Space: Tourism’s setback is industry’s gain

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Space Transport Two and Space Ship TwoLast week’s tragic crash of Scaled Composites’ Space Ship Two, the prototype short-hop orbital vehicle designed for Virgin Galactic, is a sober reminder that getting to space is, quite literally, rocket science; more than crossing oceans by boat, more than bisecting hemispheres by jet, travel to space is very hard and very hazardous.

When combined with the explosion and total loss of the unmanned Antares supply rocket, less than a week earlier, pundits are naturally predicting future hard times for commercial-based space rocketry.  But that’s actually okay; for every setback is an opportunity to find the mistakes and improve the science and engineering, which will save lives in the future.  It’s also an unsubtle reminder that space is never to be taken for granted.

But it’s not a reason to abandon our efforts to get to space.  If anything, it’s a reason to rethink why we want to go to space. Continue reading

Curiosity and efficiency

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Curiosity Rover landing (NASA)

Curiosity Rover landing (NASA)

I stayed up the other night to watch NASA’s Curiosity Rover descent onto the Martian surface.  Well, it wasn’t so much watching Curiosity… it was watching NASA personnel reacting to the telemetry that told them what Curiosity was doing.  In some ways, it’s like watching a sports announcer calling the game, instead of actually watching the game.  But hey, with NASA, that’s the way it works.

Though it’s been awhile since I watched a NASA event, much less stayed up late to see one, this one fascinated me because it was a landing design unlike anything NASA had done before: Using a “skycrane” platform to hover over the surface, lower the rover to the ground on cables, then cut loose and land elsewhere.  If you haven’t seen the simulations of how it should (and apparently did) work, you should.

But there’s something else that fascinates me, about this moment, and about NASA: They have become a textbook model of American efficiency. Continue reading