Brian Penny, who in 2004 became the second person in history to drive a private spacecraft into space, has died at the age of 69.
On Sunday, his family confirmed Benny’s death on Thursday (September 15). The cause of death was not mentioned.
“It is with great sadness, sadness and sorrow that we announce the death of our beloved Brian,” family members wrote on Benny’s Facebook page. “We kindly ask for privacy during this time for our family to mourn the loss of our husband, father, brother and friend.”
Arrangements are underway to place Binnie at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
As a test pilot for Scaled Composites, the aerospace design company founded by Burt Rutan (today owned by Northrop Grumman), Binnie took off aboard the SpaceShipOne rocket plane on October 4, 2004. His 24-minute flight reached a peak altitude of 69.6 miles (112 km) , surpassing the internationally recognized von Karmann Line separating Earth’s atmosphere from outer space and breaking the winged vehicle record set by the X-15 missile plane in 1963.
Benny was the 442nd person to travel to space.
“People called it the perfect voyage. While I was leaving the atmosphere, as I kept the engine running at 215,000 feet, the ship had no roll, [and] diffraction rates. “It was very solid and kept climbing beyond the height of X-15. It was a great experience,” Benny told Space.com in a 2021 interview.
Flight Scaled qualified to win the Ansari XPRIZE, which offered $10 million for the first privately built spacecraft to fly twice into space in two weeks. Penny’s flight followed test pilot Mike Melville, who flew the same vehicle to 63.9 miles (102.9 km) on October 29 (Penny flew aboard the White Knight’s mother ship for that flight).
Binnie was the last to fly SpaceShipOne, which was donated to the Smithsonian for display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. The vehicle became the basis for Virgin Galactic’s larger SpaceShipTwo, which is designed to fly two pilots and up to six pilots. passengers in space.
“I don’t see any single-seat spaceships in the near future,” Benny said. “So I might be the last person to go into space alone.”
William Brian Penny was born on April 26, 1953 in West Lafayette, Indiana. From the age of 5 to his teenage years, he lived with his family in Scotland. After returning to the United States, he earned a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering and a master’s degree in fluid mechanics and thermodynamics from Brown University in Rhode Island.
Penny also holds a master’s degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering, which he received from Princeton University in New Jersey. There was Penny learning how to fly, first on a glider as a member of the Soaring Society at school and then testing experimental designs as a student at the Princeton Flight Research Center.
This experience led him to enlist in the United States Navy in 1978. Penny completed five operational tours, which included 490 aircraft-carrier landings, as well as seeing combat as part of Operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm, and Southern Watch.
He graduated from the US Naval Pilot School in 1988 and worked for 13 years as a naval pilot, testing systems for the A-7 Corsair II, A-6 Intruder and F/A-18 Hornet aircraft.
He retired from the Navy with the rank of captain in 1998, and has logged over 4,300 flying hours.
Prior to joining Scaled in 2000, Binnie served as a test pilot for the Rotary Rocket, proving that the company’s Roton vertical take-off and landing vehicle could return to Earth under rotating rotors.
“We did what we said we were going to do…we showed control of the craft in a landing pattern,” Benny told Space.com.
Prior to his trip to space, Binnie flew SpaceShipOne twice, including the first powered flight on December 17, 2003, the centenary of the Wright brothers’ first flight. He also flew WhiteKnight on 12 joint flights with SpaceShipOne.
After leaving Scaled in 2014, Binnie joined XCOR Aerospace as a first engineer and test pilot, joining former NASA astronaut Rick Servus in developing the Lynx family of suborbital vehicles.
For his 2004 suborbital spaceflight, Penny was awarded the Civilian Astronaut Wings Award by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and honored by the Gathering of Eagles Foundation. As a member of the team behind SpaceShipOne, Binnie has been awarded the Space Achievement Award by the Space Foundation and received the Robert J. Collier Award from the National Aeronautics Association.
In 2006, Penny appeared in a series of television commercials for Miller Light Beer, appearing as part of “The Old Order of Men” as described by actor and narrator Burt Reynolds. In 2009, Binnie became a brand ambassador for Ball watches.
In 2021, Penny published a self-titled book, “The Magic and Menace of SpaceShipOne: A First-Person History of the World Commercial Space Flight,” recounting in more than 400 pages his experience with the XPRIZE-winning spacecraft.
Penny is survived by his wife Bob and their three children, Justin, Jonathan and Jennifer.