"Where's Jim Tighe?"SpaceShipOne (SS1) Crew Chief
Steve Losey instinctively blurted out the question from the cockpit, and it was
quickly repeated by the team of engineers in the Scaled Composites hangar until
it seemed like an echo reverberating through a mountain valley. It was the day
before the first of two qualifying flights for the glider-like craft that would
soon soar into history as the first privately funded manned vehicle to escape
earth's atmosphere and cross the boundaries of space.
Running a series of last-minute checks, Losey had discovered a problem with the horizontal stabilizers. One stabilizer would move, one would not. Left unfixed, it was a situation that would result in uncontrollable rolling in flight and a potentially tragic end to Scaled Composite's quest to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize, offered by a consortium seeking to launch an era of civilian space flight. Losey was looking for the one team member he knew could diagnose and fix the problem, the project's chief aerodynamicist.
The tall, slender, and slightly stooped Tighe joined Losey in the cockpit. After a series of tests, they figured out they had a bad circuit breaker, not a flight-control-system snafu. Replace it and the problem will go away, Tighe says. It did.
If there was a contest for the mantra most often muttered by the close-knit, always-at-the-edge SpaceShipOne team throughout the frenetic multiyear development project that ended with their X Prize victory, "Where's Jim Tighe?" would certainly be a candidate for the first place, along with "Never defend," "Always question," and "Hurry up and screw it up so we can fix it."
As chief aerodynamicist, he did the heavy lifting to ensure stability and control of the craft. No less a luminary than aerospace engineer Burt Rutan, father and guiding spirit of SpaceShipOne and so many other record-busting airplane designs, says Tighe was the indispensable figure in the project. "He is the most talented aerodynamicist of anyone I've met in my career," says the 61-year-old aircraft-design giant of his 30-year-old protege. Maybe that's why Tighe, according to Scaled employees, is one of the few people at the company who can get Rutan's attention—and occasionally dominate technical staff meetings Rutan attends.
It's obvious that Tighe and Rutan have a special relationship. Each lavishly praises the other. Tighe, especially, credits Rutan as a gifted and generous visionary, while Rutan sees pure genius in Tighe.
Which is why Tighe's influence in the SS1 project extended to more than just aerodynamics, as evidenced by his diagnosis of the circuit breaker problem. "He has incredibly high bandwidth," says Test Pilot Brian Binnie, who flew the mission that clinched the X Prize. "He was all over the map." Indeed, Rutan has decided to expand Tighe's role at Scaled Composites and is grooming him to be a configuration designer.
It's common to say about some distinguished technical professionals that they were born engineers. In Tighe's case, the description seems apt, at least according to the most reliable sources you can find on the subject. Parents Joe and Bernadette Tighe recall that as a young child Jim didn't carry around a blanket, he carried an extension cord. By the seventh grade, he knew he wanted to be an aerospace engineer.
And now, still at the beginning of his career, he has played a key role in an historic aero-space-engineering feat. "I sometimes think what I could have accomplished in my career if I had been as smart as him at that age," Rutan says. 'Nuf said. Fasten your seat belts.