Stephen Hawking Is Going To The Edge Of Space

Stephen Hawking has spent decades theorizing about the Universe. His thinking on black holes, quantum gravity, quantum mechanics, and a long list of other topics, has helped shape our understanding of the cosmos. Now it looks like the man who has spent most of his adult life bound to a wheel-chair will travel to the edge of space.

In an interview with Good Morning Britain, Hawking said “Richard Branson has offered me a seat on Virgin Galactic, and I said yes immediately.” Hawking added that his “three children have brought me great joy—and I can tell you what will make me happy, to travel in space.”

Stephen Hawking is one of the premier physicists and theorists of our time. Here he is being presented by his daughter Lucy Hawking at the lecture he gave for NASA’s 50th anniversary. Credit: NASA/Paul Alers

It’s all thanks to Richard Branson and his VSS Unity spaceship, which is still under development by The Spaceship Company. The Unity is designed to launch not from a rocket pad, but from underneath a carrier aircraft. By eliminating enormously expensive rocket launches from the whole endeavour, Branson hopes to make space more accessible to more people.

Virgin Spaceship Unity (VSS Unity) glides for the first time after being released from Virgin Mothership Eve (VMS Eve) over the Mojave Desert on 3rd, December 2016. Image: Virgin Galactic

The Virgin Galactic spacecraft is carried to an altitude of about 50,000 feet, then released from its carrier aircraft. Its rocket fires for about 1 minute, which accelerates the craft to three-and-a-half times the speed of sound, then is shut off. Then, according to Virgin Galactic, passengers will experience a “dramatic transition to silence and to true weightlessness.”

As the video shows, the spacecraft is still in glide testing phase, where it is carried to altitude, then released. There is no rocket burn, and the craft glides down and lands at its base.

This spaceflight won’t be Hawking’s first experience with weightlessness, however. To celebrate his 65th birthday, Hawking travelled on board Zero Gravity Corp’s modified Boeing 727 in 2007. At the time, that zero-g flight was in preparation for a trip into sub-orbital space with Virgin Galactic in 2009. But the development of Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft has suffered setbacks, and the 2009 date was not attainable.

Hawking has experienced zero gravity before, when he flew on Zero Gravity Corp’s modified Boeing 727 in 2007. Image: By Jim Campbell/Aero-News Network – http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/475109138/ / http://mediaarchive.ksc.nasa.gov/detail.cfm?mediaid=31873, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3655144

Virgin Galactic’s stated aim is to “democratize space,” albeit at a cost of US $250,000 per person. But somehow I doubt that Hawking will be paying. If anyone has earned a free trip into space, it is Dr. Stephen Hawking.

StarFighters, Inc. – The Supersonic Research Fleet Expands

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Move over, Buck Rogers… The time has come for StarFighters, Inc.! Just a few days ago, the exclusive contingent’s final forces assembled at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, ready to go on duty with a private company which will deploy them for research and microgravity training. Purchased from the Italian Air Force, these five new aircraft began their life as F-104 fighters, but as part of StarFighters, Inc. will pursue different venues as members of a nine plane squadron… One with a more peaceful goal.

According to owner Rick Svetkoff, this means there will always be aircraft available to fly for not only a variety of customers, but a variety of missions as well. The company will also be able to offer an additional aircraft on a single mission to serve as a “chase plane” to photographically document experiments.

“Now we’re in a position where we can really start operations,” Svetkoff said. “Before, we couldn’t do a lot of things we wanted to do.”

Under an agreement with Kennedy Space Center, StarFighters Inc. calls a hangar at the Shuttle Landing Facility home. The company’s goal is to serve as a research and development platform – one whose repertoire expands across a variety of venues such as “evaluating rocket and spacecraft in high-stress environments including high-acceleration and microgravity”. At this time, Embry-Riddle University and Space Florida are already on-board with the team.

One of the existing fleet of F-104 Starfighters is joined by the newer, but not yet assembled, jets the company just bought from Italy. Photo credit: NASA/Frankie Martin

These are not just any planes, however. The F-104s are capable of reaching an altitude of around 70,000 feet and speeds exceeding Mach 2. This means they can be engaged to launch small satellites into space and the 19-foot-long, 900-pound rocket lodged under the wings has already been tested. Additional test flights with the rocket will be carried out in February and the first launch is expected to happen during this summer. These launches are designed to take less bulky experiments into space, but not orbit. Once completed, the rocket will then parachute down to Earth and be retrieved from the ocean for recycling. According to Svetkoff, the company expects to use StarFighters to launch around 100 suborbital missions annually and in less than a year should begin launching nanosatellites with a similar method.

Starfighters pilot and owner Rick Svetkoff in the cockpit of one of the Starfighters already in service with the company. Photo credit: NASA/Gianni M. Woods

As futuristic as its name sounds, the F-104 Starfighter isn’t new. It’s a decades-old, supersonic aircraft which originally served during the Cold War to intercept Soviet aircraft. It was once dubbed “the missile with a man in it” because of its fast speeds and trim design. It was the concept developed by Lockheed Martin’s Kelly Johnson – who also designed the SR-71 and U-2. Some 50 years ago, the Starfighter also served NASA by helping to train astronauts in microgravity and sharpening their skills in high-speed flight.

“Anything an F-16 or an F-18 can do, we can do with this aircraft, performance-wise,” said Svetkoff who also commented that research and development flights could add another 100 missions to the StarFighter’s log annually.

A truck delivers an F-104 Starfighter to the hangar at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida where Starfighters Inc. operates. Photo credit: NASA/Frankie Martin

It’s a great idea that isn’t going to end with just some experiments, though. As we progress and private companies realize the opportunities of working with NASA and launching humans into space, StarFighters can be used to train for microgravity and other implications – just as they have in the past. For now, the focus is on getting the planes cleaned and ready for work. This means careful disassembly of engines and other parts, cleaning and reassembly. The StarFighters will also get updated, too. There are new avionics packages available which will add digital displays. It may take as long as three months to complete the first, but the entire fleet should be ready in about six months.

“This shows a serious commitment,” concludes Svetkoff.

Original Story Source: NASA Kennedy Space Center News.