October 1, 2012
When NASA retired its space shuttle fleet last year, the three flown orbiters — Discovery, Atlantis, Endeavour — and the Enterprise atmospheric test vehicle all went to museums in big tourism markets: Washington, Orlando, Los Angeles, and New York, respectively.
That still left a few prize pieces of shuttle hardware for smaller venues, however. One of them — the Crew Compartment Trainer, or CCT-1, — is now at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. This was the high-fidelity mockup used by almost all shuttle crews for training.
Judging from this video, the Museum plans to turn it into quite an impressive exhibit, complete with a full-size payload bay and ramped walkways in the shape of wings.
Way to go, Ohio.
January 4, 2012
Space X Founder Elon Musk, who’s profiled in our current issue, discusses (at a recent National Press Club event) the prospect of 8,000 people moving to Mars for half a million dollars each.
November 3, 2011
Most “new space” watchers consider Virgin Galactic the frontrunner in the race (can something so slow be called a race?) to send the first tourists into suborbital space. In recent weeks Richard Branson’s company picked its first astro-pilot, former Air Force test pilot Keith Colmer. And Sir Richard himself helped inaugurate a new spaceport in New Mexico.
As for when tourists might start using the spaceport, Virgin Galactic hopes to begin flights in 2013 if testing of SpaceShipTwo stays on track.
In the meantime there’s video, showing some of the test flights to date.
May 2, 2011
Late in 2014, a radically different type of rocket propulsion is set to show up on the International Space station for a period of experimentation.
The technology is called the Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR). It’s a rocket engine that uses electricity to ionize a gas such as argon, xenon, or hydrogen. Ionizing means that an electron gets knocked off of each atom in the gas, creating a plasma, which then gets energized in another section of the engine by radio wave antennas. This superheats the plasma until it is 200 times hotter than the surface of the sun. The plasma shoots out the back of the rocket through a system of magnets that align it properly to create highly efficient thrust. Read more about it here.
While not able to provide the explosive power of a chemical rocket for getting loads off the launch pad, VASIMR can create a steady stream of thrust for days or weeks and continually accelerate a spaceship away from Earth. It still looks plenty explosive in this 2009 max-power test:
The company that created it, Ad Astra, was founded by 7-time space shuttle astronaut Franklin Chang Díaz. He claims that VASIMR could get astronauts to Mars in 39 days instead of the six-to-nine months needed with chemical rockets. Ad Astra is located in Webster, Texas, not far from NASA’s Johnson Space Center. A VASIMR rocket on the ISS would have many uses, one of which would be to reboost the station to higher altitudes. With the looming retirement of the space shuttle, which used to handle that job, NASA likes the idea. Ad Astra claims that a VASIMR rocket could do this work for about 1/10th the current cost of $210 million a year. Other tasks that VASIMR could eventually handle include propulsion to enable satellite refueling, repair, and disposal, payload delivery to the moon, Earth departure stages for deep space probes, and various uses as a space tug for future vehicles in Earth orbit or beyond.
So how’s the VASIMR going to get up there? Chang Díaz writes to us that he never intended for it to actually go to the station on the shuttle. “I knew that program would soon end,” he says. “We always planned to go on one of the CRS [NASA's Commercial Resupply Services] vehicles, Falcon or Taurus II. We are still on that plan and do not have to down select the carrier until next year, so we are carefully watching the evolution of the CRS program.” When the engine finally gets there, it will be the culmination of literally decades of work.
Chang Díaz is excited about the outlook for VASIMR. In March he signed his fourth support agreement with NASA to collaborate on research, analysis and development tasks on space-based cryogenic magnetic operations and electric propulsion systems. In particular, the support agreement means that Ad Astra will provide NASA with an assessment of VASIMR’s high-power, low-thrust trajectories over a number of mission scenarios ranging from near Earth to deep space, while NASA will support Ad Astra’s efforts to mature the design of their 200-kilowatt VF-200 demonstration engine planned for the ISS, including use of specialized NASA facilities and equipment for the testing.
Chang Díaz emailed us from the country of his birth, Costa Rica, where Ad Astra has a second location, and said he was headed to Europe. “There is a strong current of interest in VASIMR developing in the old world as well, mainly Germany and Italy,” he says.
Here’s a neat video of a VASIMR payload delivery to the moon, which shows the advantages of the technology over traditional, chemical rockets.
April 25, 2011
Each year, the National Aeronautic Association (NAA) and the National Association of State Aviation Officials (NASAO) organize an art contest meant to encourage young people to become familiar with (and participate in) aeronautics, engineering, and science.
“The quality of the art we see is unbelievable,” says Dik Daso, who has been a judge for the past five years. Daso, a curator of modern military aircraft at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, along with two other judges, selected nine first-, second-, and third-place winners from approximately 170 state finalists.
The theme of this year’s contest was the 50th anniversary of human spaceflight, and more than 6,800 students from 24 states participated in the U.S. competition. (Students first compete at the state level; each state aviation organization then sends its finalists to NASAO.) The artwork of the U.S. winners (who range in age from 6 to 17 years old) will be entered in the international aviation art contest, held in Lausanne, Switzerland this month.
For those states that do not hold a competition, students and teachers were able—for the first time—to send submissions to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Prescott, Arizona campus, which then grouped submissions by state. “What’s interesting,” says Kathryn Solee, president of the NASAO Center for Aviation Research and Education, “is that New Jersey sent over 400 pieces of art to Embry-Riddle, and had two national winners.”
“100 years ago, your great-great-grandparents read about traveling through space in science fiction books,” reads the contest brochure. “50 years ago, your grandparents listened [to] the radio or watched on television when the first human orbited the earth, and today you can watch a small crew of astronauts from around the world share living and research quarters on the International Space Station on your laptop computer…. Time to grab your favorite paintbrush or markers, buckle up into a secure position in front of your desk, and blast off into your imagination…”
Through a process of elimination, each judge argues for his or her favorite pieces. Since the winning artwork will be made into posters, “you look for themes that have public appeal,” says Daso, “in addition to artistic skill.”
Daso’s interest in the competition goes beyond enjoying the artwork, however. “I’m very excited to see young people getting involved, really involved with aviation topics,” says Daso.
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