Scaled Composites at Fault for Fatal Explosion


Safety inspectors in California have cited Scaled Composites for being at fault for the explosion that killed three employees at their Mojave Air and Space Port. The explosion occurred in July 2007 and stunned the X-Prize winning company. They now face a maximum fine of $25,310.

Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composite company has been going from strength to strength in recent years. In 2004 the company was successful at launching their SpaceShipOne to an altitude of 114km, claiming the $10 million Ansari X-Prize in 2004. Since this historic win, Rutan has formed a powerful alliance with British businessman Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. Branson is currently heading the construction of the world’s first Space Port in the New Mexico desert, using SpaceShipOne’s successor, the larger SpaceShipTwo, as the principal craft to take 6 people into space. Stowed under a WhiteKnightTwo aircraft, SpaceShipTwo is designed for a conventional take-off until the pair are at approximately 15 km in altitude. At this point, the pair separate, allowing SpaceShipTwo to accelerate to 2500 mph by firing its single hybrid rocket engine. Weightlessness will be achieved, giving space tourists an idea of what it feels like to be in a low Earth orbit.

Tragically, three personnel working on the Scaled Composites site in the Mojave Desert last July were killed in an accident during tests involving a rocket propellant. The report from safety officials state that the company failed to provide “effective information and training of the health and physical hazards associated with nitrous oxide,” the fuel used to power the rockets. Since the incident safety measures have been stepped up and it is hoped that this sad event won’t delay the 2009 launch of the first space tourism flights by Virgin Galactic.


Branson Wants to Fly Space Tourists into the Northern Lights


For his next big plan for the private space industry, Richard Branson is thinking up new ways to excite affluent space tourists: flying them into the biggest lightshow on Earth, the Aurora Borealis. Although the New Mexico Virgin Galactic Spaceport isn’t scheduled for completion until 2010, the British entrepreneur is already planning his next project intended for cruises into the spectacular space phenomenon from an Arctic launchpad.

Located in the far north of Sweden (in the Lapland province), the small town of Kiruna has a long history of space observation and rocket launches. The Arctic location provides the town with unrivalled views of the Aurora Borealis as it erupts overhead. The Auroral lightshow is generated by atmospheric reactions to impacting solar wind particles as they channel along the Earth’s magnetic field and down into the thickening atmospheric gases.

Once a view exclusive only to sounding rockets, this awe inspiring sight may in the future be seen from the inside, and above, by fee-paying space tourists as they are launched into space from a new spaceport, on the site of an existing base called Esrange. Although launching humans into an active aurora holds little scientific interest (if it did, it would have probably been done by now), it does pose some prudent health and safety questions. As Dr Olle Norberg, Esrange’s director, confidently states: “Is there a build-up of charge on the spacecraft? What is the radiation dose that you would receive? Those studies came out saying it is safe to do this.” Phew, that’s a relief.

The chance to actually be inside this magnificent display of light will be an incredible selling point for Virgin Galactic and their SpaceShipTwo flights. As if going into space were not enough, you can see and fly through the atmosphere at it’s most magnificent too.

Source: The Guardian Unlimited

Former Astronaut John Herrington Resigns from Rocketplane


Former NASA astronaut John Herrington has resigned from the commercial space company Rocketplane Global, Inc. Herrington left NASA in 2005 to join Rocketplane as vice president and director of flight operations. He was slated to pilot the company’s passenger-carrying suborbital XP spaceplane. His resignation was effective on December 21, 2007.

Herrington said he plans to continue working in the commercial space industry, because he believes “commercial space is the next great adventure in aerospace.” Herrington will also continue as a motivational speaker to both industry and educational institutions, and as an advisor to the University of Colorado’s National Institute for Space, Science and Security Centers. In addition, he’ll also work with the Chickasaw Nation, of which he is a member.

“I was fortunate during my tenure at Rocketplane to work with an incredibly talented group of professionals,” said Herrington. “My decision to leave was a difficult one.”

Rocketplane has had its troubles recently, with several top officials leaving the company, including former company president Randy Brinkley.

But in an interview with me in October, Herrington was optimistic about Rocketplane’s future. “If we can be successful, then hopefully we can make spaceflight more routine, then more people can experience what a unique environment it is,” he said. “And if we can be successful doing both then we provide a market to the consumer that’s looking for high adventure.”

Rocketplane’s company structure consists of the parent corporation Rocketplane Limited, under which are two separate entities: Rocketplane Kistler which is developing a reusable two-stage orbital unmanned spacecraft called the K-1 while Rocketplane Global is building the XP.

In August 2006 Rocketplane Kistler (RpK) won a contract with NASA for the COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) program, to bring cargo and eventually crew to the ISS. But in October of 2007, NASA terminated its agreement with RpK, citing the company’s failure to meet financial and design review milestones per the agreement. Rocketplane had threatened to sue NASA over the termination of the contract, but several sources now indicate that the commercial space company will not file a lawsuit against NASA.

Herrington said that while working at both NASA and Rocketplane was a dream come true, he spent a lot of time away from home, which took a toll on his family. “There’s an aura associated with being an astronaut, but the reality is that it’s a lot of hard work,” he said. “When the thrill wears off, you stick your head in the books and you spend a lot of time learning what you need to know and then performing in a hostile environment. But it was a dream I had as a kid, and when you fulfill a dream like that it’s a phenomenal feeling.”

Original News Source: Chickasaw Nation Press Release, interview with John Herringon.

Video Game Developer Will Fly to Space


Space tourism company Space Adventures has announced their next orbit-bound customer. This time it’s going to be video game legend Richard Garriott. All you Ultima fans might know him as Lord British. If all goes well, Garriott will ride to the International Space Station in October 2008. And here’s the cool thing: his father, Owen Garriott was an astronaut for NASA, and spent time in orbit aboard Skylab and Spacelab-1. Like father, like son.

The news of this latest astro-tourist was announced on September 28, 2007 by Space Adventures. This is the Vienna, Virginia-based organization that has already arranged the passage of Dennis Tito, Mark Shuttleworth, Greg Olsen, Anousheh Ansari and Charles Simonyi to the space station. They’ve also got an office in Moscow.

Richard is best known for his work in the video game industry. He developed the original Ultima series, founded Origin Systems, and eventually created Ultima-online; the predecessor to popular massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft. Let’s just say I’ve spent a lot of time with his video games.

Here’s a really cool coincidence of the whole story. If he does make it to space, Garriott will be the first second-generation US astronaut. At the same time, second-generation Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov will be aboard the International Space Station. And the two will return to Earth together.

Garriott won’t just be spending his time in space gazing out the porthole (although I’m sure that’ll take up a lot of his day), he’s going to have some work to do. Space Adventures has announced that this flight will have plenty of commercial partners, looking to have science experiments and educational outreach done in the microgravity of orbit. ExtremoZyme Inc, a biotechnology company co-founded by Owen Garriott has already signed up to perform crystallization experiments in orbit.

Since he’s a pretty Internet savvy guy, Richard Garriott has even got a website detailing his upcoming flight, with a countdown clock ticking away the days until he reaches orbit. Only 408 days to go…

Original Source: Space Adventures News Release

Search Intensifies for Steve Fossett


In case you haven’t heard, one of the premier adventurers of our time, Steve Fossett went missing about 4 days ago. The 63-year pilot was supposed to be making a short flight around the Nevada desert, but he never returned, and hasn’t been seen since. Searchers have now mobilized, and are scouring the rugged area for any sign of Fossett, or his airplane.

Fossett is best known for his solo nonstop airplane flight around the world in 2005, but he’s also made many other achievements in balloon flight, sailing, gliding, skiing, and even running.

On 8:45 am, Monday, September 3, 2007, Fossett took off from a private airstrip in Nevada known as the Flying-M Ranch. He was apparently searching for a nearby lake bed that could serve as a flat surface for an upcoming world land speed record. He was supposed to only be out a few hours, but he never returned.

When he didn’t return on time, searchers started looking for Fossett about 6 hours later. Although Fossett’s plane is equipped with an emergency locater radio beacon, it hasn’t been heard from yet. He didn’t file a flight plan, and apparently wasn’t required to do so.

On Tuesday night, several teams of aircraft went searching for Fossett, scouring the rough Nevada countryside for any evidence of Fossett’s crashed plane. Nothing turned up.

Now the fourth day into the search, 10 airplanes and helicopters headed out again just after dawn. The weather is cooperating nicely, giving searchers clear skies. They were originally scouring 1,500 square km (600 square miles) but have now expanded the search to 4,400 square km (1,700 square miles). Sonar equipped boats will also be looking beneath the surface of nearby lake, which could explain why the emergency beacon isn’t functioning.

Original Source: Steve Fossett website

New Mexico Spaceport Design Unveiled


Somebody pinch me, because I still can’t believe this is going forward. The world’s first commercial spaceport took the next step today, releasing new plans and illustrations to the public today. With a building that looks like the Millennium Falcon with wings, the spaceport, and its main tenant, Virgin Galactic, are taking this whole “space is cool” concept very, very seriously.

Spaceport America will be a 9,300 square metre (100,000 square foot) hanger and terminal facility located in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Construction is expected to begin in 2008, and is expected to be completed by 2009 or 2010.

It was designed by a partnership between the American firm URS Corporation and the British architectural agency Foster+Partners, which has plenty of experience designing airports.

Virgin’s chief, Sir Richard Branson, clearly had a hand in setting some of the environmental requirements of the facility. It was designed to meet the standards of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Platinum Certification, which is the highest rating you can get from the US Green Building Council. It’ll have solar panels for electricity, a water recycling system and natural earth to provide passive energy for heating and cooling.

The terminal and hanger facility are expected to cost about $31 million, and will also serve as a tourist attraction. It will include Virgin Galactic’s pre-flight and post-flight training facilities, and contain a maintenance hanger for two White Knight 2 aircraft and five Spaceship 2s.

Branson revealed more details about Spaceship 2’s testing as well, saying, “next year will see the first test flights of Spaceship 2 and it is fantastic that we will now have a permanent home to go to, which will be every bit as inspiring for the astronauts of the future as Burt Rutan’s groundbreaking technology.”

So, Spaceship 2 tests next year, and a spaceport completed as early as 2009. Like I said… pinch me.

You can check out a full image gallery of the spaceport here.

Original Source: Spaceport America News Release

Bigelow Speeds Up Plans for a Human Habitable Space Station


Where are you planning to go on your next vacation? Hawaii, Mexico, or Europe would be nice. But what about a trip into orbit? Space tourism entrepreneur Robert Bigelow announced this week that he’s going to be fast tracking his plans to a launch an orbital space hotel. With his current prototypes, Genesis 1 and 2 already in orbit, Bigelow has decided to skip another unmanned prototype and go straight for the habitable Sundancer module, launching as early as 2010.

Bigelow posted the news on his company’s website this week.

According to Bigelow, the incentive for the decision came from the rising costs of launching spacecraft into orbit. The company was originally planning to launch its Galaxy prototype next. This was supposed to be a 45% scale prototype module that would bridge the gap between the Genesis modules and the first human test module: Sundancer. After both Genesis modules launched successfully, and have been sending back exactly the kinds of scientific information Bigelow Aerospace required, the company decided another unmanned prototype wasn’t necessary.

The company will still construct and test the Galaxy prototype, in order to gain familiarity and experience with the subsystems, but they won’t actually launch it. This gives time in their schedule, and additional budget to move up the launch of the Sundancer prototype.

When it finally launches, Sundancer will be capable of accommodating three people in orbit. In his website post, Bigelow targeted 2010 as a possible launch date, but speculates that it might happen “much earlier than any of us had previously anticipated.” So, maybe even 2009 isn’t out of the question.

How people are actually going to reach their hotel in space, that’s another question.

Original Source:Bigelow News Release

European Space Jet Unveiled


The European aerospace firm EADS Astrium revealed its plans for space tourism on Wednesday at a special event in Paris. The company also showed plans for a new space plane that it hopes will take customers up to space as early as 2012.

The Astrium space jet will take off and land from a conventional airport using jet engines. Once it reaches an altitude of 12 km, its rocket engines will ignite, and burn long enough to give it the momentum to reach 100 km of altitude. Passengers on board the plane will then get to enjoy a few moments of weightlessness, with a beautiful view of the Earth. Then it will descend, with its jet engines restarting, bringing it back to a safe landing. The whole journey should take about 90 minutes.

A vehicle like this could also be a precursor to suborbital space planes, which would provide rapid point-to-point transportation across the Earth.

Original Source: EADS Astrium News Release

First Female Space Tourist Will Participate in Several Experiments

The International Space Station is going to be a busy place. Right after Atlantis undocks, the next Soyuz mission, carrying the crew of Expedition 14, as well as a space tourist will launch on September 18. Iranian-American entrepreneur Anousheh Ansari will live on board the station for a week, partly as a tourist, and partly as a test subject for several research experiments. Four experiments are planned for Ansari, including two that test her blood, one to seek the cause of astronaut low-back pain, and a search for bacteria around the station.
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Virgin Galactic Updates on Plans For SpaceShipTwo

Scaled Composite’s SpaceShipOne claimed the X-Prize when it reached an altitude of 100km for the second time in less than 2 weeks. Although this was a much simpler feat than reaching orbital altitude and velocities, many believed we were on the verge of a space tourism revolution. Virgin Galactic, one of the companies attempting to make a business out of suborbital flights recently unveiled details about SpaceShipTwo at a space tourism conference in London.
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