Fifty thousand feet over the California desert, the world is a vast expanse of blue with a drab carpet of khaki far, far below. Pilot Peter Siebold sets the craft’s trim to 18 degrees, pushes the stick forward, and counts down: “Three. Two. One. Release.”
The mother ship rises above us as we drift downward for a few seconds. Siebold pulls the yoke back and flips a toggle on the center console. Then: Bang! The hybrid rocket motor ignites and we’re a missile shooting toward the stars at more than three times the speed of sound. The sky becomes black. Then it gets weirder: Siebold flicks the yoke and the vehicle whips around 180 degrees. We’re still heading straight up, but the ship is flying backward. It’s like looking out the windshield of a car that’s floored in reverse, except my view is 1,500 miles in each direction, from the Sea of Cortez to San Francisco Bay.