May 9, 2013
“We need to do something to get started.”
There was a subtext of desperation in Dennis Tito‘s plea at this week’s Humans to Mars conference in Washington, considering he’d just spent the last few minutes dashing all hope that the U.S. government will send people to Mars any time soon.
But Tito doesn’t seem desperate. In fact, it’s amazing how cool and collected he and his fellow space pioneers sounded as they described two wildly ambitious, privately funded Mars missions: a 500-day round-trip for two (Tito’s Inspiration Mars), and an even more daring one-way trip to the surface for four pioneers (Mars One).
The backers admit that yes, they have their work cut out for them. They talk like sober space engineers, with data, viewgraphs, and a list of technical advisors. It’ll be tough, they say, but doable. And we’re meant to find that inspiring.
Well, you may say I’m not a dreamer — and I’m not the only one.
Consider Tito’s plan. They’ll need to launch in 2018 to hit the launch window for their particular mission design (a swingby with no landing). Elon Musk of SpaceX, maybe the most audacious engineer of our time, took 10 years to design, build and launch unmanned cargo ships to low Earth orbit. Judging from his experience alone, I’d say there’s almost no chance Inspiration Mars will be ready in just five years.
Mars One aims to launch in 2022, but will need to start sending technology demo missions in 2016, just three years from now. Again, I have to think it’s very, very unlikely.
Still, there’s something poignant about this business of passing the hat for space settlement. In the first two weeks of accepting applications (the registration fee varies according to country; Afghans pay just $5, while Qataris pay $73) the organization got 78,000 applicants. Some of the applicants’ videos can be seen here.
Mars One isn’t the first company to believe they can finance a multibillion dollar space mission by selling media rights. Others thought they could do the same with trips to the International Space Station and robots on the moon. None of it has come to pass.
The current enthusiasm for crowdsourcing space, from Astronaut Abby to Uwingu, seems driven partly by the early success of commercial ventures like SpaceX, and partly by the explosive growth of social media. It has more to do with Twitter than Apollo, but in 2013, that’s where we’re at.
March 9, 2012
AND the company will pay you for the privilege, with a year’s worth of shop space, resources, mentorship and development aid in the Sikorsky Innovation Center in Stamford, Connecticut. All you have to do is submit a winning proposal, by March 30, on an innovation related to vertical-flight technology. Says Marianne Heffernan, Sikorsky Aircraft communications manager, proposals could easily come from people “who don’t even realize they have a technology…relevant to the rotorcraft arena.”
Details are here.
And fine-print stuff is here.
December 5, 2011
To honor the courage and coolheadedness of a civilian flight instructor who was in the middle of giving a lesson when Japanese aircraft attacked Pearl Harbor, airshow pilot Kent Pietsch (pronounced PEACH) and brother Warren, of the Texas Flying Legends Museum, are re-enacting her flight in Las Vegas on the 70th anniversary of the attack. Pietsch, a gifted pilot who flies some of the most entertaining routines on the airshow circuit today, will have no problem executing the evasive maneuver used by instructor Cornelia Fort to escape Japanese warplanes and save herself and her student that December 7. If you’ve seen the 1970 movie Tora! Tora! Tora! you’ve seen the maneuver—only you saw it flown by a Boeing Stearman Kaydet, which was not the type of trainer that Cornelia Fort was flying that day. Pietsch owns and will fly the correct airplane type, an Interstate Cadet. As a matter of fact, he’ll fly a Cadet that was there in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, and owned by the flight school where Fort worked.
Let’s hope TV cameras are on hand in Las Vegas so that people across the country can see the drama. There’s something about Fort’s story that most Americans can identify with. After the 9/11 attacks, we know what it’s like to feel confusion turn into horror, as the second plane hit. “I looked again,” Fort later wrote about her experience. She saw smoke in the harbor but couldn’t make herself understand until she saw a bomb explode. “I knew the air was not the place for my little baby airplane,” she wrote, “and I set about landing as quickly as ever I could.”
Fort was a wealthy glamour girl who fought convention to get her pilot’s license. Because she was an instructor in the type of airplane Pietsch performs in, he felt a connection to her and says he began to feel an obligation to publicize her story: She was killed while ferrying military airplanes in World War II. In the current issue, we published the story of Cornelia Fort and Kent Pietsch’s search for her airplane.
The brothers will fly the re-enactment at precisely the same time Fort saved her airplane from the Japanese attack. While Kent Pietsch plays Cornelia’s role, Warren Pietsch will fly an A6M2 Zero fighter owned by the Texas Flying Legends Museum. (It’s the only A6M2 flying today.) And there’s one more character needed to make the re-enactment complete: Fort’s flight student. That role will be played by Fort’s nephew, Dudley Fort Jr., a retired surgeon in Sewanee, Tennessee.
November 4, 2011
Mars has not been a happy place for the Russian space program. The nation’s attempts to explore the Red Planet, going back more than 50 years, have produced a long litany of failures. The most recent misfire came 15 years ago, when the instrument-laden Mars 96 probe, instead of heading out into the solar system, burned up in the atmosphere and scattered pieces over Chile and Bolivia.
That crash effectively put the Russian planetary program out of business — until now.
On Tuesday a Zenit rocket is scheduled to lift off from Kazakhstan to start the Phobos-Grunt spacecraft on its 10-month voyage to Mars. If all goes well, on Valentine’s Day of 2013, after several months of circling the planet, the lander will touch down on the surface of the moon Phobos to start collecting samples of dirt (“grunt” in Russian). Four days later, a return vehicle will lift off in the moon’s low gravity and bring the samples back to Earth.
We’ll have more details on the Phobos-Grunt mission next week. Meanwhile, here’s some background from Anatoly Zak, the author of our 2008 article, and an animation (with Russian subtitles) from the Roscosmos space agency that shows how it’s all supposed to go.
May 27, 2011
With the tragedy in Joplin, Missouri this week, tornadoes have been front and center in the news. At the time of this post, the death toll in and around Joplin, according to the Associated Press, has risen to 132 while the list of people still missing hovers at 156. At the number seven slot, 2011 is rapidly climbing the list of the deadliest tornado years in U.S. history.
I got a firsthand sense of the convulsive weather that Missourians and others in the Midwest and South have been suffering this year when I flew to St. Louis last Sunday. Our American Airlines flight out of Washington Reagan National Airport arrived as scheduled at St. Louis Lambert International Airport at 7:40p.m. local time. The trip was smooth, sunny and uneventful until we began our descent. Passing through a layer of cloud at maybe 20,000 feet, the setting sun vanished, and it seemed we had waded into a dark lagoon. As we curved around on final approach, I got a view to the west where a wall of coal-colored cloud spanned the horizon, curved like an ocean wave about to break. Had we been 10 or 15 minutes later, I’m sure we’d have diverted.
I’d find out soon enough that this storm had unleashed an F5 tornado a couple hours earlier that leveled Joplin on the west side of the state.
Reaching my car just in time, I sat and watched a flashing sky begin spitting hail and spewing rain. The storm was all tornadoed out. But moments earlier, on the way to the rental lot in a van, I couldn’t help noticing the amount of plywood in the windows all around the airport, which apparently lost half of its glass to an F4 (technically EF4, for Enhanced Fujita scale) twister exactly a month earlier, April 22, Good Friday.
My driver described how he had been working on April 22 when rain drops the size of golf balls began to travel sideways in a 160 mile-an-hour gale. He said he started to really worry when he looked up amid the shrieking wind, and through his windshield saw a dumpster go past at what he estimated to be 90 miles an hour. He never saw it land. Somehow his bus stayed on the ground, but others, like the one at right, had closer calls.
With no fatalities, the St. Louis tornado didn’t get as much national news as the Joplin twister a month later. The details were news to me, though. Have a look at the following videos from April 22 for a sense of how a twister might get your adrenalin going at the airport.
A security cam:
And now for some sound, and a little more mayhem:
This guy talks about watching a commercial jet sliding across the concrete:
Lights out and lots of debris:
Boredom gets less boring in a hurry: