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There is an exciting new development in the world of aerospace!  This weekend, the world’s largest plane flew for the first time.  The plane is a colossal megajet with six engines and a 117 meter wingspan longer than a football field (or a soccer pitch).  For years the start-up aerospace firm Stratolaunch has been out in the Mojave Desert working on a giant plane to use as an orbital launch platform.  On Saturday (April 13, 2019), the Stratolaunch carrier aircraft successfully left the ground and cruised up to an altitude of 4500 meters (15000 feet) before returning safely to the ground and back to its immense hangar.

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The plane is designed to serve as a flying launchpad for firing satellites into low Earth orbit.  By carrying the satellites and their rockets to the edge of the atmosphere, the Stratolaunch will eliminate costly and resource-hungry rocket stages.  The company was founded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.  It is one of the few examples I have seen of billionaires squandering their money in an appropriate fashion (come to think of it, Bill Gates’ humanitarian foundation is another of those rare examples…maybe those guys did know something).

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When I was growing up, every picture of a newly developed airplane filled me with covetous awe; yet, for the last decade, that feeling has been missing.  Every new plane has looked like a blander (albeit more fuel efficient) version of a previous model.  Even the budget-devouring F35 looks kind of like an uninspired GIJoe toy and lacks the hot lines of an F14 or even an F111 (although, admittedly, the F35 has thoroughly demonstrated its awe-inspiring ability to destroy money more quickly and effectively than any other warplane).  Yet the Stratolaunch changes all of that.  For the first ime in a long time, this plane is weird and exciting.  Just look at the tiny twin cockpits like angry little prairie falcon heads, or cast your eye on the hunched up fuselage and the sequential rows of landing gear.  I would be proud to run through the neighborhood waving a plastic model of this plane over my head and screaming until I tripped on my shoelace.   Additionally, the plane finally shattered an aerospace record which has stood since 1947.  The wings of the Stratolaunch are longer than the wings of the Spruce Goose, the magnificent flying white elephant which Howard Hughes built out of wood (in order to work around a wartime aluminum shortage).

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Congratulations to the Stratolaunch team and to the late Paul Allen.  Ferrebeekeeper will be watching the skies over the Mojave with our fingers crossed to see how the next test missions go.

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Our current form—bipedal & prone to toppling, with two limited manipulator arms—always struck me as less functional than it could be. If I were making sentient beings, I would first try something else. I can therefore never understand why robot makers are always trying to copy the humanoid template and create androids. Fortunately there are other robotics experts who are willing to consider more versatile shapes for the next generation of robots. Consider this robot octopus, manufactured by a Greek team.

 

The robo-octopus can swim using traditional octopus jet propulsion (particularly effective because of the elastic webs between its tentacles). It can also crawl along the ocean bottom with its many arms and utilize its synthetic tentacles to carry or manipulate multiple objects.

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So far the robo-octopus is merely an experimental plaything and it has all the awkwardness of some first generation Pre-Cambrian jellyfish, but it is hard not to see immense potential in that adaptable be-tentacled shape. Imagine combining it with a supercomputer and giving it wrap-around artificial eyes. What a magnificent robot that would be!  Indeed, maybe we could utilize such a shape for transhuman cyborgs of the future.  Humans could swim around in three dimensions and be free of all this right-leg/left-leg falling down business!

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Illustration by Alex Schomburg

Illustration by Alex Schomburg

After several blog posts describing spaceplanes (like the sleek experimental British Skylon plane), it is time to write about one of the alternative proposals for reusable space-capable craft which are capable of both take-off and landing.   In the old spaceman fantasies from the golden age of science fiction, human explorers flew their rockets to another world, dropped through the atmosphere and landed vertically.  Their rocket set around while the astronauts had fantastical adventures.  Then they rushed back aboard and blasted off!

The Grasshopper at a SpaceX facility in Texas

The Grasshopper at a SpaceX facility in Texas

Last week (March 7th, 2013) an experimental rocket named Grasshopper flew a record 80 meters (263 feet) before landing perfectly on the launch pad where it started.  Grasshopper was built by Space Exploration Technologies or SpaceX, the private space transport company founded by PayPal billionaire, Elon Musk (who–based on his name and his legacy–may be a James Bond villain or an alien philanthropist).   SpaceX is the first privately funded company to successfully launch a spacecraft into orbit and recover it and the budding company has also been first past numerous other milestones in the commercialization of space. Instead of giving everything Roman names like NASA, SpaceX gives its crafts and components Arthurian names such as Merlin, Kestrel, and Draco (I’m going to pretend there was a grasshopper at least somewhere in T. H. White).

The grasshopper blasts off--or maybe lands?

The grasshopper blasts off–or maybe lands?

The reusable first stage tests of Grasshopper are breaking new ground in the fields of guidance and stability (which are required to land a Grasshopper).  If all continues to go well the company plans on supersonic tests later this year.   As these become more glorious and more dangerous it is unclear if they will seek to have their current Texas facility made into an official spaceport or if they will move out to the blazing glory of White Sands with the Airforce, NASA, and Virgin Galactic. Whatever the case I salute them for flying a smokestack around the countryside and then landing it on a basketball court.  Perhaps I was too hasty to dismiss the possibilities of commercial spaceflight!

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