A Holiday in Space

Who's flying high and how to be a space tourist

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Sub-orbital teasers: Virgin Galactic showreel and Masten Space hover test videos

Posted by lx_lane@yahoo.co.uk on February 22, 2012 at 9:30 AM Comments comments (46)

These great video clips from Virgin Galactic and Masten Space show the great progress being made to make private manned spaceflight a reality.

Masten Space's clip shows their Xaero test rocket flying up to 61m and coming back to land - the first in a series of test flights to ever-higher altitudes.

Masten's goal is a fully-reusable unmanned sub-orbital spacecraft for scientific research, but it's not hard to see how this technology could scale up with a partner dedicated to manned flight.

As the video shows, Xaero copes with a small wobble at the apex of its flight, and the ultra-cool landing gear damps out a big tilt as the engine switches off as it lands.


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Virgin Galactic has been busy putting SpaceShip Two and WhiteKnight Two through their paces on a series of test flights, and this showreel rounds up the latest progress as well as showing the progress made at Spaceport America in Nevada, which will host Virgin Galactic's first flights.

The Virgin group website promises it will be operational 'soon'. Could that be this year? It looks like everything is ready to fire up the engines...


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Moon-race fever will get no-one anywhere fast

Posted by lx_lane@yahoo.co.uk on February 7, 2012 at 5:35 AM Comments comments (0)

The past couple of weeks has seen both American presidential hopefuls and the Russian space agency predict permanent bases on The Moon by 2020.

Right-wing darling Newt Gingrich proposed an Apollo-style race to put a permanent base on The Moon by 2020, with the Tea Party-pleasing spin that it could be done without any increase to NASA's budget.

Gingrich's speech pandering to freshly-unemployed space industry workers in Florida didn't seem to do him much good - he subsequently lost to fellow Republican candidate Mitt Romney in the Florida, Nevada and Iowa primaries.

The excitement about a US moonbase seemed to inspire the Russian Space Agency, which is looking for a big new project after the debacle of its lost Mars probe.

Russia's possibly further ahead, since it's building a bigger version of its Soyuz workhorse space capsule for Space Adventures to sling around The Moon with a couple of paying passengers aboard.

NASA and the US government, on the other hand, don't seem to know whether to let commercial spaceflight handle the business of getting into orbit while they develop better technology and focus on activity beyond the Earth.

The Apollo-style Orion capsule seems far too small for anything but vanity missions planting flags around the inner Solar System, and the SLS will probably still be on the drawing board when SpaceX's Falcon Heavy takes off.

Both Russia and the USA are responding the straw men of Chinese and Indian spaceflight programmes, which they fear could topple their dominance of manned spaceflight.

India doesn't have a reliable geostationary launcher, let alone anything capable of manned spaceflight, while China's space programme progresses slowly, but just fast enough to rattle the cage of its fellow superpowers.

Any mention of a Chinese moonshot seems to send America, in particular, into paranoid seizures with visions of merciless yellow overlords ruling the high frontier.

If that nightmare comes true it will be their own fault, since politicians and space agency chiefs in both America and Russia would rather have a jingoistic short-term goal that they can't achieve than a long-term goal which would bring glory and success to their countries.

While they waste money on over-ambitious programmes that are soon cancelled, the Chinese space programme plods away, ahieving small but significant goals that add up to something big.

Armstrong may have got to The Moon in one giant leap, but staying there requires a lot of of small steps.

Holiday to The Moon: Space Adventures starts five year countdown

Posted by lx_lane@yahoo.co.uk on February 2, 2012 at 5:45 AM Comments comments (4)

Space tourism pioneers Space Adventures will send its first tourist flight around The Moon by February 2017.

The five year countdown was started by CEO Eric Anderson in a YouTube video where he reveals that the first £95million seat on the mission has already been sold.

The flight will carry two private passengers, plus crew, on a circumlunar journey, hopefully making more than one orbit after a trip expected to last at least two days.

Anderson hasn’t revealed the spaceship, although a modified ‘super-Soyuz’ is the most likely craft, drawing on Space Adventures’ long association with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency.

None of the privately-built American spacecraft is likely to be ready for February 2017, although the ex-Soviet Almaz craft purchased by the UK’s Excalibur Almaz might be modified for such a journey.

In his YouTube announcement (below), Anderson also suggests that if private enterprise can get to The Moon, then state space exploration agencies should be trying to ‘push the envelope wherever possible’.

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Lego astronaut cruises from Canada to the edge of space

Posted by lx_lane@yahoo.co.uk on January 29, 2012 at 9:20 AM Comments comments (0)

A pair of Canadian teenagers made a Lego man into a 24km high-altitude tourist with a home-made parachute and a weather balloon bought on the internet.

The 17-year-olds recovered their tiny space tourist and photographs of him standing with the Canadian flag and a background of the curved Earth.

Matthew Ho and Asad Muhammed captured the 97-minute journey to edge of space and back using cameras bought on the internet for £254.

Muhammed couldn’t speak English when he was befriended by Ho at middle school shortly after emigrating to Canada from Pakistan.

Today, he wants to be an aircraft technician, while Ho wants to be an entrepeneur, according to the Toronto Star, which broke the story.

They spent four months of Saturdays on the project, drawing up plans, stitching the parachute on Muhammed’s mother’s sewing machine, and carving a styrofoam box for the still and video cameras which would photograph their bold adventurer.

After testing their parachute - throwing it off the roof of Ho’s dad’s apartment building to the consternation of some neighbours - they ordered a weather balloon and helium online.

The journey would be tracked by a cheap mobile phone with built-in GPS, using a an app that would send them its location whenever it was in range.

After weeks of waiting for the right weather conditions - they didn’t want their traveller to cross the US border - they launched the balloon from a nearby football field.

The balloon soared out of mobile phone range and out of sight, rising to 24km (80,000ft) in about an hour, where it was predicted to explode and release their payload back the Earth.

Soon after that, the mobile phone messaged Ho’s iPad to say it was back in range, and had touched down 122km away.

The next weekend they drove out to the brush and found their Lego man and cameras intact. Back at home, they uploaded two videos and 1,500 photos of their successful mission.

(picture Toronto Star)

Could space junk be space tourism???s Achilles Heel?

Posted by lx_lane@yahoo.co.uk on January 26, 2012 at 8:50 AM Comments comments (1)

Man-made space junk has been in the news twice this week, but has anyone considered the risk to future space tourists?

Australia has backed a proposal to minimise the amount of man-made rubbish in orbit, and solar activity caused our atmosphere to expand and bring down some junk.

As Douglas Adams said, ‘Space is big, really big’, but it turns out that the bits of space we want to use aren’t so big.

We’ve been littering Earth orbit since 1958, when America put Vanguard 1 into an orbit where it remains to this day.

Over the decades, defunct satellites have been joined by spent rocket boosters, astronauts’ tools and gloves, and we’ve even been adding to it with anti-satellite tests.

Today, NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office has catalogued more than 16,000 debris objects, but the majority of it is in low and medium orbits.

But adding in smaller particles which could still cause serious damage to spacecraft can raise estimates as high as 500,000 objects.

The Sun will reach the peak of its 11-year activity cycle in 2013, and the small increase in solar activity has caused the Earth’s thermosphere - it’s outermost layer - to expand.

This thin layer of atmosphere increases the drag on debris in low Earth orbit, causing them to enter the atmosphere and burn up sooner than expected.

So it’s no surprise that NASA actually recorded a slight decline in orbital debris at the end of 2011, and orbital mitigation programmes like the international code of conduct on space activities backed by Australia this week.

But the International Space Station has been put on alert to avoid space debris several times per year, and a single collision between defunct satellites could hugely increase the amount of junk.

If commercial manned spaceflight and space tourism into orbit become successful, they will have to both account for the risk of debris and ensure they don’t make the situation worse.

Commercial launchers like SpaceX must ensure they de-orbit all of their unused rockets and service modules, while any orbital destinations will need to be armoured against smaller particles and able to move out of the way when larger debris threatens.

In the long term, the spaceflight industry will need to develop ways to capture or de-orbit the debris, overcoming the outdated military concerns that are always brought up in the face of such proposals.

Anyone who would seriously test an anti-satellite weapon today knows that it’s likely they wouldn’t just deny their enemy some capability, they could spark an avalanche of destruction that would deny space to the whole planet. It’s a scenario of mutually assured destruction which renders such weapons a useless as nuclear arms for winning any global conflict.

So let the commercial spaceflight industry lead the way on clearing up our space trash for the sake of its own future success.

Space tourist's sci-fi film set for NASA approval

Posted by lx_lane@yahoo.co.uk on January 23, 2012 at 5:30 AM Comments comments (0)

NASA is set to approve the release of a sci-fi horror film shot by a space tourist on the International Space Station.

Video games pioneer Richard Garriott shot Apogee of Fear during his stay abord the International Space Station with Space Adventures in 2008.

Astronauts working on the ISS became his cast during their free time, but Garriott hadn't asked for prior approval to fim the movie from NASA, who have blocked its release.

Now The Register reports that the eight-minute movie - which has only had private screenings so far - can be shown to the public.

Bob Jacobs, deputy for communications at NASA, said: "NASA is working with Richard Garriott to facilitate the video's release.”

“While the project was not part of his original Space Act agreement with NASA, everyone involved had the best of intentions. We hope to resolve the remaining issues expeditiously, and we appreciate Richard's cooperation and his ongoing efforts to get people excited about the future of space exploration."

British-born Garriott is the son of 1970s Skylab astronaut Dean Garriott, and he had hoped to release Apogee of Fear alongside Man On A Mission, a film about his efforts to follow his father into space.

The film was scripted by fantasy author Tracy Hickman and involves astronauts hunting a possibly alien stowaway aboard the ISS after Garriott's visit, with nods to sci-fi classics such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, Forbidden Planet and Galaxy Quest.

Virgin Galactic could fly the winner of Britains Got Talent

Posted by lx_lane@yahoo.co.uk on January 20, 2012 at 8:45 AM Comments comments (2)

The worlds of space tourism and celebrity often collide, especially when you combine arch-publicists like Richard Branson and British pop-impresario Simon Cowell.

Now Cowell has vowed to turn the relationship on its head by sending a guaranteed non-celebrity from Britain’s Got Talent into space on the first flight of Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

Speaking to British tabloid newspaper The Sun, Cowell promised ‘Richard genuinely is up for doing it. I'm not winding you up, Richard would pay for it’.

Branson’s Virgin Group is the sponsor of the 2012 edition of the popular bread-and-circuses prime time TV filler, and the two have been negotiating over a deal to fly the winner on Virgin Galactic, which The Sun claims will launch this year.

Cowell adds: “I'm being serious. You could be the first singer or dog act, whatever, performing in space.

“I would go on the spaceship myself — you have to have a lot of training.”

Unfortunately, Cowell demonstrates a sad lack of understanding of what happens in zero gravity: “We have to think about the details, I mean, if you're a juggler then we'll need to make heavier balls.”

“I love the idea that, if they are up for it, then they have the option of performing in front of the whole planet in space.

"If it had been a few years ago Susan Boyle could have been singing Unchained Melody in front of the whole planet.”

Boyle shares a ballistic flight profile with Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo, having been flung from the gravity of obscurity into the stars, before gravity dragged her down to Earth.

Both Cowell and the show’s winner are likely to be gifted return flights. We can only hope that in space, no-one can hear you sing.

Space tourism has had near misses with pop music in the past: former Nsync (remember them?) singer Lance Bass (remember him?) was lined up to visit the International Space Station with Space Adventures, until the Soyuz tourist programme was grounded following the Challenger disaster in 2003.

Incidentally, the idea of 'performing in front of the whole planet in space' conjured visions of Father Ted explaining ‘near’ and ‘far away’ to Father Dougal - so here it is (and here's the link if it doesn't embed):

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Where is my robot butler?

Posted by lx_lane@yahoo.co.uk on January 19, 2012 at 6:20 PM Comments comments (1)

Creating this website has reminded me of the dreamy days of the Usborne Book Of The Future, a gorgeous trio of books which promised my eight-year-old self I’d be living in a world of wonders when middle age came knocking.

In some ways we do live in a world of wonders: I have in my pocket a computer that could have run the entire Apollo space programme and still had capacity to play computer games that were yet to be invented. And it’s a phone - not a digital watch with aerials. My high definition TV’s not quite a wall screen, but it’s pretty big, and no-one at Usborne foresaw the internet or World Wide Web.

Still, I wouldn’t be writing A Holiday In Space if all I had to do was book the next Space Shuttle flight on Wikipedia. According to the Book of the Future, my robot-piloted car would deliver me to a nuclear-powered train running in vacuum tubes to an equatorial spaceport where I could whizz up to orbit on the space elevator, from where I could embark to the Moon, a teeming space habitat orbiting at the L-5 point, or beyond to Mars and the mines of the asteroid belt.

At every step I’d be accompanied by robotic helpers, and if anything went wrong, robot rescue workers would pluck me to safety and refit my body with cybernetic replacements.

Ironically, the prediction which looks most likely to come true is the dire warning of a polluted world where grimy vehicles rumble through grimier cities, past fake plastic trees and citizens wearing gas masks to survive the pollution. At least I don’t have to wear that ridiculous red jumpsuit.

Of course, the authors were just mining a half-century of science fiction and the late-1970s futurology to come up with their predictions, although they managed to be even more wildly enthusiastic than 2001: A Space Odyssey.

As we wait for SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and SXC to turn their brochures into destinations, I’m sure we’ll come back to the Usborne Book of the Future again.

If you weren’t lucky enough to have this visual feast as a young space enthusiast, you can read it online here.

SpaceX mission to Space Station delayed

Posted by lx_lane@yahoo.co.uk on January 18, 2012 at 4:10 AM Comments comments (1)

SpaceX has scrubbed the February 7 launch of its Dragon capsule to the International Space Station for unspecified reasons.

A Falcon 9 rocket was due to loft the reusable Dragon capsule into orbit for the first-ever docking of a privately-funded spacecraft with the International Space Station - or any other orbiting vehicle.

SpaceX spokeswoman Kirstin Brost Grantham said: "We believe there are a few areas that will benefit from additional work and will optimize the safety and success of the mission.

"We are now working with NASA to establish a new target launch date, but note that we will continue to test and review data. We will launch when the vehicle is ready.”

The tentative launch date was announced in December, with Dragon expected to perform a series of manouevres near the ISS before attempting to dock.

A successful mission would enable SpaceX to take up a £1billion contract for delivering cargo to the International Space Station.

The resuable capsule would also be able to bring back items from space, which can currently only be achieved by the Russian Soyuz capsules used to ferry astronauts to the ISS.

Stratolaunch points to a way beyond sub-orbital

Posted by lx_lane@yahoo.co.uk on January 12, 2012 at 12:15 AM Comments comments (2)

Today's new Holiday in Space profile looks at The Spaceship Company, which is building the carrier aircraft and six-man spacecraft for Virgin Galactic's sub-orbital space tourism business.

Air-launched spacecraft have been out of favour for decades, but the concept was a serious contender when NASA sought proposals for the Space Shuttle in the 1960s.

Now they're being revisited by an all-star cast of private spaceflight glitterati: Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft and backer of SpaceShip One; Burt Rutan, founder of Scaled Composites and builder of both SpaceShipOne and Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo; Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, which is soon to fly its own rocket to the International Space Station.

They've founded Stratolaunch Systems with the aim of creating a working air-launched spacecraft capable of carrying payloads into orbit within five years, and with the reliability and regularity of commercial air freight.

An air-launched spacecraft doesn't have to carry the propellant to reach all the way into space, and its carrier aircraft can be completely reusable, flying back to pick up another spacecraft when it's payload has departed.

It can also fly to launch locations suitable for reaching a variety of orbits and inclinations, both equatorial and polar, rather than being restricted to the orbits allowed by a fixed launch site.

Stratolaunch's carrier aircraft will be the largest aircraft ever flown, weiging more than 500,000kg and with a wingspan of more than 115m. It will have six 747-style engines and fly from large runways like that at Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

Fortunately, the Space Shuttle left a legacy of large runways around the world for emergency landings, and Strayolaunch will be able to fly 2,400 km from its base to its launch point.

SpaceX will build a multi-stage booster to reach low Earth orbit, and the goal is to provide manned launches once the system has proven reliable for unmanned cargo.