Space browsing by category


I came, I saw, I floated

Thursday, December 10th, 2015


Well, it really was the next best thing to space travel – a total of about seven minutes of weightlessness on board  G-Force One, a modified Boeing 727 owned by the Zero Gravity Corporation.

For these unfamiliar, the plane flies a series of parabolic climbs and dives; as you come over the top the plane follows the path your body would if it was freely falling, and you just float off the cabin floor. Of course, you have to give it back at the bottom of the arc, where things get very heavy.

The folks who put this together have been doing it for ten years, and it shows. They managed to find the perfect amount of pomp and circumstance to make it fun, without going too far and making it hokey. I was issued a spiffy blue flight suit, with my name velcroed on, but upside-down. Later, it was revealed that turning it right-side up would be part of the post-event activity – a custom borrowed from the astronaut corps.

My fellow passengers ranged in age from their 30s to their 60s (plus a 12-year-old with his dad), and hailed from places as far away as Gemany, Denmark, England, and Columbia.

An airspace conflict delayed our departure for several hours, but we eventually headed out to the airport, paused for a photo op or two, boarded, and launched.




There’s really not a whole lot that can be said or done to either prepare for or describe the experience – it really is unique. If there’s a ‘trick’, it’s to relax and enjoy (something I wasn’t very good at). You want to try to control your motion, but that’s pretty much impossible. There were a few recommendations I attempted with varying degrees of success, but mostly it was float around and go wherever it takes you. If you bump into someone, it will be at low speed – “sorry – oops”, and you’re on your way. I did manage to grab a mouthful of water globule in midair, but I attribute that more to my coach throwing it in the right direction than any skill on my part. I was less successful trying to catch Skittles I’d launched on my own. One thing I did succeed at a few times was the ‘crawl’ – you walk on your hands up one wall, across the ceiling, and down the other side. The zero-G portion of each parabolic loop lasts about 30 seconds, and as it’s coming to an end they announce ‘Coming Out – Feet Down!’ I remember a few time thinking “Okay, but which way is down?” But they come out gently, and pretty soon you’re on the floor, and just have to find a position where you’re not bumping into another participant.





The 15 parabolas they flew were nowhere near enough. On the other hand, they said they chose 15 because after that is when it starts affecting newbies negatively. In our group, 2 out of 28 or so wound up sitting it out – sad, given both the expense and travel involved; one each male and female, unrelated, both from overseas. As for me, the only negative physiological effect I experienced was an ache in my jaw from grinning so much! The entire group was giddy, and there was a crowd-multiplication effect going on – the laughing, smiling, shouts of encouragement and so forth were continuous.

After the last parabola, we were all able to pad around the cabin for the next 20 minutes or so, a portion of which I spent helping my coach clean up the spilled Skittles. After that we were told to head to our seats and buckle in for landing.

All in all, the experience was perfect, except that it didn’t last long enough. They’ve got a frequent flyer discount, and though it’s utterly unjustifiable, I’m tempted. With what I learned the first time, I think I’d be able to get more out of a rematch.a109

Your mileage may vary, but if your constitution and budget permit I’d definitely say go for it. The Ride (and I’m not talking about the one in the airplane) is too damned short.

Update – as promised, they released the video from the six GoPro cameras that were recording the action:

The Penultimate Frontier?

Friday, November 20th, 2015

The twenty-somethings reading this still have a chance. But we living fossils who remember watching the moon landing have sadly come to the conclusion that, unless we have the value of a nice house sitting in our disposable income fund, the chance at even suborbital space travel will pass us by.

So let’s move onto the next best thing. Over the last several months, a combination of a small windfall, an end-of-the-year discount, and my own fiscal irresponsibility have conspired to give me a shot at that next best thing – parabolic flight simulating zero gravity. The modified 727 operated by Zero-G Adventures only flies if enough participants sign up, and I got the word earlier today that my mission will be flying. So barring unforeseen circumstances, I’ll be celebrating my next birthday by floating around somewhere out over the Atlantic, off the coast of Florida.

I’ll report back with photos and a description of the experience. Hopefully there’ll be a story in there somewhere. And, in my own small way, I can take comfort in having contributed incrementally to demonstrating the viability of space tourism as a business model.

The Spaceship

Sunday, September 15th, 2013

If you live in Florida, especially the central east coast, you can watch a space launch pretty much whenever you want. Not so up here at 41°35’N/70°32’W. In fact, the last time I saw one I had to travel down to Florida, to watch STS-133, the final launch of Discovery. A long trek, with several false starts, but well worth it.

A few weeks ago, NASA published this graphic, showing where the September 6 LADEE (Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer) launch would be visible.


Fifteen degrees above the horizon? That should be doable. When the appointed day arrived, I was pleased to see a cloudless sky, and got ready to head for the backyard. Then I though it over and headed to the beach instead. Might as well experience all this has to offer.

The prediction was for the ship to become visible at about 11:28 PM, so I arrived about 10 minutes earlier. There were three other cars there, for the same reason. Nice to know I wasn’t the only one to think this was worthwhile.

LADEE appeared on schedule, working its way west to east, pretty much the way NASA predicted.


Guess the math doesn’t lie.

A spectacular sight? Not really. From up in MA, all I could see was a distinctively orange point of light with some sparkles behind it. Nothing like STS-133. I watched the second stage flame out, tracked where the ship ought to be, based on its trajectory, and then saw the third stage light up. When that went out, I was able to watch for a while with the binoculars, but just barely.

The photo below isn’t mine (HT Sean Sullivan,, but it shows the approximate trajectory.


Knowing what I was watching made all the difference, of course. To a random observer, it was just a point of light. But I’m thinking about what it must feel like to be part of the team that put it up there. Years of work, and then in the space of a few minutes, you’ll know whether it was all for naught… or whether you were going to the moon.

I’ll steal a small bit of vicarious pleasure, knowing that it was my country that lobbed that little rocket up there that evening. Yeah, I know I didn’t participate directly. But my tax dollars helped.

Dollars and Dreams

Friday, August 23rd, 2013


I see that Virgin Galactic has announced a 25% increase in the price of their suborbital flights, from $200,000 to $250,000. The close to 600 people who’ve already put down a deposit at the original price will not be assessed for any addition fees; this applies only to latecomers.

What’s interesting to me about this is that as a technology evolves, you’d expect prices to go down, not up. Now whatever else Sir Richard is or isn’t, I think we can all agree that he’s a savvy businessman. When he cut the deal with Rutan, Spaceship One was already flying. And from what I read, it got there for about $25 million. So the budgeting for Spaceship Two was not done in a vacuum.

The revenue from the tickets sold so far is $120 million. I’ve got no idea what it costs to fly Spaceship Two, but I sense that at $200k/ticket, there may be room to make a few bucks, or at least not operate at a desperate loss.

Of course, margins would be better at $250,000. And I think this is an example of an inelastic price; that is, there aren’t a whole lot of people who’d be wiling to plunk down 200 grand, but at 250 would say “No, that’s just too much.” So why not run the price up a bit?

I’m kind of hoping that this is a case where the price is set based on what the market will bear. And I’m also thinking that, once the first few flights take place and don’t end in a smoldering crater, there will be an uptick in demand, from the folks on the sidelines who have the means and desire but also have safety concerns. After all, you didn’t get to the point in life where you can casually drop a quarter of a million on a joy ride without at least a degree of prudence.

So you’re Sir Richard, and you’ve got this unique service that costs $X to provide, where $X is significantly under $250,000. You start at $250,000, and sell all the tickets you can at that price. When sales start getting soft, you drop the price to, say, $195,000, and pick up some marginal customers who were initially priced out. And you keep doing this until you reach $X plus some percentage, the amount you judge to be a worthwhile profit. Or put another way, the percentage below which you don’t want to be bothered with the hassles of running your own space program.

So once he’s flying regularly, I expect the price to drop. How much? Beats the hell out of me. But I’ve said here before, if it gets to the price of a decent car (~$25,000) , I’ll find some way to take the trip, though even at that price, it works out to about $1000 per minute of actual flight time.

A frivolous expense? Perhaps. But I suspect that a jaunt into space would be one of those experience that divides your life into a before and an after. And to me, that’s worth driving a junk car for a few years.


RIP Neil Armstrong 1930-2012

Sunday, August 26th, 2012

What do you write in tribute for the first man to walk on another world?

It’s a tough act to follow, that’s for sure. If you’re of a certain age, you remember sitting in front of the television that night, gazing at the grainy black and white image, waiting, waiting, waiting… To this then-teenager it seemed like forever. And then, man’s first steps on the moon.

Being a techie, I can’t help but be amazed at what was accomplished with what they had to work with. The early 1960s: mechanical design done by hand, calculations done with a slide rule, and sitting atop close to five million pounds of kerosene and liquid oxygen hoping nobody dropped a decimal point. I read somewhere that when Kennedy delivered his famous speech in 1961 about “…landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth [by the end of the decade]”, the reaction of the rank and file at NASA was ‘What?! Is he out of his f*****g mind?’

But we pulled it off. And so my teen years were lived against the backdrop of Great Things happening. Sure, I was a child of a bunch of other things, too; the situation in Southeast Asia was nowhere near as inspiring. But that moon thing was tough to ignore. And it’s probably a factor in why I’m generally unsatisfied with status quos, even if they’re pretty good ones.

Not long ago, I came across this little gem:

The vaguely parabolic curve seems to unfortunately map to our achievement as a people over the same time period. Or maybe not; it’s tough to see into the future, as anyone alive on September 10, 2001 could tell you.

But its easier to do Great Things when Great Things are obviously happening around you. And it’s sad that the Great Things we’re doing today don’t have the panache of landing a man on the moon. Because some of them are pretty cool – miracle drugs that quietly save the lives of thousands who would otherwise have died of ‘natural causes’. New materials that make it possible to build structures, vehicles, and devices that would otherwise never have been built. The fact that we take it for granted that we can communicate with pretty much anyone, anywhere in the world instantly, and essentially for free. The list goes on. But it’s all incremental, and in a sense, expected.

I think a zeitgeist of Great Things happening around us inspires us to get more out of our lives. And that’s why things like the moon mission are important.

Thanks Neil. In addition to everything else, you made a difference for this kid.



Monday, June 18th, 2012

Despite knowing about the shuttle retirement, a recent article saddened me. The Space Shuttle, for better or worse, has been described as the most complex machine ever built by man. Despite reliability and safety issues, the retired shuttles each have well over 100 million miles on the ‘clock’, and deserve both respect and honor. So, seeing a friggin’ spaceship sitting on a barge in the middle of the river, like so much trash, felt hopelessly depressing. Sure, it’s nice to know that they’re going to good homes. And I’m sure I’ll see one up close and in person at one museum or another, at some point. Perhaps the one now on board the Intrepid, on the shore of the mighty Hudson, though I’d have to reassess my intent to never visit New York City unless under duress.  But the visit will be like standing at the grave site of a loved one.

The last time I’d seen her alive was atop a dazzling orange flame, vanishing into the distance. Thanks to good luck and the generosity of a friend with a spare ticket, I’d witnessed the final launch of Discovery about a year and a half ago. Actually, there wasn’t much detail from where we stood, several miles away from the launch pad, along with thousands of others. But when that thing lit up, all the time, dollars and inconvenience of traveling a thousand miles to Florida instantly became worthwhile. On a purely visceral level the dazzling light and sound were captivating, in a way that television and print are just unable to capture. But knowing what was going on, that half a dozen men and women had just taken off on a 5-million mile jaunt, in a 27-year-old spaceship of a design known for killing all its crew every fifty missions or so, was just as extraordinary, though in a very different way.

All over, now.

I grew up as NASA did. When I was of single-digit age, Alan Shepherd was making his ballistic voyage. I was in high school when we walked on the moon. And I was at one of my early jobs on the day in 1986, when Challenger exploded. I remember a technician running into the lab shouting ‘The space shuttle blew up’. How could it be? We’d never lost one in the air until then.

Perhaps happier times are ahead. The SpaceX launch to the space station, Virgin Galactic, and others. $200k is still a bit much for me for a suborbital hop, as will be available in a few years. But if it got down to $20k, I’d give it a try. I don’t have a spare $20k laying around. But I could see making that in car payments over 5 years, and I’d gladly drive a junker for five years in exchange for that experience.

There will come a day, though, when Virgin Galactic or someone like them will lose a ship. It’s inevitable. So, would I still be willing to go if I knew the statistics were the same as the Shuttle, that is, every fifty or so missions, the ship is lost, with all hands.

I’m not as sure. But I hope I would.