Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Branson Spacecraft Completes Test Flight

(CNN) -- British billionaire Richard Branson's dream of space travel that thousands of people can afford took a leap toward reality with the maiden flight of the world's first commercial spacecraft over California's Mojave Desert.

Branson's company Virgin Galactic announced Monday that the VSS Enterprise had successfully completed what it called a captive carry flight attached to a carrier plane.

The spacecraft's developer called it a "momentous day."

"The captive carry flight signifies the start of what we believe will be extremely exciting and successful spaceship flight test program," said Burt Rutan, founder of Scaled Composites, which built the spacecraft.

The VSS Enterprise remained attached to its carrier aircraft for the duration of the 2-hour, 54-minute flight, reaching an altitude of 45,000 feet, according to a statement from Virgin.

Eventually, the 60-foot long rocket plane will be taken 60,000 feet above the Earth by its carrier and fire rockets to propel itself into space.

The test-flight program is expected to continue through 2011, going first to a free glide and then to a powered flight before commercial flights begin.

"Seeing the finished spaceship in December was a major day for us but watching VSS Enterprise fly for the first time really brings home what beautiful, ground-breaking vehicles Burt and his team have developed for us," Branson said.

"Today was another major step along that road and a testament to U.S. engineering and innovation," he said.

Virgin Galactic has envisioned one flight a week, with six tourists aboard. Each will pay $200,000 for the ride and train for at least three days before going. About 80,000 people have placed their names on the waiting list for seats.

"What we want to be able to do is bring space travel down to a price range where hundreds of thousands of people would be able to experience space, and they never dreamed that [they] could," Branson said last year.

He has said he hopes the technology will lead to a new form of Earth travel, jetting people across oceans and continents faster through suborbital routes.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

US Lawmakers Urge Obama to Save NASA Moon Program

Thu Mar 11, 6:26 pm ET

WASHINGTON (AFP) – A group of US lawmakers Thursday urged the US administration to save NASA's Constellation project aimed at returning Americans to the moon in the next generation of space travel.

"Space exploration has been the guiding star of American innovation," the lawmakers -- 10 Republicans and five Democrats -- said in a letter to the NASA administrator Charles Bolden.

"It is imperative that the United States remain the world's leading spacefaring nation," they added.

They urged Bolden to assemble a team of NASA experts to review how exploration spacecraft and launch vehicle development can be kept within the existing budget to ensure "uninterrupted, independent US human space flight access to the International Space Station and beyond."

The team should report back within 30 days on its findings, the lawmakers urged.

Seeking to cut the massive US budget deficit, President Barack Obama's administration has proposed scrapping the costly and over budget Constellation rocket program designed to return Americans to the moon by 2020.

Instead, NASA would concentrate on research and development that could, over a longer time-frame, eventually see astronauts travel outside low Earth orbit and even aim for Mars.

The US space agency would also be encouraged to develop operations with commercial partners to fly astronauts to the ISS.

But the 15 lawmakers, most of them from Texas and Florida where much of the US space industry is based, were heavily critical of the plan.

"I am concerned that the Russians and the Chinese will get ahead of us... that English won't be the dominant language in space," Republican Representative Michael McCaul from Texas told a House hearing.

The United States is due to retire its aging shuttle fleet this year, and from then on will depend on Russian Soyuz flights to transport its astronauts to the ISS until the Ares 1 rocket and its Orion capsule are operational in 2015.

"By the time commercial low-Earth orbit vehicles are cleared for flight, US astronauts may have nowhere to go," the lawmakers said in the letter.

"NASA will no longer have a clear vision on its direction and ultimately the US will no longer be a spacefaring nation."

Obama is to host a space conference on April 15 in Florida to chart his vision for the future of human spaceflight, the White House revealed at the weekend.

Obama has proposed dropping the massively over-budget Constellation program launched by his predecessor, George W. Bush, because it was too costly, used outdated technology and would not be ready to ferry humans to the moon before 2028.

"The president's ambitious new strategy pushes the frontiers of innovation to set NASA on a more dynamic, flexible, and sustainable trajectory that can propel us on a new journey of innovation and discovery," the White House said in a statement Sunday.

"After years of underinvestment in new technology and unrealistic budgeting, the president's plan will unveil an ambitious plan for NASA that sets the agency on a reinvigorated path of space exploration," the statement added.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Just One Hitch In Choosing China's First Women Astronauts

By Tariq Malik
SPACE.com Managing Editor
posted: 10 March 2010
06:12 pm ET

China has selected two military air transport pilots as its first female astronauts, the country's state media reported Wednesday. The only hitch? The women had to be hitched – as in married – to make the cut.

Zhang Jianqi, the former deputy commander of China's human spaceflight program, told the state-run Xinhua News Agency that aside from being married to their respective spouses, the two female astronauts met the exact same criteria as the country's male spaceflyers.

"In the selection, we had almost the same requirements on women candidates as those for men, but the only difference was that they must be married, as we believe married women would be more physically and psychologically mature," Xinhua quoted Zhang as saying during a break at an annual parliamentary session.

Zhang also said that female astronauts may also have more "endurance and circumspection" than their male counterparts, Xinhua reported.

The women are both pilots with the People's Liberation Army Air Force. They were selected alongside five men as China's second class of astronauts as the country pushes forward with its manned spaceflight program. The addition of seven new recruits boosts China's total astronaut corps to 21 spaceflyers.

The China National Space Administration selected its first 14 astronauts, also called taikonauts, in the mid-1990s.

China is the third country after Russia and the United States to build spacecraft capable of launching humans into orbit.

The country's spaceship of choice is the Shenzhou (Chinese for "Divine Vessel"), a three-module vehicle derived from Russia's workhorse Soyuz craft. But unlike the Soyuz, the Shenzhou has an orbital module equipped with solar arrays, allowing it to stay in orbit long after its crew returns to Earth.

China launched its first manned spaceflight – the one-man Shenzhou 5 flight – in 2003. A two-man Shenzhou 6 mission followed in 2005, leading to a three-man Shenzhou 7 spaceflight in September 2008, which included China's first spacewalk by astronaut Zhai Zhigang.

In 2011, China plans to launch Tiangong 1 – the first module of a new space station – from the Jiuquan space center in the Gobi desert.

The country is also planning to launch its second moon orbiter, called Chang'e 2, in October to search for potential landing sites for future robotic lunar probes. A third moon mission, Chang'e 3, is slated to launch in 2013, Xinhua quoted Ye Peiujian – who designed the first moon probe (Chang'e 1) and is commanding the second mission – as saying.

Chinese space officials have also said a new heavy-lift rocket, called Long March 5, is also in development and due to make a launch debut in 2014. The new rocket should be capable of hauling up to 55,000 pounds of payload into low Earth orbit, they added.

Other Relative Link:
China's First Two Women Astronauts Selected
(People's Daily Online, English Version)