Light Years

Chuck Yeager pulls no punches on space travel

Editor's note: It's been nearly 65 years since Chuck Yeager became the first human to fly faster than sound. Now 89, the legendary test pilot portrayed in the 1983 movie of Tom Wolfe's book "The Right Stuff" remains active with a charitable foundation and public appearances. He spoke with CNN last week about the future of space travel and his days as a test pilot at California's Edwards Air Force Base. The following is an edited transcript:

CNN: Are you still excited about what's going on in aircraft design and the ability to push the envelope?

Chuck Yeager: There's a limit to what they can do. The main thing is you have new airplanes coming, but it's still the same old weapons systems that destroy the enemy. That's the way you look at it. And there's not an awful lot of new stuff that's mind-boggling.

(Commercial spacecraft designer) Burt Rutan - that to me is a bunch of crap trying to shoot guys up into damned space. What they're going to do is they're going to wipe out half a dozen (people) one of these days, and that will be the end of it.

CNN: Are you talking about space tourism companies like Virgin Galactic, which are planning to offer private civilians short rides to the edge of space?

Yeager: That's what I mean. One of these days there's going to be a catastrophe. And then that will put an end to it. (See Virgin Galactic's response below.)

CNN: What aviation figures are your heroes?

Yeager: Well, Gen. (Jimmy) Doolittle was my hero when I was a young pilot because he was something else.

I ran the astronaut school for six years, and I was the commandant and when I finished in '65, 26 of my guys went into space as NASA astronauts that I trained.

The Air Force was very much involved in space and the astronaut program.

But then (President Lyndon Johnson) and some other politicians said we've got to keep the military out of space because if we don't keep them out of space the damned Russians will start building space weapons systems - which is a kind of stupid analogy. So they closed our school down, transferred everything to NASA, and it was a bureaucratic mess ever since.

CNN: I want to ask you about the recent successful unmanned SpaceX mission to the International Space Station. What do you think about the future of commercial space exploration?

Yeager: I don't believe there are too many big breakthroughs left in the space program. What do we gain out of it?

CNN: Is it better for the government to run it or private industry?

Yeager: It's a good place for the government to spend money. That's the way I'd put it.

CNN: How strong is your interest these days in aviation achievements?

Yeager: Well, basically there's not a hell of a lot going on because we got the F-15 and the F-16 and now we've got a Joint Strike Fighter coming that looks to me like it's going to break the budget. (laughs)

CNN: What was California's Edwards Air Force Base (formerly known as Muroc Air Base) like when you first started flying there?

Yeager: Let me tell you some of the bad things. Muroc Air Base was staffed by the dregs of the Air Force - back in '45, '46. We were sent out from (Ohio's) Wright Field to do test work, and those guys wouldn't give you the time of day. And even when I was flying the X-1 over there, I could not get any support whatsoever. They were just a bunch of jealous people. Now that you understand my attitude, Muroc Air Base was a sorry place until Gen. (Albert) Boyd moved out there after the X-1 and straightened it up.

CNN: Speaking of the X-1, tell me about that night after you broke the sound barrier. Did you celebrate at the pilot hangout they used to call the Happy Bottom Riding Club?

Yeager: The mission was classified when we got it above Mach 1. Gen. Boyd said, 'OK, this is classified; you can't talk about it. You can't celebrate.' And that put an end to everything. (laughs)

When we did get it above Mach 1, well obviously it made us very happy because we'd done something the rest of the world had been trying to do for years. What it did, it put America ahead of the rest of the world - the British, the French, the Soviet Union - on technology.

I felt good about it, naturally because I'd done what the old man had sent us out to do. That's just about the end of it.

After six months when the Air Force finally leaked it out, we started to celebrate somewhat. But by then the newness had worn off and then we were talking about Mach 2 and 2 and a half - and things like that.

CNN: Have you been to Edwards recently to visit the spot where the club burned down?

Yeager: We've been out there - they have a party once a year, and they go out there, and they fix it all up and get some platforms and have a barbecue and most of the base comes out. You go out there and you look at the swimming pool, and you think back over the years and you think about (Happy Bottom owner) Pancho (Barnes) and her husband, Mac McKendry, and some of the people who used to come out there.

When I was flying the X-1, I was only getting $260 a month. The way we looked at it - duty was our guideline - that's the way we all flew in the military.

But I'm not one of those who spends a hell of a lot of time thinking about old stuff.

CNN: Back in the day, did you enjoy the outdoors during your time at Edwards?

Yeager: We fished a lot in the High Sierras for golden trout. And we also hunted for quail over in Antelope Valley in back of Lancaster. We hunted a lot of dove. I used to take my two boys outside the house there in the evening, and a dove would fly by and I'd shoot them and they'd pick them up and then (his late wife) Glennis would cook them. It was good eating.

CNN: Horseback riding?

Yeager: Glennis and I did a lot of horseback riding at Pancho's because Pancho had some good horses.

CNN: Last month, you served as grand marshal of the National Memorial Day Parade in Washington. How do you feel about the way admirers respond to you?

Yeager: They all know your name and they yell at you and cheer and things like that. And I feel really good about it because they honor what you did. And that's the way they look at it. And they're proud of you, and they show that reaction when you go by.

I haven't changed. And I think that's one thing that the people appreciate. I was in a convertible, and people were just really going ape, you know, cheering and saying my name, and I was really proud that they would do that. But they never forget you, that's the main thing.

Editor's note: Aerospace development company Scaled Composites, founded by Rutan, did not respond to CNN's request for a response to Yeager's comments. But Virgin Galactic President and CEO George Whitesides did. "Virgin Galactic’s goal is to operate the safest space vehicles in history.  Because no endeavor of this scale and significance is without risk, we will use our flight test program to show we have reached that high standard of safety.  During flight test, we will expand the vehicle’s flight envelope further than will be required for normal commercial operations, giving our customers - including our first commercial passenger, Richard Branson - confidence that we have met our goal," Whitesides' statement said.