Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Catch-Up: Jim Benson Dies at 63

Some sad news was released while I wasn't getting updates. Jim Benson, the founder of SpaceDev and Benson Space died of a brain tumor on October 10.

Benson leaves behind a huge legacy. Though Benson Space was dissolved due to Benson's long illness, SpaceDev remains, and is one of the most exciting companies in space equipment manufacturing today. Most notably, in the world of space tourism, SpaceDev designed and constructed the rocket for SpaceShipOne, the first commercial spacecraft. Despite a personal dispute between Jim Benson and Burt Rutan, SpaceDev has also signed a contract to design the rockets for SpaceShipTwo. In addition, SpaceDev is currently designing the DreamChaser, a spacecraft which if built, could be launched into space atop an Atlas V rocket.

Among other accomplishments, Benson was on the board of the California Space Authority, and he founded the non-profit Space Development Institute. And though by all accounts, he tended to be rather blunt in personal conversation, which tended to rub people the wrong way, he will certainly be missed. And with the advances that are continuing to be made toward the goal of space tourism, my guess is that he would not be disappointed.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Falcon 9 Assembly Nearing Completion

I wasn't sure this website would make it this far, but this is my hundredth post. Hooray! That is, if you don't count posts I've deleted because I mistakenly published them and posts that I've started writing but that haven't been... um... posted yet. But I don't count those, so why should you?

So for my hundredth post, I've decided to take a break from all this catch-up nonsense (keep sucking on that porcupine, NBC) and report on some exciting news that is happening right now.

The progress to SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket has steadily proceeded, and after its earlier successful test firing, it is now being assembled for its first launch at Cape Canaveral.

The first stage flight tank arrived at the cape on December 18th, and was lifted off the truck on December 21st. Since then, assembly of the rocket has gone extremely well by all accounts. If no problems crop up, assembly will be complete as soon as today.

Even more exciting for SpaceX, NASA has officially selected them to provide cargo transfer service to the International Space Station using the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and SpaceX's Dragon-class spacecraft. Really, though, this comes as no surprise, since you don't demolish a launch pad unless you have a good reason.

Oh, here's some cool assembly pictures, credit SpaceX. Notice how small those traffic cones are compared to the nine Merlin engines at the bottom of the rocket, and how those in turn are dwarfed by the rocket itself.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Catch-Up: Rocketplane Needs More Funding

Well, it was reported in mid-October (thanks again, NBC) that Rocketplane Global is having a few funding issues, possibly due to the economic downturn.

Specifically, The Journal Record, a newspaper from Oklahoma where Rocketplane is based, interviewed the company's CTO, Dave Faulkner. Among other things, Faulkner seemed to indicate that development on the Rocketplane XP had halted completely until more funding is found. Specifically, he stated:

"Rocketplane has scaled way back to the point where the company is now dedicated solely to fundraising, recently letting go of a few more part-time workers."

Rocketplane hasn't made any significant announcements since then. However, it's really no surprise that luxuries like space tourism would have to be put on hold during this economic downturn.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Catch-Up: WhiteKnightTwo Flies At Last!

It has been conceived, designed, built, postponed, and delayed, but it has finally happened; the first component in the first regular tourist spaceflights has flown!

In the first of many, many test flights, the first WhiteKnightTwo aircraft (named VMS Eve) took off from the Mojave airport on December 21 at 8:17 AM Pacific time and landed one hour later at 9:17 AM. Eve is the first of two carrier aircraft to be created by Scaled Composites for use by Virgin Galactic. If all goes well, Eve will carry the first SpaceShipTwo craft to a 50,000 foot altitude and drop it for the launch of Virgin Galactic's first tourist spaceflights.

By all accounts, test flight number one went extremely well. Dick Rutan (the brother of Burt Rutan, who founded Scaled Composites) stated that the flight was "99 percent on target."

WhiteKnightTwo is slated to start its first test flights coupled with SpaceShipTwo early next year, and if all goes extremely well, the first tourist flights will occur late next year. Here's hoping!

Oh, and you can see a video of awesomeness here.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Why NBC Can Go Suck A Rotted Porcupine

Okay, remember early this month when I complained that there hadn't been much space tourism news? Yeah, I was kind of wrong about that. But it wasn't my fault.

I blame NBC.

And why would I point my finger so emphatically at them? Well, to explain that, I'll need to get into a bit of history about this website.

When I was starting this website almost a year ago, I was simply relaying information I had seen on TV, or more often by clicking around the internet. However, early on, I decided that if I was going to make this website an awesome place to follow space tourism news, I was going to need to find a way to get regular updates myself. So I started clicking around at the websites for individual companies to see if there was a way to get updates, which in turn prompted me to start writing up company profiles here.

A few of the companies, such as SpaceX, had e-mail newsletter services that I could sign up for, but most of the companies that provide regular updates simply have RSS feeds, which is an easy way to get updates if you want to visit their websites constantly to check them.

Well, I'm way too lazy for that.

So after clicking around the internet a little bit longer, I discovered a website with a service called SendMeRSS. This service watched specified websites for RSS updates and sent them to people through e-mail. So every few days, I would get an e-mail with an update about one of these companies. I even signed up for the New Voyage News and Personal Spaceflight feeds to catch whatever fell through the cracks; they have some great space tourism information too.

Well, little did I know that NBC Universal bought out SendMeRSS about a year ago, and in October, they shut it down. This alone wouldn't have been a problem, except for one big screw you to their customers:

They did it without telling anyone.

Yeah. Awesome, guys. So in early October, I quietly stopped getting updates without any notification that the service was gone. I was still getting updates directly from companies like SpaceX that have their own e-mail newsletter services, so I didn't really notice that there was certain information I wasn't getting anymore, and I assumed the drop in volume was due to a lack of space tourism news. This had two consequences:

1. This website has been heavy on SpaceX news and light on everything else for the past couple of months.
2. I've missed out on some really great stuff.

On the upside, for the next week or two, I'll try to update at least daily to play catch-up, and maybe more. I'll start this afternoon with an awesome piece of news that clued me in to the fact that I wasn't getting the feeds anymore, and after that, I'll go chronologically starting in mid-October when I stopped getting updates. It will take some time to choose a new RSS/e-mail service (preferably one not tied to a corporate overlord) and rebuild the list of feeds I was watching, but it will get done eventually.

And that's why NBC can go suck a rotted porcupine.

Yeah, that's right, NBC. I know this won't even reach the level of a mosquito bite on your massively oversized ass, but I'm taking Heroes off my DVR. I wasn't watching it anymore anyway.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Monday, December 29, 2008

More problems with the Space Elevator?

The concept of the Space Elevator has plenty of problems; nobody is denying it. Not the least of these problems is the fact that technology needed to manufacture the necessary carbon nanotube ribbons hasn't been invented yet There are also the issues of avoiding storms in the vicinity of the ribbon, providing power to the elevator during its ascent, and how the heck do you launch a satellite tethered to the ground without destroying the tether during launch?

Well, a new study presents a new problem; the Coriolis effect could throw the satellite off-course during the elevator's ascent. Yep, the Coriolis effect. The same effect that makes Canadian toilet water spin one way and Australian toilet water spin the other is going to pose an issue to any potential space elevator.

Because the ribbon tethering the satellite to the ground will be flexible and not rigid, the Coriolis effect will drag a single rising elevator in the opposite direction to the Earth's spin, causing the satellite at the end of the ribbon to be pulled off-course.

Don't understand why this would occur? There's a simple experiment you can perform. Put a large bead on a strong string, and make sure the bead will slide easily along the string. Tie the string to the edge of a merry-go-round and sit in the middle, holding tightly on to the other end of the string so that it is straight. As the merry-go-round is spinning, throw the bead out along the string away from you. You'll notice that as the bead gets closer to the edge of the merry-go-round, it will pull the string in the direction opposite to the spin. This is the same effect.

However, all is not lost; the study proposes a few potential solutions to this problem. The simplest of these is that the elevator would need to ascend incredibly slowly to minimize the effect. However, any elevator ascending at the necessary speed would take over three weeks to arrive at its destination.

Cool Science Fact 1: To say that slowing the elevator would "minimize" the Coriolis effect is an oversimplification; in reality, moving the elevator slowly would allow it time to slow down the Earth's spin, stealing enough energy from the earth's spin so that the effect isn't readily apparent.

Most of the other potential solutions involve various methods of coordinating the ascent and descent of multiple climbers to cancel out the effect. Many of these require two or more ribbons, but that seems likely anyway. Having two ribbons attached to the same satellite is a lot more economical than just one, and anyone who knows anything about space travel knows that you don't send anything into space without a backup.

So all in all, it's a problem, but one that is likely to be easier to overcome than the issue of manufacturing twenty-thousand-mile sub-microscopic tubes of linked carbon atoms.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Monday, December 8, 2008

XCOR Announces (relatively) Cheap Tickets

Well, in a major announcement, it seems that XCOR is going gung-ho into the space tourism industry with its initial offering of $95,000 for a ticket aboard the XCOR Lynx rocket plane. They announced this alongside an announcement of a partnership with a recently created company called RocketShip Tours to begin immediately selling tickets.

The Lynx is expected to fly one tourist (or other payloads) up to four times per day to the edge of space. Note that I said the edge of space; the Lynx is not a spacecraft, and it will not leave the atmosphere. However, it will get relatively close, and provide a similar experience. XCOR says twenty people had already purchased tickets prior to the announcement and many more are expected in the weeks and months ahead. For just a $20,000 deposit, you could get a ticket as well.

As for me, I'm holding out for the real thing. Virgin Galactic still seems like the most enticing offer.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Friday, December 5, 2008

SpaceX Announces DragonLab Missions

Just a month after SpaceX announced the development of its DragonLab reusable unmanned spacecraft, it has formally announced the addition of two DragonLab missions to its already ambitious mission manifest.

The first flight of the DragonLab spacecraft (aboard a Falcon 9 rocket) is scheduled for 2010, and the second will launch in 2011. The specific payloads of these flights have not been announced; in fact, the SpaceX press release implies that the cargo has not even been chosen, and that SpaceX has chosen its launch date in part to give interested clients set dates that their payloads could fly if they purchased DragonLab cargo space.

In addition, because DragonLab will include its own propulsion systems, more applications are being discussed, such as spacecraft servicing missions and cargo delivery to the International Space Station

The other purpose of DragonLab, of course, is to prepare and test the technology necessary to launch the planned manned Dragon spacecraft, which will use the same basic structure and hardware as DragonLab.

In addition to this, SpaceX has recently made a successful flight-length test of the complete Falcon 9 propulsion system, so things are looking up for them!

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05

Get Me Out of this Job!

WOW! Did I really only post once in the month of November? These are sad and trying times indeed. Actually, the reasons are twofold:

One: almost no space tourism news happened in November. None. Nada. Zero. You get the idea. November was a barren wasteland in the world of space tourism (which would normally be a good thing; barren wastelands are typically great places for launching rockets, but I digress).

Two: The company I work for (which for now will remain nameless) decided to contract out my job to another company. Both the old company and the new company have been treating us pretty horribly. I'm not going to mince words here; a flagrantly homosexual hippie version of Michael Moore would get more respect from Rush Limbaugh than we have gotten from our employers. For example, they laid off a fourth of my team, and I ended up taking on most of the extra work. However, the purpose of my team (among other things) is to administer computer accounts for incoming and outgoing employees. So at the same time when hundreds of people are being contracted out to a new company with a major acquisition occurring shortly after, causing the need for thousands upon thousands of accounts to be created and deleted, they remove a quarter of our people because they were "redundant". The result of this is that I have been working through lunch a lot, and frequently going home in the evening with no inclination or ability to do anything other than curl up in a ball under my coffee table and pass out sobbing.

The result of this, of course, is that I am now actively job hunting. Actually, our company has treated us so terribly, that I don't think there is anyone in my department that isn't at least keeping an eye out for better work. But coming home every evening on the verge of collapse, plus job hunting, plus running two businesses (more on that later) has left me with zero time for writing the silly nonsense that I usually put here when there isn't any space tourism news floating around.

But now I'm going to have to make an effort because, well, three stories of significance have come out in the past week. So without further ado, I will write the first! But I think I'll do it separately, since I have rambled here long enough to make it its own post.

Progress: 4.03%  Flight Time: 0:06:05