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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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Congratulations to SpaceX, Elon Musk’s private space company for successfully testing its new heavy lift rocket, the Falcon Heavy, a reusable multi-stage heavy lift rocket for delivering large cargoes to Earth orbit or for traveling on cislunar or even interplanetary trips.  The rocket is the largest conventional rocket built since the mighty Saturn V which took humankind to the moon (although the space shuttle’s elaborate  boosters were capable of greater thrust).  The Falcon Heavy vehicle is capable of  producing 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff–which means it can heft around around 63,800 kilograms (140,700 pounds) of payload into low-Earth orbit.

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Today’s launch from Kennedy Space Center was largely successful: the top and bottom boosters landed safely on designated platforms.  The center booster, alas, did not quite perform as hoped and slammed into the ocean.  The rocket’s payload, Mr. Musk’s electric Tesla roadster (with a mannequin and sundry pop-culture science fiction novelty items) successfully entered a heliocentric orbit which will bring it back and forth between Mars and Earth as it loops around the sun.  The launch paves the way for a new era of private industry in space (SpaceX plans to monetize subsequent Falcon Heavy rocket missions for government and commercial payloads and missions), but it is only a step on the way to a planned BFR (Big “Falcon” Rocket) for interplanetary missions.  I am excited by that concept, though I hope Mr. Musk will take a moment to think about the top of Venus’ atmosphere as a potential destination as well as cold arid Mars. For right now though, hooray for this thrilling milestone!

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Once people have done something for the first time, it becomes much easier to do it again and again in novel ways.  I mention this, because, just this week, the great nation of India tested their own scaled-down and scaled-back prototype version of a space shuttle.  ISRO (The India Space Research Organization) fired a 7m-scale model lander about 70km (43 miles) into the atmosphere from a spaceport in took off from Andhra Pradesh.  The craft was launched atop a HS9 solid rocket booster. It is unclear whether the organization has recovered the prototype or not.

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The Indian spaceplane program is proceeding on a tiny budget which would make NASA (or even SpaceX) wince. The little prototype cost the equivalent of $14 million dollars. However the Indian government has big plans: within 15 years they hope to build a full scale Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV-TD) capable of repeatedly going into orbit and then returning through Earth’s atmosphere to land safely.  Since NASA has been working on projects very different from spaceplanes, I am glad to see that somebody else is still working on the concept.  I will be extremely curious to watch the progress of this Indian offspring of the original shuttle program which was such a triumphant and tragic centerpiece of space exploration during my childhood.

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United Launch Alliance Atlas V launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., June 20, 2012 (containing a National Defense mission)

United Launch Alliance Atlas V launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., June 20, 2012 (containing a National Defense mission)

Start getting excited: tomorrow is a big day in space adventuring!  As I write this, last minute preparations are being made on a mighty United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket sitting on a pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.  Not only does the rocket contain a tiny cubesat with the Planetary Society Solar Sail, it is also launching the not-very-secret Air Force robot space shuttle, the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (currently the world’s only known operational space plane program—each robot lander can spend years in space working on classified missions).

Just tailgatin' in some clean suits with with the Air Force X-37B

Just tailgatin’ in some clean suits with with the Air Force X-37B

All of this amazing stuff, along with 9 other cubesats will be riding into space via the Atlas rocket’s second stage—a next generational launch platform evocatively known as “The Centaur.” According to news sites, the launch window for this mission is Wednesday [May 20th ,2015] from 10:45 a.m. ET and 2:45 p.m.  You can watch live on webcam (but remember lots of things can push a mission back).

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I would be live-blogging this extravaganza, but I have my own mission tomorrow morning: relaunching my imploded career. I will be putting on my navy suit and heading off to the temp company.  Presumably the great masters have some tedious administrative tasks for me to perform and they will not hurl me into the endless black void like little X-37B (although given today’s economy, who can really say?)

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Wish everyone luck! Hopefully there will be no Russian-style crashing and burning with either venture…

This is what happens when you do not bring an extra résumé

This is what happens when you do not bring an extra résumé!

A Pegasus Rocket launched from Orbital's airplane "Stargazer"

A Pegasus Rocket launched from Orbital’s airplane “Stargazer”

Tonight Orbital Sciences Corporation is launching a Pegasus rocket from Vandenberg Airforce Base in California (which is a sentimental, um, missile base for me since my grandfather was a workman there back in the ‘50s).  Orbital is one of those vaunted private companies which is reaching for space as the government defunds NASA, although, truth be told, the corporation seems to concentrate on launching satellites and building rockets for the government so it might not be too different from the classical aerospace companies which have been interwoven with the nation’s Space/Defense programs since back when grandpa was painting missile silos. The apex of Orbital’s ambition was to build a spaceplane to replace the space shuttle, but their proposal was not selected by NASA and they are winding down their efforts to build a crewed vehicle.

The IRIS solar observatory satellite (NASA)

The IRIS solar observatory satellite (NASA)

Actually the Pegasus rocket is launched from a high altitude airplane which is launched from Vandenberg.  This technology was developed during the cold war for interception (i.e. shooting down enemy spy satellites) but tonight it finds a higher calling: the rocket will be launching a small satellite named IRIS into orbit.  IRIS stands for Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph.  The satellite is a small ultraviolet solar observatory designed to study the mysterious chromosphere of the sun—the second of three layers of the sun’s atmosphere which, perplexingly, is much hotter than the region beneath it.  You can look at this old post for a proposal about why this is so–the answer probably involves solar tornadoes (IRIS will be able to tell us if this solution is correct).

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If you are turning in around 10:20- 10:30 EST you can watch the launch at this link (probably).  Go IRIS!  It’s exciting to have another robot spacecraft monitoring our star!

The US Air Force's Automated Space Shuttle X-37B (US Air Force/Sipa Press/Newscom/File)

The final mission of the Space Shuttle Discovery is currently underway.  Additionally, the X-37B, the “secret” robot space shuttle operated by United States Air Force, just concluded a successful seven month mission last December. The Air Force is primed to launch a second X-37B robot shuttle at 3:39 p.m. (EST) today. This flurry of activity leads to general reflection concerning spaceplanes, crafts designed to operate in outer space, fly back through earth’s atmosphere, and land on ground.  With two in orbit at the same time spaceplanes are now more in use then ever…while simultaneously fading away.

First let’s look at NASA’s space shuttle program. Here’s what NASA’s website has to say about the Discovery:

It’s certainly earned its retirement. Discovery has flown more missions than any other shuttle – more than any other spacecraft, in fact. After 38 missions to date, and more than 5,600 trips around the Earth, Discovery has carried satellites such as the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit and sent the Ulysses robotic probe on its way to the Sun. It was the first shuttle to rendezvous with the Russian Mir Space Station, and it delivered the Japanese Kibo laboratory to the International Space Station.

The objective of the current mission is to deliver spare parts and supplies to the International Space Station. Along with water, new personnel, sundry modules, and widgets, Discovery is also delivering Robonaut 2.  Despite the misleading number, Robonaut 2 is the first humanoid robot in outer space.

Robonaut 2--wait, what?

When the mission is complete the Discovery is scheduled to go off to some museum. The entire shuttle program is winding down: the program was supposed to end in 2010 but international obligations compelled NASA to tack on a few missions in 2011.  Endeavor is already on the pad for what may be its final flight and Atlantis is on standby.  Enterprise (which never made it to space) is already at the Smithsonian. And, of course, Challenger and Columbia are both gone, lost along with their heroic crews in our first doddering steps into space.

Space Shuttle Discovery Lifting Off (Photo by Matt Stroshane/Getty Images North America)

The shuttles seem so much a part of our culture that it is hard to recognize how revolutionary they were in the seventies and eighties (and still are). It’s true that they are shockingly dangerous but the technology used to create them pushed the limits of materials technology a long way.  For example the thermal shields of the shuttle protect the orbiters from re-entry temperatures that could otherwise reach as high as 1,650 °C (about 3,000 °F), well above the melting point of steel. The program also advanced rocketry by leaps and bounds.

The American Space Shuttle and the Soviet Buran

The shuttles were the first spaceplanes to go into orbit.  The only other spaceplanes that are known to have done so were the unmanned Soviet Bor-4 test craft, the Soviet Buran (a space-shuttel knock-off scrapped during the Soviet meltdown after one successful manned fligth), and the OTV-1 and OTV-2. Both of these latter vehicles are Boeing X-37B robot shuttles used by the United States Air Force to test (note to the Air Force and Boeing, please give your robot space planes cooler names).  The X-37B is a automated shuttle with a payload about the size of a Ford Ranger pickup.  Originally a NASA program which was scrapped for budget reasons the robot shuttle was picked up by DARPA and built by the Air Force which claims to use it to test guidance, navigation and control systems.  Since the OTV-1’s mission (which was tracked by amateur astronomers) took the craft over Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea, and China, it is reasonable to speculate that the craft may have reconnaissance purposes as well.


There are a number of suborbital spaceplanes which have managed to reach above the Kármán line but were incapable of going into orbit. Lately private companies have been jockeying to make more of these space hoppers and conventional wisdom asserts that the market will step in and deliver the next generation of spaceplanes. Hopefully private innovators will come up with some bright ideas. Budget and technical constraints have lead NASA to scrap its plans for ramjet scramjet and spaceplanes. There isn’t much else on the drawing board that we know about right now (other than the Japanese Space Program’s origami airplanes which are seemingly designed to be tossed into space for fun pictured below) .  The foreseeable future apparently belong to rockets.

The Japanese Space Program's 29-gram origami shuttle made of treated ricepaper--the future of spaceplanes?

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