The future of space tourism is getting brighter as Virgin Galactic brought its first passenger on board a trip to the edge of space on one of its space planes, nudging British billionaire Richard Branson’s company closer to its goal of suborbital flights for space tourists.
The passenger on board was Beth Moses, Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut trainer and an aerospace engineer, who flew along with the vehicle’s two pilots. She’s also Virgin Galactic’s first female flyer.
Moses described that it was an “indescribable trip” and that she was riveted and thinks their customers will be as well. “The Earth was beautiful — super sharp, super clear, with a gorgeous view of the Pacific mountains,” she added.
The pilots were Dave Mackay and Mike “Sooch” Masucci.
“This is what we’re here to do, we’re here to fly people in the back of our spaceship, that’s what it’s all about,” said Mackay, who is now the first Scottish-born astronaut. “So for me, it was an important step towards that operation.”
The company demonstrated that its space plane could be reused for flight and was able to repeat its trip from December even higher and faster.
On February 22 at 8 AM local time, the White Knight Two carrier airplane took off soon from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. It released the VSS Unity passenger craft at an altitude of about 45,000 feet and then the spaceship was catapulted to 55 miles above Earth.
VSS Unity, Virgin Galactic’s rocket-powered space plane, took a trip to the edge of space at an altitude of 56 miles— the highest the craft ever reached, on Friday.
During the test, the vehicle reached a top speed three times the speed of sound — the fastest ever for Virgin Galactic — before shifting its wings and gliding back to Earth to land on a runway.
This milestone has been the second time for Virgin Galactic to reach beyond atmosphere with its space planes carrying people on board. Virgin Galactic’s historic first mission to space in December 2018 flew to an altitude of more than 51 miles, which earned commercial astronaut wings for pilots Mark “Forger” Stucky and Frederick “CJ” Sturckow.
A Federal Aviation Administration spokesperson says that all three crew members from Friday’s mission, Moses and both pilots, will also earn the designation. Moses will be the first woman ever to receive it.
The flight in December marked as the first US commercial human space flight since the end of America’s shuttle program in 2011.
This was the first time that VSS Unity carried three people, instead of just the two pilots, to space.
Moses, while aboard, got off her seat to get a better view and feel of things while the space plane glides through the edge of Earth’s atmosphere to explore what the “customer cabin and spaceflight environment from the perspective of people in the back,” according to the company.
Moses will be responsible for preparing future passengers for what to expect on flights, and today’s flight will provide valuable input for that.
Virgin Galactic also included extra weight in the cabin of VSS Unity to better mimic the weight commercial flights when they are carrying a passenger.
Just like the December test, today’s flight also carried some research payloads, arranged through NASA’s Flight Opportunity Program.
Today’s flight marks the fifth powered flight test of VSS Unity, and Virgin Galactic plans to continue with these flights throughout the year.
Eventually, the company will move to a new location in New Mexico called Spaceport America where it will conduct its future commercial flights. An official date for that move hasn’t been set yet.
Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson has said he hopes to fly on VSS Unity by the summertime, potentially on the anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing in July.
More than 600 people from 58 countries, including actor Leonardo DiCaprio and pop star Justin Bieber, have paid or put down deposits to fly on one of Virgin’s suborbital flights. Some of Virgin Galactic’s ticket holders have been waiting over 14 years for their trip.
A 90-minute flight, which allows passengers to experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the Earth’s curvature, costs $250,000. Whitesides said he expected that price would initially increase before going down.
Artemis Mission To Send First American Woman To The Moon
On Apollo 11’s 50th anniversary, NASA announces that they will be sending the first woman to the moon in their upcoming come back to space in 2024. And like every historic event, it needs a name which NASA coined as Artemis.
Coincidentally, Apollo has a twin named Artemis and, more appropriately, she’s known as the Goddess of the Moon, among others according to Greek Mythology. So sending a female astronaut in this mission to the moon is a no-brainer at best.
“It turns out that Apollo had a twin sister, Artemis. She happens to be the goddess of the Moon. Our astronaut office is very diverse and highly qualified. I think it is very beautiful that 50 years after Apollo, the Artemis program will carry the next man — and the first woman — to the Moon,” said Jim Bridenstine, NASA Administrator.
Artemis, the feminine name, is a refreshing change in space exploration since all the names related to which are filled by men throughout history. Although the first moon landing was highly contributed by women, it’s high time that they get the attention and recognition of making NASA’s return all about the woman instead of the man.
Bridenstine notes that NASA’s Artemis mission is for the future generations and said that “I have an 11-year-old daughter, and I want her to be able to see herself in the same way that our current very diverse astronaut corps sees itself.”
“If we look at the history of Moon landings, it was tested pilots from the 1960s and 1970s, fighter pilots, and there were no opportunities for women back then. This program is going to enable a new generation of young girls like my daughter to see themselves in a way that maybe they wouldn’t otherwise see themselves,” he said at a Q&A after the announcement.
Moreover, according to The Verge, when asked about who gets to first step on the moon and if it gets to be a women, Bridenstine says that “the direction that we have right now is that the next man and the first woman will be Americans and that we will land on the south pole of the Moon in 2024. Beyond that we’ve not made any specific decisions, but I will tell you it’s something that we’re all interested in, and I think there’s a lot of young ladies all across the country, and in fact all around the world, that are wondering who that first woman is going to be.”
The announcement follows after the Artemis mission finally confirmed that the project has official funding from the government at $1.6 billion. However, both the administration and critics know that it would not be enough. That’s where partner commercial companies come in and pitch in a few favors to get that woman on the moon.
On the other hand, according to Bridenstine, there will be an estimate of about 11 launches for the entirety of the mission but most likely, women, more particularly, people won’t be able to lift off to space until the 10th when Artemis 2 will be able to fly a crewed launch that is set to orbit the moon.
Furthermore, Artemis 3 that is set to take the crew on the actual moon will first need the orbiting platform, Gateway developed and a lander to give astronauts the power and thrust to descend and ascend the moon.
The favors commercial companies will be giving to NASA will be in terms of deployment of materials to space and more importantly, developing the design and hardware for the Gateway and the lander.
As of the moment, there are eleven aerospace companies that will share more than $45 million in funds from NASA to design and test prototypes for the Artemis Moon missions. These companies include established names like Space X, Blue Origin, and Boeing among others.
“We’re keen to collect early industry feedback about our human landing system requirements, and the undefinitized contract action will help us do that,” Greg Chavers in a NASA press release. “This new approach doesn’t prescribe a specific design or number of elements for the human landing system. NASA needs the system to get our astronauts on the surface and return them home safely, and we’re leaving a lot of the specifics to our commercial partners.”
Here’s the full list of companies NASA granted to take on the responsibility:
- Aerojet Rocketdyne – Canoga Park, California
- One transfer vehicle study
- Blue Origin – Kent, Washington
- One descent element study, one transfer vehicle study, and one transfer vehicle prototype
- Boeing – Houston
- One descent element study, two descent element prototypes, one transfer vehicle study, one transfer vehicle prototype, one refueling element study, and one refueling element prototype
- Dynetics – Huntsville, Alabama
- One descent element study and five descent element prototypes
- Lockheed Martin – Littleton, Colorado
- One descent element study, four descent element prototypes, one transfer vehicle study, and one refueling element study
- Masten Space Systems – Mojave, California
- One descent element prototype
- Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems – Dulles, Virginia
- One descent element study, four descent element prototypes, one refueling element study, and one refueling element prototype
- OrbitBeyond – Edison, New Jersey
- Two refueling element prototypes
- Sierra Nevada Corporation, Louisville, Colorado and Madison, Wisconsin
- One descent element study, one descent element prototype, one transfer vehicle study, one transfer vehicle prototype, and one refueling element study
- SpaceX – Hawthorne, California
- One descent element study
- SSL – Palo Alto, California
- One refueling element study and one refueling element prototype
NASA: We Are Going To The Moon And Beyond
It has been 50 years since NASA has deployed its spacecraft from the American soil out to the moon’s surface due to costly effects of space exploration and shaky political decisions. But NASA announced this week that it has received its nod of approval from the Trump administration and will go full throttle to the moon up to its awaited launch in 2024.
“Our greatest achievements remain ahead of us. And as the chief appropriator for NASA, I will work with the President of the United States, the Vice President and Jim Bridenstine, to make certain NASA has the resources to land the first woman on the Moon and build lasting infrastructure to support missions to Mars and beyond,” Senator Jerry Moran, chairman of the CJS Appropriations Committee in the Senate — that’s the key committee that funds NASA said in a tweet.
Moreover, President Donald Trump also said in Tweet that it is willing to allocate a $1.6 billion budget on NASA’s mission back to Mars in a “BIG WAY.”
However, critics have expressed that with all the plans that NASA has announced so far, $1.6 billion might not be so big after all. Some claim that they need at least $8 billion to proceed.
In an exclusive interview with Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s current administrator, he stated that “[NASA] already [has] SLS, Orion, and the European Service Module well underway. Those are three of the biggest components to getting humans to the Moon, and we’re on the brink of being ready with those programs. When we talk about what we need, we’ve got to get the Gateway developed, and we need to get the landing systems developed.”
Moreover, he goes to explain that commercial partners will also be helping behind NASA’s ambitious mission of space exploration. Enthusiastic in a sense that they’re not only planning to land in the moon but also go farther into space like Mars and beyond.
Just this year, a commercial company, Space X has successfully launched and landed an American-made and from American soil spacecraft named Dragon to the ISS for the first time since the NASA space shuttles retired.
In retrospect, commercial companies are helping pave the way for NASA to accomplish its mission of returning to space; alongside recent innovations in space travel developed through the years.
The 2024 mission, coined Artemis, will potentially have up to 11 launches that include hardware deployment, testing, and actual human launches in the next five years. Commercial companies will also be playing a large part in doing the deployment and testing of NASA’s hardware and plans.
Primarily, NASA has SLS or the Space Launch System well underway. The SLS is an American space shuttle intended to thrust rockets into space from Americal soil. According to NASA, SLS is set to be the most powerful rocket in existence with a total thrust greater than that of Saturn V.
SLS follows the cancellation of the Constellation Program and is to replace the retired Space Shuttle. The Constellation Program, which included Ares I, for heavy cargo deployment, and Ares V, for crew launches. SLS brings both concepts into one rocket that would carry both payload and crew in a single launch.
Secondly, the SLS will also be carrying a brand new crew capsule called Orion that will be equipped with the European Service Module and will shelter the crew as they lift off from the Earth until the moon’s orbit. Orion is reported to be also well into development.
Based on NASA’s plans, Orion will be able to dock in an orbiting platform called Gateway. It will function as a resting point or a transition platform for NASA crew as they descend into the moon through another lander. Both Gateway and Orion are still set to be developed by partner commercial companies as the mission proceeds in the coming years.
On the topic of Gateway, the orbiting platform which will likely resemble the ISS but rather than orbiting the Earth it will be specifically set to orbit the moon where future landers will be stored to give astronauts the power and thrust needed to descend and ascend the moon. Moreover, it can also be used as a resting point when NASA decides to push farther into deeper space like Mars.
There are a lot of things to look forward as NASA thrusts into space in the next five years but there are also a lot of questions that await answers as we have yet to see how plans turn into eventualities but one thing’s for sure: they are all going to be exciting as how all of this could impact human society.
Space X Launches First 60 Starlink Satellites Tonight
Elon Musk’s ambitious project of providing global Internet is launching off tonight. If weather conditions permit, Space X will launch Falcon 9 to orbit at 7:30 PM PT and 10:30 PM ET over Cape Canaveral, Florida. You can watch along via Space X’s live stream.
The launch was first scheduled to take off Wednesday night, but due to the rough winds in the upper atmosphere, the lift-off was delayed for one day, according to the SpaceX webcast host.
Space X’s Falcon 9 will be carrying the first 60 Starlink satellites that will compose the Starlink constellation which will beam the Internet from space to all the regions of the Earth.
However, 60 satellites wouldn’t be enough to make the idea of global internet an acceptable reality. According to Musk, they will launch a total of 11,940 Starlink satellites in low Earth orbit between now and the mid-2020s as part of Space X’s demonstration of the technology.
To put it into perspective, SpaceX will need “6 more launches of 60” satellites per launch to get “minor coverage” for the internet network, and a dozen launches, or 720 satellites, are needed “for moderate” coverage.” So we could expect about a dozen more launches from now until next year from Space X.
The problem that Space X is facing about their satellite delivery is more on the satellite’s mass rather than its weight. Each Starlink satellite weighs about 500 lbs each adding up to around 30,000 lbs of payload. The Falcon 9 can carry upwards 50,000 lbs but the current design prevents Space X from lugging more satellites at a time.
The satellite design has a “flat-panel design featuring multiple high-throughput antennas and a single solar array,” Musk says. In a tweet by Musk, we can see in the photos attached that the satellites are put in a “tight fit.”
However, the hurdle that the Starlink project needs to overcome is whether or not the production design they have developed for the satellites would show promise as it would greatly affect how Space X will move forward.
Primarily, Musk still needs to see if the deployment mechanisms of their solar panels will work effectively. As a precaution, they have two different sets of deployment mechanisms ready. Moreover, from the previous tests (Tintin a and Tintin B), they also made changes with the thrusters as well as phased array antennas that will await results as they get fully tested in space.
On the other hand, the satellites will also be deployed at a much lower orbit than what the team had expected. Even much lower than their test demonstrations back in February 2018.
Musk himself said in a tweet that a lot could go wrong in the first leg of this technology. There are a lot of things to consider and making tech intended for space is not an affordable venture. Other than, making sure that their satellites will work, they also have to keep investors happy with results. He also said during a teleconference “This is very hard. There is a lot of new technology, so it’s possible that some of these satellites may not work. There’s a small possibility that all of these satellites will not work.”
You can watch the livestream 15 minutes before liftoff here:
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