‘Near’ Space Tourism on a Balloon Ride May Be Close Enough for Some

zero2infinity Earth view from a balloon carried capsule

Earth view from a balloon carried capsule. Credit: zero2infinity

If you don’t need to exceed the official line of demarcation between Earth’s atmosphere and space, which is arbitrarily set at 100 kilometers (62 miles) above Earth’s surface, then a balloon ride may be just for you.

Spanish startup company zero2infinity tested a balloon, on November 14, 2012, that reached a height of 32 kilometers (close to 20 miles), while carrying a robot, near-space tourist, named Nao, as a stand-in for future human passengers.

Future “bloons,” as these near-space balloons are called, will carry capsules that will be spacious enough to hold 4 passengers and two pilots. Travelers can expect to float 36 kilometers (22 miles) above the Earth for 2 hours before the bloon releases the capsule, creating a 40 to 60 second weightless experience until the free fall is interrupted by the deployment of parachutes.

According to TechNewsDaily, tickets are going for $143,000 (110,000 euros), which is a savings of more than 25% when compared to the $200,000 (154,000 euros) price tag of a Virgin Galactic sub-orbital space ride.


Virgin Airlines Frequent Flyers Have a Chance to Go to Space on Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic Frequent Flyer CampaignIf you’ve ever wished that you could redeem your frequent flyer miles or points for something really interesting, Virgin Airlines my be your airline of choice. The company’s Mission Galactic campaign will award the frequent flyer with the most Elevate status points with a free ride on Virgin Galactic.

The winner will achieve Galactic status. And as a result, earn the right to be launched into space and enjoy weightlessness, on a suborbital ride outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. The regular price of a flight on-board the Virgin Galactic spaceship is $200,000. The passenger who finishes in second place will receive a free zero-gravity flight courtesy of ZERO-G.

The campaign runs through August 7, 2013. Elevate status points that are accumulated on Virgin America, Virgin Atlantic, and Virgin Australia, will be combined and totaled for this contest.

Anyone who wants to sign-up for this galactic adventure, can enter at Virgin America.

Neil Armstrong, First Man on the Moon Dies at Age 82

Neil Armstrong: Undated NASA file photo

Neil Armstrong: Undated NASA file photo

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy made history when he announced that the United States would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. On July 20, 1969, astronaut Neil Armstrong became forever immortalized in the world’s collective history as the first man to walk on the moon.

Neil Armstrong died Saturday of complications stemming from a cardiovascular procedure, according to a statement made by his family.

Mr Armstrong studied aeronautical engineering at Perdue University, and later received a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Southern California. Prior to completing his master’s degree, Mr. Armstrong became a Navy Pilot in 1949 and piloted 78 combat mission over Korea.

There are probably no children in the United States, who reach the end of elementary school without learning about Neil Armstrong. Of the billions of people who have ever lived on the planet Earth, only twelve of them landed on the moon. Mr Armstrong being the first, uttered words on the surface of the moon that will never be forgotten:

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,”

Given Mr. Armstrong’s place in history, many people have quickly begun to pay their respects.

President Barack Obama: “Neil was among the greatest of American heroes — not just of his time, but of all time. When he and his fellow crew members lifted off aboard Apollo 11 in 1969, they carried with them the aspirations of an entire nation. They set out to show the world that the American spirit can see beyond what seems unimaginable — that with enough drive and ingenuity, anything is possible. And when Neil stepped foot on the surface of the moon for the first time, he delivered a moment of human achievement that will never be forgotten.”

NASA administrator, Charles Bolden: “As long as there are history books, Neil Armstrong will be included in them, remembered for taking humankind’s first small step on a world beyond our own. Besides being one of America’s greatest explorers, Neil carried himself with a grace and humility that was an example to us all. When President Kennedy challenged the nation to send a human to the moon, Neil Armstrong accepted without reservation. As we enter this next era of space exploration, we do so standing on the shoulders of Neil Armstrong.”

Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon: “On behalf of the Aldrin family we extend our deepest condolences to Carol & the entire Armstrong family on Neil’s passing. He will be missed.” (via Twitter)

In a written statement, Mr. Armstrong’s family suggested a way to honor him: “For those who may ask what they can do to honor Neil, we have a simple request. Honor his example of service, accomplishment and modesty, and the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.”

Sarah Brightman May Be Russia’s Next Space Tourist in 2015

Sarah Brightman in a 2008 interview

Sarah Brightman in a 2008 interview; Photo Credit: Reuters, Eric Gaillard

While fans of British singer Sarah Brightman, 52, may think that her voice, with a range of over 3 octaves, is out of this world, for her that may not be enough. She wants to travel out of this world; literally.

According to Interfax news agency, an unidentified source in the Russian space industry stated that Ms. Brightman may be the next space tourist to travel to the International Space Station (ISS) on board a Soyuz rocket. This could take place as early as 2015.

Ms. Brightman would be the 8th space tourist that Russia has allowed to hitch a ride to the ISS. Cirque du Soliel founder Guy Laliberte was the last paying passenger in 2009. Although Russia continued with flights to the ISS, they put their program of accepting paying passengers on hiatus because of limited seating. Since the end of the American space shuttle era, the Russians have been ferrying American Astronauts to space on board their 3 seat, Soyuz rockets.

Brightman became famous as one of the original cast members of the Phantom of the Opera in both London and New York. She was previously married to composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.

One of Ms Brightman’s philanthropic pursuits has been to create the Brightman STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) Scholarship Program, in conjunction with Virgin Galactic. The program will help young women, in the United States, obtain a STEM education while in college.

Space Tourists: Tickets To The Moon Are Available For Purchase

Excalibur Almaz capsule will be used to ferry would be space tourists to their space station

Excalibur Almaz capsule

According to NASA, it used to cost about $450 million to launch a Space Shuttle. The Space Shuttles were vehicles that essentially traveled no further than the orbit of the International Space Station (ISS), which is 200 miles above Earth. But, the British company, Excalibur Almaz, is ready to send you in orbit, around the moon that is, which is 238,000 miles away from Earth, for $156.4 million (£100 million).

Excalibur Almaz was founded by Art Dula, a Houston, Texas based patent lawyer and entrepreneur who purchased two Soviet ‘Almaz’ space stations. While they were originally designed for orbital spy missions, as early as 2015, one of the modified space stations could place a space tourist (and the first person other than a U.S. astronaut) in orbit around the moon; a journey of 500,000 miles round trip.

Apollo 17, in 1972, was the United States government’s last manned mission to the moon.

Excalibur Almaz also has four capsules, or re-usable return vehicles (RRVs) that are capable of carrying up to three space tourists, per launch, to an orbiting Almaz space space station and later return them to Earth.

The space stations will be retrofitted with additional thrusters, that will give them enough fuel to reach the Moon and return.

Passengers will make the journey in 90 cubic meters of living space. In the event that the  space station passes through a solar storm, there is also a protected area that can provide shelter from radiation.

In order to put one of the 30 ton Almaz space stations in orbit, a large Russian Proton rocket will be used to launch it into space from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Each space station will have a service life of 15 years.

the RRVs will be launched using a smaller rocket, the Soyuz FG launch vehicle. The RRVs can be used a maximum of 15 times each.

Excalibur Almaz is based on the Isle of Man.

China Launches Shenzhou 8 Spacecraft Into Orbit

Shenzhou 8

Shenzhou 8 Launch - Photo Credit: China's Xinhua News Agency

Shenzhou 8 Spacecraft
China launched the Shenzhou 8 spacecraft into orbit on Tuesday morning (local China time), from the western city of Jiuquan. The country is continuing to make strides in space exploration and the launch of the unmanned spacecraft is important to its space program.

The China National Space Administration (CNSA) is attempting to perform their first docking maneuver in space. Shenzhou 8 will dock with the Tiangong 1 module (also called “Heavenly Palace”) that was launched a month ago. If all goes well, CNSA could launch two more modules for further testing next year. One test may include a manned launch of taikonauts (Chinese astronauts)  with a module in order to test manual docking procedures.

For China, this is an important step toward launching the nation’s own space station in 2020. China is not one of the 16 nations that utilize the International Space Station (ISS).

Shenzhou 8 will be directed by ground control until it is close enough to interact with the Tiangong 1 module. Tiangong 1 designer, Bai Mingsheng, stated that, “Within 50 kilometers, the two vehicles will be able to recognize each other through sensors and communication equipment, and will dock to each other automatically.”

The Chinese Long March-2F rocket was used to launch Shenzhou 8 into orbit.

Boeing To Use NASA Hanger To Build Space Taxi

Boeing Space Taxi
Boeing has reached an agreement with the Florida government agency, Space Florida, and NASA to lease the Orbiter Processing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center, in order to build the Crew Space Transport – 100 capsule (CST-100). The reusable capsule will be used as a space taxi, which is expected to shuttle astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station (ISS), and space tourists to the Bigelow Aerospace Orbital Space Complex.

The agreement is expected to create hundreds of jobs in Florida, and is part of the Obama administration’s plan to place astronauts on board commercial spaceflights to the ISS by the end of 2015. Since the retirement of the space shuttles, the United States has agreed to pay Russia to send astronauts to space on board Soyuz rockets. The agreement to let astronauts hitch-a-ride prices each seat at more than $50 million.

The CST-100 crew capsule will be able to accommodate up to seven passengers and it will be capable of being launched on Atlas, Delta, and Falcon rockets. The Boeing designed capsule will be smaller than the Orion, but bigger than the Apollo.

Space Tourism Delayed By Virgin Galactic


Photo Credit: Mark Greenberg

Space Tourism in 2013
When Scaled Composites won the $10 million Ansari X Prize, in 2004, for sending the same spaceship into space twice within two weeks, everyone thought that space tourism was just a year, or  two, or three, or four away.

As it turns out, although it’s been seven years since the prize was awarded, Virgin Galactic has at least another two years before the company starts sending the 450+ prepaying space tourists on suborbital spaceflights. This revelation was made in a Wall Street Journal interview with David Mackay, the company’s first commercial astronaut pilot.

The excitement surrounding the very real possibility of being one of the few humans to ever leave the earth, compelled hundreds of extreme athletes and adrenaline junkies, with $200,000 to spare (or at least a $20,000 deposit), to pay for their spaceflights up front.

However, time has gotten to at least one would be space tourist who asked Virgin Galactic for a refund earlier this year.

Being what amounts to a start-up space agency, Virgin Galactic has no room for error when it comes to safety. A deadly explosion or crash would be horrific at any time. But, if it happens at the beginning of the company’s spaceflight operations, the space tourism industry as a whole could be derailed for years and Virgin Galactic could be out of business before it really gets started. The current posture of Congress is to let the industry grow without constricting it through over-regulation. However, that could all change at the first sign that the industry is not prepared to overcome safety concerns that are inherent to space travel.

Virgin Galactic is expected to continue testing the rocket and propulsion system in SpaceShipTwo through next year, along with various aspects of the spacecraft’s launch and descent capabilities.

Who Owns the Moon?

American astronaut on the Moon

Who Owns the Moon?
While the answer seems obvious, it may be more of a topic for conversation and water cooler debate than one would think.

If you ask the United Nations, no one owns the moon. According to the Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (often referred to as the Moon Treaty), which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979,

“The exploration of the Moon shall be the province of all mankind and shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all  countries…”

The treaty also goes on to state that,

“The Moon is not subject to national appropriation by any claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means…Neither the surface nor the subsurface of the Moon, nor any part thereof or natural resources in place, shall become property of any state, international intergovernmental or non-governmental organization, national organization or non-governmental entity or of any natural person.”

Countries engaged in exploration of the Moon are prohibited from:
  • The threat of, or use of force and hostile acts on the Moon
  • Establishing military bases
  • Conducting military maneuvers
  • Testing weapons
Countries must
  • Inform the Secretary General of the United Nations of any indication of organic life or any phenomena discovered on the Moon or in outer space
  • Not make adverse changes to the Moon’s environment
  • Notify the Secretary General in advance of any radioactive substance placed on the Moon

Lunar Embassy
The Moon Treaty however,  didn’t stop Dennis Hope from submitting a claim to the Moon, to the United Nations in 1980. After his registered claim received no response, his company, the Lunar Emabassy Corporation, began selling 1 acre plots of “prime view lunar properties.” In 1990, CNN reported that the company had sold more than 300,000 pieces of lunar property. According to Wikipedia, as of 2009, Hope has claimed to sell over 2.5 million 1 acre plots of the lunar surface. The company currently sells Deeds for $22.49, plus a $1.51 lunar tax.

Galactic Government?
In an apparent attempt to solidify his position, Hope formed the Galactic Government which claimed sovereignty over the Moon in 2004. The Declaration of Galactic Independence and the Constitution of the Galactic  Government seem to have been “recognized” (to some small degree) by the United States, in a Department of State document, that was signed by Hillary Clinton in December of 2009.

The United States and the Moon Treaty
With the Lunar Embassy selling off prime locations for space vacation resorts, and areas for mining regolith for helium-3, one might conclude that the United States would be ready to defend the Moon Treaty. That simply is not the case. For all of the grand and sweeping language that was included in the United Nations document, the treaty was not ratified by any of the nation states that are capable of launching people into space. It’s been 32 years since the treaty was adopted, and it has yet to be ratified by the United States, The Russian Federation, The European Union (collectively), the United Kingdom, Japan, India, and the Peoples Republic of China; all of which are spacefaring countries.

This means that an enterprising country such as China, with their ambitious plans for space exploration, and healthy budget, will not be bound by the United Nations or any other international authority, if its people succeed in reaching the Moon.

When Americans landed on the Moon in 1969, they did so using computer technology that essentially equates to a modern day calculator. Today, China, Russia and other spacefaring countries would be far more capable of setting up a permanent moon base for their national interests.

Will astronauts from a country other than the United States choose to moon walk through the foot prints of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, essentially destroying the defacto historic landmark that many Americans consider the Apollo 11 lunar landing site to be? (although the lunar environment will ultimately do that itself). There is no international document that requires the preservation of the landing site and the equipment that was left behind for the sake of posterity.

Additionally, none of the space-capable countries have signed away their ‘right’ to weaponize the natural satellite.

So, the next time that you gaze up at the Moon, or look at its craters through a telescope, consider whether or not the answer to the question ‘who owns the Moon?’ will be ‘no one,’ 100 years from now, or 50 years from now for that matter.

NASA – Pay for Space Taxis Or Keep Hitchhiking?

International Space Station

Source: NASA

Now that the space shuttle fleet is retired, NASA is in an interesting situation. For at least the next few years the space agency must pay Russia for rides to the International Space Station (ISS). The price for each American astronaut is more than $50 million per ride on board a Russian Soyuz rocket. The space agency is hoping that commercial space flight companies, such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, come of age relatively quickly enough to begin shuttling astronauts to the ISS in 2016.

Paying Russia for additional rides to the ISS would cost about $450 million per year according to NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver.

NASA has already paid or set aside $388 million in funding to help commercial companies create the space flight vehicles that will be needed. The agency is requesting a budget of $850 million to keep that effort on track.

Currently, there is a bill in the in the House that cuts  the request to $312 million, and a bill in the senate that cuts it to $500 million. Last week, at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight, Garver said

“If you take the Senate ($500 million) mark, take it up $350 million, giving it to U.S. companies today to get to our requested amount, it gives us the best chance to be able to replace this foreign government service by 2016. That’s the choice.”

NASA will have to pay someone to get crews to the ISS. But, how long the U.S. continues to rely on the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, or shifts to American made space taxis depends in part on how tightly Congress holds its purse strings.

NASA Wants Your Child’s Experiment

SpacelabAre you raising a budding young scientist? Does your son or daughter love astronomy, physics, biology, or science in general? If so, your child may have an opportunity to send his or her experiment to the International Space Station (ISS). YouTube, Space Adventures, NASA, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the European Space Agency (ESA), in conjunction with Lenovo, have created a contest called Space Lab.

Teenagers ages 14 – 18, worldwide, will have the opportunity to pitch their ideas to a panel of expert judges, by submitting a two minute video describing their experiments to YouTube. The entry video doesn’t have to be complicated or even show the experiment. It can be as simple as your child explaining how their experiment works. As with any science project, your child will need to have a hypothesis, a method in which the experiment will be conducted, and state the expected results.

Zahaan Bharmal,  Head of Marketing Operations – Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at Google, states that “Space Lab is a global program challenging students to design and experiment for space.”

The winning experiment will be rocketed to the ISS and conducted in front of live, streaming video. Entries must be received by December 7, 2011. For more information view the Space Lab website.

Virgin Galactic Hires Former NASA Executive

Mike Moses

Image Source: NASA

With NASA scaling down its workforce, much, much smaller, and very operationally inexperienced companies in the space tourism industry have the opportunity fill their rosters of senior management officials with executives who have real world experience in spaceflight operations.

That’s exactly what Virgin Galactic did when the company announced on Tuesday that former NASA Space Shuttle Launch Integration Manager, Mike Moses was hired as Vice President of Operations.

Mike Moses earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from Purdue University. He received a master’s degree in astrophysics from the Florida Institute of Technology and an additional master’s degree in aerospace engineering from Purdue University.

He started his work with NASA as a contractor in 1995 and become an agency employee in 1998. Early in his career,  Mike Moses worked in the Space Shuttle Propulsion Systems Group (PROP). he became group lead for that team in 2001 and in 2003 he moved on to be group lead of  the Shuttle Electrical Systems Group (EGIL). In 2005 he was selected as a flight director. He had been the Launch Integration Manager since 2008 and worked on space shuttle missions until the retirement of the fleet this past July.

Virgin Galactic, which is headquartered in New Mexico, may start its space tourism service as early as next year. The company will provide suborbital spaceflights for would be space tourists at the the rate of $200,000 per ticket. There are currently, about 450 people who have prepaid or submitted a deposit for a ticket.

We’re Just Too Slow For Interstellar Space Travel

The Solar System

Image Source: Monarch Library

Fresh off of a weekend filled with watching hours of Star Trek (Deep Space Nine). I’m not sure why, but I woke up this morning in the mood of a realist. When I look at the news today, there will not be any updates about a NASA warp drive engine. No one will be returning from Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to Earth (after the Sun of course), or even heading toward it for that matter. We earthlings will just have to be content  with the latest news about the next group of cosmonauts and (hitchhiking) astronauts puttering their way to the International Space Station (ISS), on board a Russian Soyuz rocket. After all, just getting away from low earth orbit (LEO) seems to be a challenge. But, that’s a discussion for another day.

Today, let’s just recognize how slow we are, in terms of  being a spacefaring race of sentient beings. Let’s ignore the physics of mass accelerating toward the speed of light. Let’s forget about things like spaceship occupants being bombarded with radiation from stars and muscle atrophy in low or no gravity environments (unless someone invents inertial dampeners).

Let’s just concern ourselves with speed. And for this exercise, our speed will be the speed of light, which is 186,282 miles per second.

Traveling through our solar system would  almost be a blur. It would take 1.3 seconds to get from the Earth to the Moon, 4.4 minutes to get to Mars, 1.2 hours to get to Saturn and 5.4 hours to get to the dwarf planet Pluto. With times like those, traveling at the speed of light would seem to solve our problem of traversing large distances in reasonable periods of time.

Before the Space Shuttles were retired, they would travel around the Earth at an orbiting speed of 17,500 miles per hour. At that rate, it would take 13.6 hours to get to the Moon and 3.9 months to reach Mars. We get a real appreciation for the the speed of light when the destination is Saturn, which traveling at the speed of a Space Shuttle, would take 5.2 years. By extension, a generation of people would come and go on the Earth before a space traveler would complete the 23.3 year mission to Pluto.

While those rates of travel aren’t bad per se, we consider the distance from Earth to the edge of our solar system (the definition of which is debatable) to be vast. But, traveling to the nearest star would certainly change our definition of vast. It would be nice to get to Proxima Centauri at light speed (4.2 years). But, in this day and age,  the 164,000 years it would take to get there at space shuttle speed helps us to realize that we’ll have to settle for near earth objects for a very, very long time.

Of course, we can select other stars to visit, but that just means much, much more travel time in most cases. So, if we humans decided to just turn our attention to the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, the 17,500 mph trip would take 1.14 billion years. Traveling at light speed would greatly reduce the time, but a 29,900 year trip would be very problematic for any group of space tourists.

Although we’re talking about interstellar travel, if we really thought big and decided to go intergalactic, cruising at space shuttle velocity would get space explorers to the Andromeda galaxy in 95.7 billion years. We can hardly say that the speed of light would save the day with a trip time of 2.5 million years.

Moving at light speed, 186,282 thousand miles per second, every second, would get a space traveler to the edge of the observable universe in 13.7 billion years. That’s a lot better, relatively speaking, than a Space Shuttle  which would finally reach the edge of the observable universe in 528,000 billion years (that’ 528 thousand billion years!)

This could have been a comparison between the speed of light and Voyager 1 (114,000 mph). But the point is the same. Star Trek, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica and Farscape give us something to dream about. But, without warp drive engines, or learning to expand and stabilize worm holes so that spaceships can fly through them, or people can walk through them (think Stargate SG1), just getting a human, just one human, to Mars would be a an unbelievable accomplishment. And that’s the reality of the matter.

Space Tourism Takes Too Long, Man Asks Virgin Galactic For Money Back


SpaceShipTwo: Image Credit - virgingalactic.com

While Captain James T. Kirk had no problem going ‘where no man has gone before,’ the space tourism industry seems to be a little slow about sending tourists where few people have gone before. After Scaled Composites won the Ansari X Prize in October of 2004, for sending the same manned spacecraft into space within a two week period of time, the widely held expectation was that space tourists would start their sub-orbital forays into space as early as 2007.

While it may not be fair to consider the commercial manned space industry slow, given the difficulty of the task, there are some potential space tourists who have given deposits, or paid for tickets in full, as long as 7 years ago.

That’s what venture capitalist, Alan Walton did. Although he climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, reached the North Pole and skydived above Mount Everest, waiting seven years and reaching the age of 75 was enough to cause him to cancel his would be, out of this world adventure. In fact, he requested a refund of $200,000 from Virgin Galactic on his 75th birthday, earlier this year.

Creating a fleet of spaceships that are profitable and safe, is not for the faint of heart. Tepid CEOs need not apply. Given that private industry is relatively new to what NASA had been doing for decades, Virgin Galactic, lead by Richard Branson,  may be on pace to shuttle passengers into space as early as next year.

NASA Decides Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle To Follow Retired Space Shuttles

NASA has announced that the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) will be the future of manned space exploration for the agency.

According to NASA, the spacecraft:

  • will serve as the primary crew vehicle for missions beyond LEO
  • will be capable of conducting regular in-space operations (rendezvous, docking, extravehicular activity) in conjunction with payloads delivered by SLS for missions beyond LEO
  • will have the capability to be a backup system for ISS cargo and crew delivery

See how NASA's new Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, based on the Orion capsule, stacks up against other crewed spaceships in this SPACE.com infographic.
Source SPACE.com