Saturday, October 24, 2009

Lost In Space Race: Female Pilots

By Dan Vergano, USA TODAY

Women had the "right stuff," too, back in the '60s. But the data on their performance tests were buried in the Mad Men era, and it was two decades before there was an American female astronaut.

A report in the current Advances in Physiology Education reveals that the "Mercury 13" members of the private Woman in Space Program of the early 1960s did about as well as, or better than, male candidates identically tested.

"Some of these women were told they were as good as men. The data show it was true," says lead author Kathy Ryan of the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

But the 13 women who passed the astronaut tests at Lovelace saw their chance at "one giant step for womankind" canceled in 1961. "I quit my job teaching flight instruction, and … there I was, unemployed," says Gene Nora Jessen, 72, of Boise.

The push for female astronauts began in 1959 when clinic chief W. Randolph Lovelace II and Gen. Donald Flickinger of the U.S. Air Force began a program to test female pilots as astronaut candidates. "They reasoned women were smaller and breathed less oxygen," Ryan says. When the Air Force canceled the effort later that year, Lovelace's clinic took over privately, running the same physical tests on 19 female pilots that 32 male candidates underwent. Of the women, 13 passed (68%); of the men, 18 passed (56%).

The top four women tested as fit as the Mercury 7 astronauts, Ryan says. One in particular, Jerrie Cobb, "really had the right stuff." Cobb passed all tests and far exceeded Mercury 7's average in flight time and endurance.

Almost none of the data were published. But one of Ryan's co-authors, Jack Loeppsky of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Albuquerque, had studied with one of the testing physicians and kept the data on aerobic capacity. When Ryan became interested in the subject, Loeppsky produced the data.

"If we had access to the data, we'd have known they were quite capable," says Margaret Weitekamp of the National Air & Space Museum, author of Right Stuff, Wrong Sex: America's First Women In Space Program. It was never an official NASA program, but the agency embraced the Mercury 13, crediting them with paving the way for others.

Jessen, who is on a tour for her book, The Fabulous Flight of the Three Musketeers, harbors no grudges: "It was wonderful to be part of that time."

Saturday, October 3, 2009

After 5 Years, Space Tourism A Work In Progress

By JOHN ANTCZAK and ALICIA CHANG, Associated Press Writers

LOS ANGELES – When a private spaceship soared over California to claim a $10 million prize, daredevil venture capitalist Alan Walton was 68 and thought he'd soon be on a rocket ride of his own.

Walton plunked down $200,000 to be among the first space tourists to make a suborbital thrill-ride high above the Earth aboard a Virgin Galactic spaceship.

Now he intends to ask for his deposit back if there's no fixed launch date by his 74th birthday next April.

"This was going to be the highlight of my old age," he said.

It has been five years since SpaceShipOne, the first privately financed manned spacecraft, captured the Ansari X Prize on Oct. 4, 2004, by demonstrating that a reusable rocket capable of carrying passengers could fly more than 62 miles high twice within two weeks — showing reliability and commercial viability.

Enthusiasm over SpaceShipOne's feats was so high that year that even before the prize-winning flight, British mogul Richard Branson announced an agreement to use the technology in a second-generation design, SpaceShipTwo, to fly commercial passengers into space under the Virgin Galactic banner by 2007.

It seemed that anyone who had the money would soon be experiencing what SpaceShipOne pilot Brian Binnie called "literally a rush — you light that motor off and the world wakes up around you." And then the sensation of weightlessness and the sight of the world far below.

Turning the dream into reality has taken longer than many expected in those days, and spaceflight remains the realm of government astronauts and a handful of extraordinarily wealthy people who have paid millions for rides on Russian rockets to the international space station.

X Prize founder Peter Diamandis says, however, that things have not been at a standstill.

More than $1 billion has been invested in the industry, regulatory roadblocks have been addressed and as many as three different passenger spaceships will emerge in the next 18 to 24 months and begin flying, he said.

"You'll get another large injection of excitement in public interest once those vehicles begin operating and the public starts getting flown," he said.

Freight business owner Edwin Sahakian has seen signs of progress. He and four other Virgin Galactic customers got a peek at SpaceShipTwo this summer during a visit to the Scaled Composites plant at the Mojave Airport, where it is being built by maverick aviation designer Burt Rutan.

At the time it was the color of carbon fiber — dark gray — and had not been painted. Its engine had not been assembled either, but Sahakian was impressed with one aspect: lots of big windows.
"This is not a grandiose mock-up. This is the real thing," said the 46-year-old Sahakian, who is a flight instructor in his spare time.

During the campaign to win the X Prize, Rutan had stressed that a tourism spacecraft would have to have big windows to give passengers a view and it would have to be at least 100 times safer than any spacecraft ever flown.

The project was dealt a setback two years ago when three technicians were killed in an explosion while testing SpaceShipTwo's propellant system. Scaled Composites, which was bought by Northrop Grumman Corp., was cited for five workplace violations and fined $28,870 in connection with the blast that also critically injured three men.

Like SpaceShipOne, its successor will be carried aloft by a special jet aircraft dubbed the WhiteKnightTwo. The rocketship will be released at high altitude before the pilot ignites its motor. After reaching the top of its trajectory, it will fall back into the atmosphere and glide to a landing.

Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn said testing of WhiteKnightTwo is in full swing, with flights above 52,000 feet.

The completed SpaceShipTwo is expected to be unveiled in December in Mojave and first test flights will begin next year, with full-fledged space launches to its maximum altitude by or during 2011, Whitehorn said.

But no timetable for the start of commercial operations is being released, he said.

Whitehorn said Virgin Galactic continues to hold $40 million in deposits by 300 customers.

X Prize Foundation President Robert K. Weiss acknowledged that "things are a few years behind what was originally anticipated" but said he is certain there will be commercial spaceflights within this decade and the interest of people will be reinvigorated.

"When the demand starts to ramp up, the price is going to come down and so it's not going to be a couple hundred thousand dollars, it's going to be the price of, let's say, an automobile," he said.

The foundation, meanwhile, has branched out with its concept of spurring innovation through monetary incentives. Multimillion-dollar X Prizes are being offered in competitions to send a privately funded robot to the moon, build production-capable cars with the equivalent of 100 mpg efficiency, and for developing technology to greatly reduce the time it takes to sequence human genomes.

Diamandis said that while 10 years ago, he found it hard to get anyone to listen to the concept of the X Prize until telecommunications millionaire Anousheh Ansari and her family funded the first one.

Now he says he is seeing a substantial increase in interest from philanthropists, corporations and government agencies in spurring innovation through incentives.

"In financial stress times, prizes really work very well because you only pay upon success," he said.