 3/4-mile and watch the startup through my binoculars. But I don't really need the optical assistance. Even from this distance, I can clearly hear when the engine has started. It's loud and thrilling.

Within seconds the vehicle rockets past, but it's pretty clear that this run is not much faster than yesterday. It also turns out to be much shorter. Ed reports that it was indeed difficult to keep the vehicle centered on the road and he shuts things down before he reaches the 2.5 mile mark. But the test is a success. The high-speed parachute has deployed and a pair of Intel solid state hard drives are ejected from the moving vehicle and successfully recovered, and of course, they still work.

The entire team gathers for a photo at the end of the run. Then, after lunch, I go with Ed and several team members to a place about 12 miles north of the base camp, to scout for a more solid stretch of desert to do some faster tests. It's pretty cool to drive my Subaru at nearly 100mph across the desert. And sure enough, just more than 12 miles north of the base camp we find a stretch of desert that is very flat and very hard. I mark the northern and southern ends using my GPS and we head back to the base camp for a meeting. After a brief discussion, the team decides to move tomorrow's tests to the new location. I drive out to the new site a second time along with another test vehicle, this time retrieving the flags marking the previous course and setting them out on the new 4.25 mile course. Then we head back to base camp.

Once back at the base, they tow the vehicle out onto the playa away from the shelter for a photo op. A photographer from National Geographic Adventure magazine is here to take photos for an article that will appear in that magazine later this year.

I tag along to take some photos of my own. It's quite a lengthy process, but I do get some great shots of the vehicle and Ed. Ed's got his own paparazzi. Now he knows what it feels like to be a super model.

One of the most fascinating things about this trip is the variety of people who are showing up. Today's most prominent new arrival is Per Wimmer, who has flown in from Denmark along with a cameraman. Last fall, Per did a tandem skydive over Mount Everest. He also plans to be the first Dane in space, and has already reserved seats on three commercial space flights. He may also be a candidate to pilot the North American Eagle.

Stay tuned for more. The plan for Thursday is to do the first run around 8am, then turn the vehicle as quickly as possible and do a second run within 60 minutes. This will be an excellent test. Higher speeds are definitely expected, and the team will get some very useful practice, since in order to break the Land Speed Record, they need to complete two runs, one in each direction, in less than one hour.

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