Tag: virgin galactic (page 1 of 2)

How will life on earth compare to life for the Mars One pioneers?


To infinity and beyond? Maggie Lieu
To infinity and beyond? Maggie Lieu Photo: Peter Quinnell


From telegraph.co.uk
By Nick Curtis

On a different planet - Nick Curtis imagines a message from 'Martianaut' Maggie Lieu to her parents back at home


Mars Mission, British Martianaut Maggie Lieu’s Log
Day One: Stardate 22/02/2025. 

Hello Mission Control.... Just kidding! Hi mum, hi dad, or should I say earthlings! 
Well, me and Bruce the Australian Martianaut finally touched down beside the Herschel II Strait on the red planet today, the last of 12 pairs to arrive - though as you know it was touch and go. Ten years of training and research almost went down the drain when Google got hit by a massive retrospective tax bill and had to withdraw all its branded sponsorship from the starship at the last minute: 

fortunately Amazon stepped in, on the agreement we install its first matter transference delivery portal (“It’s there before you know it”) here. And rename the ship Bezos 1, of course 
The trip was textbook, with both of us uploading videos on how to apply makeup and bake cupcakes in space direct to the Weibo-spex of our crowdsource funders in China - great practice for The Great Martian Bakeoff on BBC 12 next year (subscribers only). The one hairy moment was a near miss with that Virgin Galactic rocket, Beardie IV, that went AWOL five years ago. We were so close we could see Leonardo diCaprio’s little screaming face pressed against his porthole. And Kim Kardashian’s bum pressed against hers - though it’s looking kinda old now and I hoped we’d seen the last of it.


So what can I tell you? When we landed the others threw us a party with full fat milk, rare beef and waffles (the only official space superfoods since it was discovered that kale and quinoa cause impotence). The landscape is pretty barren, just acres of rolling sand and no one in sight, sort of like Greece after it left the Eurozone and the entire population moved to Germany. Or like the so-called Caliphate after Islamic State finally perfected its time machine and managed to transport itself and all its followers back to the 12th century. 

The temperature outside is about 20c, so a lot cooler than it is at home since the ice caps melted. There’s water here, but not as much as is now covering Indonesia, Holland and Somerset. The atmosphere is 96% carbon dioxide so Juan, the Spanish Martianaut, had to keep his suit on when he went out to smoke. He tried to get us all to buy duty free for him in Mexico City spaceport before we left, now that a pack of cigarettes costs 450 Euros in the shops, and they’ve been camouflaged so you can’t find them. 

Maggie Lieu (Guardian)


The construction-droids did a pretty good job building Mars Camp out of the recycled parts of all those closed Tesco Metros. They say we have enough air up here to last 20 years, Earth’s stocks of storable oxygen having increased tenfold when the European Parliament collapsed following the expenses scandal. I still can’t believe that Dasha Putin-Mugabe was claiming for SIX driverless cars while she was EU President, and employing her wife as her accountant. And her being the first transgender Russian lesbian to hold the office, too. 

Speaking of politics, how is life in coalition Britain? Who has the upper hand at the moment? UKIP? Scots Nats? The Greens? or those nutters from Cornwall, Mebion Kernow? Or are they underwater now. And how is young Straw doing now Labour is the smallest party in Parliament, after the New New New Conservatives? Hard to believe it’s three years since the last Lib Dem lost her seat. 

I gather that some things have improved internationally now that Brian Cox has developed his own time machine at the Wowcher-Hawking Institute in Cambridge, and worked out that the entire world can now transport all its waste products back to the Caliphate in the 12th century. 

We can see the Earth from here through the Clinton2020 Telescope that the US president endowed us with after her brief period in office. The joke up here is that she did it to keep a proper eye either on her husband (though he doesn’t get around so much any more, obviously) or on what President Palin is up to. I still can’t believe that she sold Alaska to Russia to pay the compensation bill for the Grand Canyon Fracking Collapse. 

Even through the Clinton2020 the Earth looks pretty small, though at times, when the stars are really bright, we can see the Great Wall 2 ring of laser satellites that China has pointed at Russia to discourage any more “accidental” incursions. 

Our team up here is like a microcosm of human life on earth. Well, up to a point. As you know the French and Italian Martianauts were expelled from the team before lift-off, because of some scandal or other. We weren’t told if it was financial or sexual but a space bra and a data stick with three million Bitcoins on it were found in the airlock. 

The African and Brazilian Martianauts swan around the place as if they PERSONALLY solved the world’s food and energy problems.
And the North Korean guy just sits in the corner, muttering into some device up his sleeve and scowling. All the freeze-dried cheese has gone and he’s looking quite fat, if you get my meaning. 

I don’t get much time to myself, what with work, the non-denominational Sorry Meetings where we apologise in case we’ve accidently offended someone’s beliefs, and the communal space-pilates sessions (the North Korean guy skips those so he may be in line for a compulsory gastric band, as mandated by the Intergalactic Health Organisation). 

I always try and upload the latest Birmingham City Games onto my cortex chip when I feel homesick: I know it's not fashionable, but I think football got better when they replaced the players with robots and the wage bill - and the number of court cases - dropped to zero. I know the electricity bill is massive, but the new Brazilian solar technology should fix that. 

Anyway, got to run now. We’re putting together a bid to have the 2036 Olympics up here. 

Bye, or as we say on Mars - see you on the dark side.

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Poll Reveals Public Skepticism of Government and Private Human Spaceflight

SpaceShipTwo powered test flight
A poll found 58 percent of people said private companies like Virgin Galactic should be allowed to send people to space, which it plans to do via its suborbital SpaceShipTwo vehicle (shown during a powered test flight). Credit: Virgin Galactic


Excerpt from spacenews.com

WASHINGTON — The American public is skeptical that private ventures will be able to launch “ordinary people” into space in the coming decades, and is split about spending money on government-led human space exploration, a new poll indicates. 

 The Monmouth University Poll results, released Feb. 16, showed that a majority of Americans believe private companies should be permitted to launch people into space, but also that they did not believe it likely those companies would be able to do so in next 20 to 30 years.  In the poll, 58 percent of people said private companies should be allowed to launch people in space, versus 37 percent who said that human spaceflight should be left to governments alone. 

However, 55 percent thought it was not likely that “ordinary people will be able to travel regularly” into space in the next 20 to 30 years, while 44 percent said such travel would be somewhat or very likely.  Most people also said they were unwilling to fly in space themselves: 69 percent said they would decline a free trip into space, while 28 percent said they would accept it. The poll did not specify what kind of trip — suborbital or orbital — was offered.  The poll revealed a sharp difference in gender, with men more willing than women to believe private ventures should be allowed to fly people in space. Men supported private over government-only human spaceflight by a margin of 71 to 26 percent. 

Women, though were, more evenly split, with 44 percent backing private human spaceflight and 49 percent supporting government-only efforts. MoonFifty percent of those polled said the U.S. government should not spend “billions of dollars to send astronauts to places like the moon, Mars, and asteroids.” 

The public is also divided about spending money on government human space exploration. Asked if the U.S. government should spend “billions of dollars to send astronauts to places like the moon, Mars, and asteroids,” 50 percent said no, while 42 percent said yes.  As with private spaceflight, there was a strong gender split, with 50 percent of men, but only 36 percent of women, supporting spending on human space exploration. There was, by contrast, little difference by party affiliation.  

The poll showed greater support for government spending on space in general. Asked if increased spending on the space program in general would be “a good investment for the country,” 51 percent agreed and 43 percent disagreed.  The poll is based on a telephone survey of 1,008 people in December, and has an overall margin of error of 3.1 percent.
WASHINGTON — The American public is skeptical that private ventures will be able to launch “ordinary people” into space in the coming decades, and is split about spending money on government-led human space exploration, a new poll indicates.
The Monmouth University Poll results, released Feb. 16, showed that a majority of Americans believe private companies should be permitted to launch people into space, but also that they did not believe it likely those companies would be able to do so in next 20 to 30 years.
In the poll, 58 percent of people said private companies should be allowed to launch people in space, versus 37 percent who said that human spaceflight should be left to governments alone. However, 55 percent thought it was not likely that “ordinary people will be able to travel regularly” into space in the next 20 to 30 years, while 44 percent said such travel would be somewhat or very likely.
Most people also said they were unwilling to fly in space themselves: 69 percent said they would decline a free trip into space, while 28 percent said they would accept it. The poll did not specify what kind of trip — suborbital or orbital — was offered.
The poll revealed a sharp difference in gender, with men more willing than women to believe private ventures should be allowed to fly people in space. Men supported private over government-only human spaceflight by a margin of 71 to 26 percent. Women, though were, more evenly split, with 44 percent backing private human spaceflight and 49 percent supporting government-only efforts.
Moon
Fifty percent of those polled said the U.S. government should not spend “billions of dollars to send astronauts to places like the moon, Mars, and asteroids.” Credit: NASA
The public is also divided about spending money on government human space exploration. Asked if the U.S. government should spend “billions of dollars to send astronauts to places like the moon, Mars, and asteroids,” 50 percent said no, while 42 percent said yes.
As with private spaceflight, there was a strong gender split, with 50 percent of men, but only 36 percent of women, supporting spending on human space exploration. There was, by contrast, little difference by party affiliation.
The poll showed greater support for government spending on space in general. Asked if increased spending on the space program in general would be “a good investment for the country,” 51 percent agreed and 43 percent disagreed.
The poll is based on a telephone survey of 1,008 people in December, and has an overall margin of error of 3.1 percent.
- See more at: http://spacenews.com/poll-reveals-public-skepticism-of-government-and-private-human-spaceflight/#sthash.6PxcrjTQ.dpuf

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Virgin Galactic Opens LauncherOne Facility in Long Beach ~ Schedules March 7th Job Fair


 


Excerpt from spacenews.com
by Jeff Foust 

Virgin Galactic announced Feb. 12 that the company is opening a new facility in Long Beach, California, devoted to development of its small satellite launch vehicle.  Virgin Galactic said that it is leasing a 13,900-square-meter building at the Long Beach Airport that it will use for the design and manufacturing of LauncherOne.

The company did not disclose the terms of the lease.  “The technical progress our team has made designing and testing LauncherOne has enabled a move into a dedicated facility to produce the rocket at quantity,” Virgin Galactic chief executive George Whitesides said in a statement announcing the new facility. 

LauncherOne work has been based to date in Mojave, California.  LauncherOne is an air-launch system for satellites weighing up to 225 kilograms. The system will use the same aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, as the company’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle, but replaces SpaceShipTwo with a two-stage launch vehicle using engines fueled by liquid oxygen and kerosene.  At the Federal Aviation Administration Commercial Space Transportation Conference Feb. 4, William Pomerantz, vice president of special projects for Virgin Galactic, said the company has already tested engines and other “core infrastructure” of LauncherOne. 

“We are a fairly vertically-integrated team,” he said. “We really do control a lot of the production in house.”  Pomerantz said that about 60 of the 450 employees of Virgin Galactic and its wholly-owned subsidiary, The Spaceship Company, are currently dedicated to the LauncherOne program.  Virgin Galactic said it will hold a job fair at its new Long Beach facility March 7, but did not disclose how many people it plans to hire there. The Virgin Galactic website lists approximately 20 job opening related to the LauncherOne program as of Feb. 12.  When Virgin Galactic announced the LauncherOne program in 2012, it said it had signed up several companies as initial customers, including Planetary Resources, GeoOptics, Spaceflight Inc., and Skybox Imaging, since acquired by Google.  

In January, the Virgin Group announced it was investing in OneWeb, a venture that plans a constellation of nearly 650 satellites in low Earth orbit to provide broadband communications, with at least some of those satellites to be launched by LauncherOne. 

Virgin Galactic Opens LauncherOne Facility in Long Beach

by — February 12, 2015
Virgin Galactic LauncherOne
Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne. Credit: Virgin Galactic
WASHINGTON — Virgin Galactic announced Feb. 12 that the company is opening a new facility in Long Beach, California, devoted to development of its small satellite launch vehicle.
Virgin Galactic said that it is leasing a 13,900-square-meter building at the Long Beach Airport that it will use for the design and manufacturing of LauncherOne. The company did not disclose the terms of the lease.
“The technical progress our team has made designing and testing LauncherOne has enabled a move into a dedicated facility to produce the rocket at quantity,” Virgin Galactic chief executive George Whitesides said in a statement announcing the new facility. LauncherOne work has been based to date in Mojave, California.
Advertisement
LauncherOne is an air-launch system for satellites weighing up to 225 kilograms. The system will use the same aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, as the company’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle, but replaces SpaceShipTwo with a two-stage launch vehicle using engines fueled by liquid oxygen and kerosene.
At the Federal Aviation Administration Commercial Space Transportation Conference Feb. 4, William Pomerantz, vice president of special projects for Virgin Galactic, said the company has already tested engines and other “core infrastructure” of LauncherOne. “We are a fairly vertically-integrated team,” he said. “We really do control a lot of the production in house.”
Pomerantz said that about 60 of the 450 employees of Virgin Galactic and its wholly-owned subsidiary, The Spaceship Company, are currently dedicated to the LauncherOne program.
Virgin Galactic said it will hold a job fair at its new Long Beach facility March 7, but did not disclose how many people it plans to hire there. The Virgin Galactic website lists approximately 20 job opening related to the LauncherOne program as of Feb. 12.
When Virgin Galactic announced the LauncherOne program in 2012, it said it had signed up several companies as initial customers, including Planetary Resources, GeoOptics, Spaceflight Inc., and Skybox Imaging, since acquired by Google.
In January, the Virgin Group announced it was investing in OneWeb, a venture that plans a constellation of nearly 650 satellites in low Earth orbit to provide broadband communications, with at least some of those satellites to be launched by LauncherOne.
- See more at: http://spacenews.com/virgin-galactic-opens-launcherone-facility-in-long-beach/#sthash.sxcVmjTW.dpuf

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The Future of Technology in 2015?




Excerpt from
cnet.com


The year gone by brought us more robots, worries about artificial intelligence, and difficult lessons on space travel. The big question: where's it all taking us?

Every year, we capture a little bit more of the future -- and yet the future insists on staying ever out of reach.
Consider space travel. Humans have been traveling beyond the atmosphere for more than 50 years now -- but aside from a few overnights on the moon four decades ago, we have yet to venture beyond low Earth orbit.
Or robots. They help build our cars and clean our kitchen floors, but no one would mistake a Kuka or a Roomba for the replicants in "Blade Runner." Siri, Cortana and Alexa, meanwhile, are bringing some personality to the gadgets in our pockets and our houses. Still, that's a long way from HAL or that lad David from the movie "A.I. Artificial Intelligence."
Self-driving cars? Still in low gear, and carrying some bureaucratic baggage that prevents them from ditching certain technology of yesteryear, like steering wheels.
And even when these sci-fi things arrive, will we embrace them? A Pew study earlier this year found that Americans are decidedly undecided. Among the poll respondents, 48 percent said they would like to take a ride in a driverless car, but 50 percent would not. And only 3 percent said they would like to own one.
"Despite their general optimism about the long-term impact of technological change," Aaron Smith of the Pew Research Center wrote in the report, "Americans express significant reservations about some of these potentially short-term developments" such as US airspace being opened to personal drones, robot caregivers for the elderly or wearable or implantable computing devices that would feed them information.
Let's take a look at how much of the future we grasped in 2014 and what we could gain in 2015.

Space travel: 'Space flight is hard'

In 2014, earthlings scored an unprecedented achievement in space exploration when the European Space Agency landed a spacecraft on a speeding comet, with the potential to learn more about the origins of life. No, Bruce Willis wasn't aboard. Nobody was. But when the 220-pound Philae lander, carried to its destination by the Rosetta orbiter, touched down on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on November 12, some 300 million miles from Earth, the celebration was well-earned.
A shadow quickly fell on the jubilation, however. Philae could not stick its first landing, bouncing into a darker corner of the comet where its solar panels would not receive enough sunlight to charge the lander's batteries. After two days and just a handful of initial readings sent home, it shut down. For good? Backers have allowed for a ray of hope as the comet passes closer to the sun in 2015. "I think within the team there is no doubt that [Philae] will wake up," lead lander scientist Jean-Pierre Bibring said in December. "And the question is OK, in what shape? My suspicion is we'll be in good shape."
The trip for NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has been much longer: 3 billion miles, all the way to Pluto and the edge of the solar system. Almost nine years after it left Earth, New Horizons in early December came out of hibernation to begin its mission: to explore "a new class of planets we've never seen, in a place we've never been before," said project scientist Hal Weaver. In January, it will begin taking photos and readings of Pluto, and by mid-July, when it swoops closest to Pluto, it will have sent back detailed information about the dwarf planet and its moon, en route to even deeper space.


Also in December, NASA made a first test spaceflight of its Orion capsule on a quick morning jaunt out and back, to just over 3,600 miles above Earth (or approximately 15 times higher than the International Space Station). The distance was trivial compared to those those traveled by Rosetta and New Horizons, and crewed missions won't begin till 2021, but the ambitions are great -- in the 2030s, Orion is expected to carry humans to Mars.
In late March 2015, two humans will head to the ISS to take up residence for a full year, in what would be a record sleepover in orbit. "If a mission to Mars is going to take a three-year round trip," said NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who will be joined in the effort by Russia's Mikhail Kornienko, "we need to know better how our body and our physiology performs over durations longer than what we've previously on the space station investigated, which is six months."
There were more sobering moments, too, in 2014. In October, Virgin Galactic's sleek, experimental SpaceShipTwo, designed to carry deep-pocketed tourists into space, crashed in the Mojave Desert during a test flight, killing one test pilot and injuring the other. Virgin founder Richard Branson had hoped his vessel would make its first commercial flight by the end of this year or in early 2015, and what comes next remains to be seen. Branson, though, expressed optimism: "Space flight is hard -- but worth it," he said in a blog post shortly after the crash, and in a press conference, he vowed "We'll learn from this, and move forward together." Virgin Galactic could begin testing its next spaceship as soon as early 2015.
The crash of SpaceShipTwo came just a few days after the explosion of an Orbital Sciences rocket lofting an unmanned spacecraft with supplies bound for the International Space Station. And in July, Elon Musk's SpaceX had suffered the loss of one of its Falcon 9 rockets during a test flight. Musk intoned, via Twitter, that "rockets are tricky..."
Still, it was on the whole a good year for SpaceX. In May, it unveiled its first manned spacecraft, the Dragon V2, intended for trips to and from the space station, and in September, it won a $2.6 billion contract from NASA to become one of the first private companies (the other being Boeing) to ferry astronauts to the ISS, beginning as early as 2017. Oh, and SpaceX also has plans to launch microsatellites to establish low-cost Internet service around the globe, saying in November to expect an announcement about that in two to three months -- that is, early in 2015.
One more thing to watch for next year: another launch of the super-secret X-37B space place to do whatever it does during its marathon trips into orbit. The third spaceflight of an X-37B -- a robotic vehicle that, at 29 feet in length, looks like a miniature space shuttle -- ended in October after an astonishing 22 months circling the Earth, conducting "on-orbit experiments."

Self-driving cars: Asleep at what wheel?

Spacecraft aren't the only vehicles capable of autonomous travel -- increasingly, cars are, too. Automakers are toiling toward self-driving cars, and Elon Musk -- whose name comes up again and again when we talk about the near horizon for sci-fi tech -- says we're less than a decade away from capturing that aspect of the future. In October, speaking in his guise as founder of Tesla Motors, Musk said: "Like maybe five or six years from now I think we'll be able to achieve true autonomous driving where you could literally get in the car, go to sleep and wake up at your destination." (He also allowed that we should tack on a few years after that before government regulators give that technology their blessing.)
Prototype, unbound: Google's ride of the future, as it looks today Google
That comment came as Musk unveiled a new autopilot feature -- characterizing it as a sort of super cruise control, rather than actual autonomy -- for Tesla's existing line of electric cars. Every Model S manufactured since late September includes new sensor hardware to enable those autopilot capabilities (such as adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assistance and automated parking), to be followed by an over-the-air software update to enable those features.
Google has long been working on its own robo-cars, and until this year, that meant taking existing models -- a Prius here, a Lexus there -- and buckling on extraneous gear. Then in May, the tech titan took the wraps off a completely new prototype that it had built from scratch. (In December, it showed off the first fully functional prototype.) It looked rather like a cartoon car, but the real news was that there was no steering wheel, gas pedal or brake pedal -- no need for human controls when software and sensors are there to do the work.
Or not so fast. In August, California's Department of Motor Vehicles declared that Google's test vehicles will need those manual controls after all -- for safety's sake. The company agreed to comply with the state's rules, which went into effect in September, when it began testing the cars on private roads in October.
Regardless of who's making your future robo-car, the vehicle is going to have to be not just smart, but actually thoughtful. It's not enough for the car to know how far it is from nearby cars or what the road conditions are. The machine may well have to make no-win decisions, just as human drivers sometimes do in instantaneous, life-and-death emergencies. "The car is calculating a lot of consequences of its actions," Chris Gerdes, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, said at the Web Summit conference in Dublin, Ireland, in November. "Should it hit the person without a helmet? The larger car or the smaller car?"

Robots: Legging it out

So when do the robots finally become our overlords? Probably not in 2015, but there's sure to be more hand-wringing about both the machines and the artificial intelligence that could -- someday -- make them a match for homo sapiens. At the moment, the threat seems more mundane: when do we lose our jobs to a robot?
The inquisitive folks at Pew took that very topic to nearly 1,900 experts, including Vint Cerf, vice president at Google; Web guru Tim Bray; Justin Reich of Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society; and Jonathan Grudin, principal researcher at Microsoft. According to the resulting report, published in August, the group was almost evenly split -- 48 percent thought it likely that, by 2025, robots and digital agents will have displaced significant numbers of blue- and white-collar workers, perhaps even to the point of breakdowns in the social order, while 52 percent "have faith that human ingenuity will create new jobs, industries, and ways to make a living, just as it has been doing since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution."


Still, for all of the startling skills that robots have acquired so far, they're often not all there yet. Here's some of what we saw from the robot world in 2014:
Teamwork: Researchers at the École Polytechnique Fédérale De Lausanne in May showed off their "Roombots," cog-like robotic balls that can join forces to, say, help a table move across a room or change its height.
A sense of balance: We don't know if Boston Dynamics' humanoid Atlas is ready to trim bonsai trees, but it has learned this much from "The Karate Kid" (the original from the 1980s) -- it can stand on cinder blocks and hold its balance in a crane stance while moving its arms up and down.
Catlike jumps: MIT's cheetah-bot gets higher marks for locomotion. Fed a new algorithm, it can run across a lawn and bound like a cat. And quietly, too. "Our robot can be silent and as efficient as animals. The only things you hear are the feet hitting the ground," MIT's Sangbae Kim, a professor of mechanical engineering, told MIT News. "This is kind of a new paradigm where we're controlling force in a highly dynamic situation. Any legged robot should be able to do this in the future."
Sign language: Toshiba's humanoid Aiko Chihira communicated in Japanese sign language at the CEATEC show in October. Her rudimentary skills, limited for the moment to simple messages such as signed greetings, are expected to blossom by 2020 into areas such as speech synthesis and speech recognition.
Dance skills: Robotic pole dancers? Tobit Software brought a pair, controllable by an Android smartphone, to the Cebit trade show in Germany in March. More lifelike was the animatronic sculpture at a gallery in New York that same month -- but what was up with that witch mask?
Emotional ambition: Eventually, we'll all have humanoid companions -- at least, that's always been one school of thought on our robotic future. One early candidate for that honor could be Pepper, from Softbank and Aldebaran Robotics, which say the 4-foot-tall Pepper is the first robot to read emotions. This emo-bot is expected to go on sale in Japan in February.

Ray guns: Ship shape

Damn the photon torpedoes, and full speed ahead. That could be the motto for the US Navy, which in 2014 deployed a prototype laser weapon -- just one -- aboard a vessel in the Persian Gulf. Through some three months of testing, the device "locked on and destroyed the targets we designated with near-instantaneous lethality," Rear Adm. Matthew L. Klunder, chief of naval research, said in a statement. Those targets were rather modest -- small objects mounted aboard a speeding small boat, a diminutive Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle, and so on -- but the point was made: the laser weapon, operated by a controller like those used for video games, held up well, even in adverse conditions.

Artificial intelligence: Danger, Will Robinson?

What happens when robots and other smart machines can not only do, but also think? Will they appreciate us for all our quirky human high and low points, and learn to live with us? Or do they take a hard look at a species that's run its course and either turn us into natural resources, "Matrix"-style, or rain down destruction?
laser-weapon-system-on-uss-ponce.jpg
When the machines take over, will they be packing laser weapons like this one the US Navy just tried out? John F. Williams/US Navy
As we look ahead to the reboot of the "Terminator" film franchise in 2015, we can't help but recall some of the dire thoughts about artificial intelligence from two people high in the tech pantheon, the very busy Musk and the theoretically inclined Stephen Hawking.
Musk himself more than once in 2014 invoked the likes of the "Terminator" movies and the "scary outcomes" that make them such thrilling popcorn fare. Except that he sees a potentially scary reality evolving. In an interview with CNBC in June, he spoke of his investment in AI-minded companies like Vicarious and Deep Mind, saying: "I like to just keep an eye on what's going on with artificial intelligence. I think there is potentially a dangerous outcome."
He has put his anxieties into some particularly colorful phrases. In August, for instance, Musk tweeted that AI is "potentially more dangerous than nukes." And in October, he said this at a symposium at MIT: "With artificial intelligence, we are summoning the demon. ... You know all those stories where there's the guy with the pentagram and the holy water and he's like... yeah, he's sure he can control the demon, [but] it doesn't work out."
Musk has a kindred spirit in Stephen Hawking. The physicist allowed in May that AI could be the "biggest event in human history," and not necessarily in a good way. A month later, he was telling John Oliver, on HBO's "Last Week Tonight," that "artificial intelligence could be a real danger in the not too distant future." How so? "It could design improvements to itself and outsmart us all."
But Google's Eric Schmidt, is having none of that pessimism. At a summit on innovation in December, the executive chairman of the far-thinking tech titan -- which in October teamed up with Oxford University to speed up research on artificial intelligence -- said that while our worries may be natural, "they're also misguided."

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Richard Branson shelves submarine plan to take tourists to bottom of oceans




 


Excerpt from
independent.co.uk

It is one of the world’s last frontiers and has seen fewer human visitors than the moon. And that – for the time being at least – is how it shall stay.

Sir Richard Branson has shelved plans for a submarine to take tourists to the bottom of Pacific’s Mariana Trench, after technical problems hobbled the grand ambitions of his much-trumpeted Virgin Oceanic project.

The news is a second blow to Branson’s adventurer dreams in a matter of months, after a Virgin Galactic space rocket crashed on a test flight in California’s Mojave Desert, killing a pilot.
Virgin Oceanic’s DeepFlight Challenger was launched in 2011 with the entrepreneur’s familiar fanfare. Under the plans, wealthy passengers or “aquanauts” up would pay up to $500,000 (£318,126) for a five-dive package labelled as “the last great challenge for humans”.  

As well as exploring the Mariana Trench – a  36,000ft-deep abyss is deeper than Mount Everest is tall, with access so risky and complicated that it has had just three human visitors since its formation nine million years ago – the submarine was due to dive the Puerto Rico trench 28,000ft below the surface of  the Atlantic, the Molloy Deep in the Arctic, South Sandwich Trench in the Southern Ocean and Diamantina trench in the Indian Ocean.
But yesterday the Sunday Telegraph reported that Deepflight, the company contracted to build the submarine, could not support the project because their vehicle could only be safely used for one dive.
The underwater mission appears to have stalled indefinitely. The Virgin Oceanic website – which had promised “five dives, five oceans, two years, one epic adventure” – no longer exists, reportedly taken down earlier this year.

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Despite crash of Spaceship Two ~ Virgin Galactic will continue pursuing mission to fly tourists to space


csmonitor.com

By Bryan Cronan, Staff Writer

It's been two weeks since the fatal crash of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo. As authorities continue to investigate what caused the crash, Virgin Galactic says the accident will not hinder the company's plans to send tourists to space.

It has been two weeks since a Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo crashed in the Mojave Desert. The crash was a big strike against the company that is trying to create a commercial private space industry.

Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides told a crowd Thursday that the company will continue pursuing its mission to take tourists to space. He made the comments while speaking in Culver City, Calif., to a panel organized by the Rand Corporation.

“We have a new spaceship that’s going to be ready in a few months,” Mr. Whitesides said, according to The Los Angeles Times. “So we’re going to make sure we get that one as safe as we can and keep going.”

On Oct. 31, a SpaceShipTwo crashed during a test flight, killing one pilot and injuring another. The debris from the flight was strewn across 35 miles of the Mojave Desert. Whitesides said that was "a tragic day."

Virgin Galactic is the brainchild of British billionaire Richard Branson. He is planning to take tourists to space for $250,000 a piece. After the crash, there have been growing concerns about the companies safety practices. Twenty of the 700 people who have already paid for the trip have asked for a refund after the crash.

On Nov. 7, Peter Siebold, the pilot who survived the crash, told the National Transportation Safety Board what happened shortly before the crash. He said the ship began to break apart 50,000 feet in the air, according to Engadget. He unbuckled from his seat and a parachute automatically deployed. An investigation by the NTSB found that the SpaceShipTwo's feather re-entry system was a possible cause of the crash. The other pilot, Michael Alsbury, unlocked the system earlier than intended. The NTSB said it could be another year before the final conclusion about what caused the crash is known.

The SpaceShipTwo had only conducted a few dozen test flights. And the fatal flight was only the fourth time that the rocket engines fired. The ship was also using new fuel, which engineers thought would give the engines more thrust.

“There’s so many exciting things happening now in the world of space," he said. "There’s risk but there’s great reward. ... So I think being unafraid to try new things is important as we move forward.”

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Is a trip to the moon in the making?





Excerpt from bostonglobe.com

Decades after that first small step, space thinkers are finally getting serious about our nearest neighbor By Kevin Hartnett

This week, the European Space Agency made headlines with the first successful landing of a spacecraft on a comet, 317 million miles from Earth. It was an upbeat moment after two American crashes: the unmanned private rocket that exploded on its way to resupply the International Space Station, and the Virgin Galactic spaceplane that crashed in the Mojave Desert, killing a pilot and raising questions about whether individual businesses are up to the task of operating in space.  During this same period, there was one other piece of space news, one far less widely reported in the United States: On Nov. 1, China successfully returned a moon probe to Earth. That mission follows China’s landing of the Yutu moon rover late last year, and its announcement that it will conduct a sample-return mission to the moon in 2017.  With NASA and the Europeans focused on robot exploration of distant targets, a moon landing might not seem like a big deal: We’ve been there, and other countries are just catching up. But in recent years, interest in the moon has begun to percolate again, both in the United States and abroad—and it’s catalyzing a surprisingly diverse set of plans for how our nearby satellite will contribute to our space future.  China, India, and Japan have all completed lunar missions in the last decade, and have more in mind. Both China and Japan want to build unmanned bases in the early part of the next decade as a prelude to returning a human to the moon. In the United States, meanwhile, entrepreneurs are hatching plans for lunar commerce; one company even promises to ferry freight for paying customers to the moon as early as next year. Scientists are hatching more far-out ideas to mine hydrogen from the poles and build colonies deep in sky-lit lunar caves.  This rush of activity has been spurred in part by the Google Lunar X Prize, a $20 million award, expiring in 2015, for the first private team to land a working rover on the moon and prove it by sending back video. It is also driven by a certain understanding: If we really want to launch expeditions deeper into space, our first goal should be to travel safely to the moon—and maybe even figure out how to live there.
Entrepreneurial visions of opening the moon to commerce can seem fanciful, especially in light of the Virgin Galactic and Orbital Sciences crashes, which remind us how far we are from having a truly functional space economy. They also face an uncertain legal environment—in a sense, space belongs to everyone and to no one—whose boundaries will be tested as soon as missions start to succeed. Still, as these plans take shape, they’re a reminder that leaping blindly is sometimes a necessary step in opening any new frontier.
“All I can say is if lunar commerce is foolish,” said Columbia University astrophysicist Arlin Crotts in an e-mail, “there are a lot of industrious and dedicated fools out there!”

At its height, the Apollo program accounted for more than 4 percent of the federal budget. Today, with a mothballed shuttle and a downscaled space station, it can seem almost imaginary that humans actually walked on the moon and came back—and that we did it in the age of adding machines and rotary phones.

“In five years, we jumped into the middle of the 21st century,” says Roger Handberg, a political scientist who studies space policy at the University of Central Florida, speaking of the Apollo program. “No one thought that 40 years later we’d be in a situation where the International Space Station is the height of our ambition.”

An image of Earth and the moon created from photos by Mariner 10, launched in 1973.
NASA/JPL/Northwestern University
An image of Earth and the moon created from photos by Mariner 10, launched in 1973.
Without a clear goal and a geopolitical rivalry to drive it, the space program had to compete with a lot of other national priorities. The dramatic moon shot became an outlier in the longer, slower story of building scientific achievements.

Now, as those achievements accumulate, the moon is coming back into the picture. For a variety of reasons, it’s pretty much guaranteed to play a central role in any meaningful excursions we take into space. It’s the nearest planetary body to our own—238,900 miles away, which the Apollo voyages covered in three days. It has low gravity, which makes it relatively easy to get onto and off of the lunar surface, and it has no atmosphere, which allows telescopes a clearer view into deep space.
The moon itself also still holds some scientific mysteries. A 2007 report on the future of lunar exploration from the National Academies called the moon a place of “profound scientific value,” pointing out that it’s a unique place to study how planets formed, including ours. The surface of the moon is incredibly stable—no tectonic plates, no active volcanoes, no wind, no rain—which means that the loose rock, or regolith, on the moon’s surface looks the way the surface of the earth might have looked billions of years ago.

NASA still launches regular orbital missions to the moon, but its focus is on more distant points. (In a 2010 speech, President Obama brushed off the moon, saying, “We’ve been there before.”) For emerging space powers, though, the moon is still the trophy destination that it was for the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1960s. In 2008 an Indian probe relayed the best evidence yet that there’s water on the moon, locked in ice deep in craters at the lunar poles. China landed a rover on the surface of the moon in December 2013, though it soon malfunctioned. Despite that setback, China plans a sample-return mission in 2017, which would be the first since a Soviet capsule brought back 6 ounces of lunar soil in 1976.

The moon has also drawn the attention of space-minded entrepreneurs. One of the most obvious opportunities is to deliver scientific instruments for government agencies and universities. This is an attractive, ready clientele in theory, explains Paul Spudis, a scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, though there’s a hitch: “The basic problem with that as a market,” he says, “is scientists never have money of their own.”

One company aspiring to the delivery role is Astrobotic, a startup of young Carnegie Mellon engineers based in Pittsburgh, which is currently positioning itself to be “FedEx to the moon,” says John Thornton, the company’s CEO. Astrobotic has signed a contract with SpaceX, the commercial space firm founded by Elon Musk, to use a Falcon 9 for an inaugural delivery trip in 2015, just in time to claim the Google Lunar X Prize. Thornton says most of the technology is in place for the mission, and that the biggest remaining hurdle is figuring out how to engineer a soft, automated moon landing.

Astrobotic is charging $1.2 million per kilogram—you can, in fact, place an order on its website—and Thornton says the company has five customers so far. They include the entities you might expect, like NASA, but also less obvious ones, like a company that wants to deliver human ashes for permanent internment and a Japanese soft drink manufacturer that wants to place its signature beverage, Pocari Sweat, on the moon as a publicity stunt. Astrobotic is joined in this small sci-fi economy by Moon Express out of Mountain View, Calif., another company competing for the Google Lunar X Prize.
Plans like these are the low-hanging fruit of the lunar economy, the easiest ideas to imagine and execute. Longer-scale thinkers are envisioning ways that the moon will play a larger role in human affairs—and that, says Crotts, is where “serious resource exploitation” comes in.
If this triggers fears of a mined-out moon, be reassured: “Apollo went there and found nothing we wanted. Had we found anything we really wanted, we would have gone back and there would have been a new gold rush,” says Roger Launius, the former chief historian of NASA and now a curator at the National Air and Space Museum.

There is one possible exception: helium-3, an isotope used in nuclear fusion research. It is rare on Earth but thought to be abundant on the surface of the moon, which could make the moon an important energy source if we ever figure out how to harness fusion energy. More immediately intriguing is the billion tons of water ice the scientific community increasingly believes is stored at the poles. If it’s there, that opens the possibility of sustained lunar settlement—the water could be consumed as a liquid, or split into oxygen for breathing and hydrogen for fuel.

The presence of water could also open a potentially ripe market providing services to the multibillion dollar geosynchronous satellite industry. “We lose billions of dollars a year of geosynchronous satellites because they drift out of orbit,” says Crotts. In a new book, “The New Moon: Water, Exploration, and Future Habitation,” he outlines plans for what he calls a “cislunar tug”: a space tugboat of sorts that would commute between the moon and orbiting satellites, resupplying them with propellant, derived from the hydrogen in water, and nudging them back into the correct orbital position.

In the long term, the truly irreplaceable value of the moon may lie elsewhere, as a staging area for expeditions deeper into space. The most expensive and dangerous part of space travel is lifting cargo out of and back into the Earth’s atmosphere, and some people imagine cutting out those steps by establishing a permanent base on the moon. In this scenario, we’d build lunar colonies deep in natural caves in order to escape the micrometeorites and toxic doses of solar radiation that bombard the moon, all the while preparing for trips to more distant points.
gical hurdles is long, and there’s also a legal one, at least where commerce is concerned. The moon falls under the purview of the Outer Space Treaty, which the United States signed in 1967, and which prohibits countries from claiming any territory on the moon—or anywhere else in space—as their own.
“It is totally unclear whether a private sector entity can extract resources from the moon and gain title or property rights to it,” says Joanne Gabrynowicz, an expert on space law and currently a visiting professor at Beijing Institute of Technology School of Law. She adds that a later document, the 1979 Moon Treaty, which the United States has not signed, anticipates mining on the moon, but leaves open the question of how property rights would be determined.

There are lots of reasons the moon may never realize its potential to mint the world’s first trillionaires, as some space enthusiasts have predicted. But to the most dedicated space entrepreneurs, the economic and legal arguments reflect short-sighted thinking. They point out that when European explorers set sail in the 15th and 16th centuries, they assumed they’d find a fortune in gold waiting for them on the other side of the Atlantic. The real prizes ended up being very different—and slow to materialize.
“When we settled the New World, we didn’t bring a whole lot back to Europe [at first],” Thornton says. “You have to create infrastructure to enable that kind of transfer of goods.” He believes that in the case of the moon, we’ll figure out how to do that eventually.
Roger Handberg is as clear-eyed as anyone about the reasons why the moon may never become more than an object of wonder, but he also understands why we can’t turn away from it completely. That challenge, in the end, may finally be what lures us back.

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Crashed spaceship pilot unaware co-pilot unlocked brake







Excerpt from AP-LOS ANGELES — The pilot of the Virgin Galactic spaceship that tore apart over the Mojave Desert didn’t know his co-pilot had prematurely unlocked its brakes, though protocol for the test flight required the co-pilot to announce the step, federal investigators said Wednesday.

Pilot Peter Siebold told the National Transportation Safety Board that he was not aware co-pilot Mike Alsbury had pulled a brake-unlocking lever before the rocket designed one day to fly tourists to the edge of space was done accelerating. Seconds later, SpaceShipTwo began to disintegrate over Southern California.

Protocol for the flight was to announce the unlocking, an agency spokesman said.

It is not clear if Siebold didn’t hear Alsbury or the co-pilot never indicated he was taking the action. The safety board plans to analyze flight audio next week, spokesman Eric Weiss said.
Virgin Galactic and said it could not comment on the investigation and referred questions to the NTSB. Siebold has not spoken publicly.

Pilots and co-pilots typically agree in advance before making important decisions, said Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former space shuttle astronaut who now consults on commercial space flight. One method is a “challenge and response” system in which one voices an intended action and the other confirms it before the action is taken.

Lopez-Alegria said he did not know whether the unlocking of SpaceShipTwo’s brakes was considered critical enough to require agreement, but “you would never take that action on your own.” He noted that in the cockpit of a commercial airliner, the pilot and co-pilot call out and confirm an action as routine as raising the wheels after takeoff.

The Oct. 31 crash about 120 miles north of downtown Los Angeles killed Alsbury, injured Siebold and cast a shadow over the immediate future of space tourism. It could take a year for the NTSB to determine the cause, though Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said last week the company wants to resume test flights as early as next summer with a replacement craft.

The eventual goal is to launch spaceships carrying six passengers from a spaceport in New Mexico. For their $250,000 ticket, passengers would get a fleeting feeling of weightlessness and a spectacular view of Earth from about 62 miles up.

Pilot Siebold was hospitalized after the crash, but when he spoke to investigators Friday he had been discharged.

He told them that he was flung from the vehicle when it disintegrated. He said he unbuckled from his seat at some point during his fall that began miles above Earth, and his parachute deployed automatically.

Investigators have not revealed the exact altitude of the breakup, but previous SpaceShipTwo test flights peaked at about 10 miles, much lower than the height expected for commercial flights.

Co-pilot Alsbury could be seen on inflight video unlocking the system before the vehicle had reached Mach 1.0, Hart has said. The feathers aren’t supposed to be unlocked until the craft reaches Mach 1.4, or more than 1,000 mph. At that point, it would have reached an altitude where the thinner air would not have provided so much violent resistance.

Even after Alsbury unlocked them, the feathers were not supposed to move. For that to happen, the crew would pull a second lever. The crew didn’t take the second step, but the system engaged anyway. Two or three seconds later, the craft began to break apart.

The NTSB has said the feathers could have deployed because of aerodynamic forces on the craft. The agency said Wednesday that it is looking at those forces and reviewing safety documentation and the feather system’s design.
___
Associated Press writers Brian Melley and John Antczak contributed to this report.

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Images Released of the Virgin Galactic Spaceship Breaking Apart in Mid-Air ~ Survivor Peter Siebold tells his story


The Virgin Galactic Two Spaceship

news.com.au

THE pilot who miraculously survived the Virgin spaceship disaster has revealed how he was blasted from the wreckage of the disintegrating rocket ship and plummeted nearly ten miles back to Earth. 

Having suffered serious injuries, the experienced test pilot only regained consciousness halfway into his fall but was composed enough to give a thumbs-up to colleagues in a passing aircraft to show he was alive.

Peter Siebold spoke for the first time about the tragedy that killed his close friend, copilot Mike Alsbury, revealing he blacked out as the craft broke up around him at 50,000ft but was saved by his emergency parachute.

Siebold, 43, a married father of two, said: “I must have lost consciousness at first. I can’t remember anything about what happened but I must have come to during the fall. I remember waving to the chase plane and giving them the thumbs-up to tell them I was OK. I know it’s a miracle I survived.”


Perished ... Mike Alsbury was a close friend and colleague of Peter Siebold.
Perished ... Mike Alsbury was a close friend and colleague of Peter Siebold. Source: AP

Survivor ... Peter Siebold can’t remember much of what happened that day. 
Survivor ... Peter Siebold can’t remember much of what happened that day.  Source: AP


Explosion ... These three images show the space craft’s demise.
Explosion ... These three images show the space craft’s demise. Source: AP
The craft’s rocket was ignited at 50,000ft (15.24km). The pilots, wearing oxygen masks, were pinned against their seats by gravitational forces as the craft accelerated at more than 1500km/h.
Then disaster occurred. Preliminary investigations suggest that the rocket ship’s folding wings — designed to slow it down and achieve safe speeds during landing — deployed early, causing the ship to break up due to the tremendous turbulence around the craft.

Alsbury was trapped in the cockpit but Siebold was thrown clear of the wreckage or somehow unbuckled his seatbelt. He then plunged towards Earth at speeds topping 193km/h. Witnesses reported seeing Siebold descending with part of the base of his seat still attached. It is likely that his oxygen mask, attached to a portable tank, remained in place. But at that altitude, the sudden decompression and extreme G-forces would have caused him to black out in seconds.

His emergency parachute deployed t about 20,000ft. It is not known if he pulled the cord or if it unfurled automatically. Both pilots were wearing parachutes calibrated to open automatically at a certain height in the event they became unconscious during an emergency.

Incredible ... Siebold has no idea how he managed to exit the space ship, given it has no
Incredible ... Siebold has no idea how he managed to exit the space ship, given it has no ejection seat. Source: AFP

The body of Alsbury, 39, was found still strapped into his seat on a desert road by construction workers. His parachute did not deploy. His wife Michelle said she had “lost the love of my life”.


Mike, second from right, was a friend and neighbour of Siebold.
Mike, second from right, was a friend and neighbour of Siebold. Source: Supplied

Big sky dreaming ... Sir Richard Branson vowed to become an astronaut by the end of the y
Big sky dreaming ... Sir Richard Branson vowed to become an astronaut by the end of the year. Source: AP

The investigation into this month’s crash is now likely to delay any commercial flight for at least another year. But Branson has vowed to press ahead with the project, while acknowledging the risks taken by his test pilots. Last night, Mr Whitesides paid tribute to Siebold, saying: “It will be regarded as one of the most amazing test flight survival stories of all time.”
Additional reporting by Peter Sheridan

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Richard Branson Promises His Family Will Be First Galactic Spaceship Customers

Space adventure for the people, albeit very wealthy people, pioneer Richard Branson is not about to back down from his space tourism program. Photo AAPRichard Branson, putting his money where his mouth is, or at least the welfare of his family and hi...

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Pilot mystery at heart of Virgin Galactic spaceship crash probe


Sheriffs' deputies look at wreckage from the crash of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo near Cantil, California November 2, 2014.  REUTERS-David McNew
Sheriffs' deputies look at wreckage from the crash of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo near Cantil, California November 2, 2014.



(Reuters) - The probe of Virgin Galactic’s space plane crash in California hinges on a central mystery: Why a seasoned test pilot would prematurely unlock the craft's moveable tail section, setting off a chain of events that led to destruction of the ship and his death.
The National Transportation Safety Board was expected this week to complete its initial field investigation into Friday's ill-fated test flight of SpaceShipTwo, a rocket-powered vehicle built to take paying passengers for rides into space.
The ship broke apart at an altitude of about 50,000 feet (15,000 meters) and crashed in the Mojave Desert, 95 miles (150 km) north of Los Angeles, moments after its separation from the special jet aircraft that carries the spacecraft aloft for its high-altitude launches.
The pilot, Pete Siebold, 43, survived the crash, parachuting to the ground with a shoulder injury. The co-pilot, Mike Alsbury, 39, was killed.
NTSB officials have said it was Alsbury, flying for the ninth time aboard SpaceShipTwo, who unlocked the tail section, designed to pivot upward during atmospheric re-entry to ease descent of the craft.
Alsbury was supposed to have waited until the ship was traveling at 1.4 times the speed of sound, fast enough for aerodynamic forces to hold the tail in place until time to actually move it into descent position, sources familiar with the spacecraft's operation told Reuters.
Instead, for reasons unknown, he released the locking mechanism roughly 9 seconds into a planned 20-second firing of the space plane's rocket engine, while the ship was moving at about Mach 1, the speed of sound, the sources said.
The result was disastrous. About 4 seconds after the tail was unlocked, it began to swivel out, and the vehicle was ripped apart, scattering debris over a 5-mile (8-km) swath of desert northeast of the Mojave Air and Space Port.
A second command to deliberately move the tail upward after unlocking it was never given.
The tail's so-called “feathering” system, developed and patented by aircraft designer Burt Rutan, is designed to increase the vehicle’s surface area and slow down the ship so it can fly like a badminton shuttlecock as it safely re-enters Earth’s atmosphere from space.
SpaceShipTwo’s feather mechanism had been operated extensively in previous atmospheric test flights, including two rocket-powered runs, officials said.
The NTSB expects it will take up to a year to piece together exactly what triggered the accident and recommend changes to equipment, procedures, operations and other factors that may have caused or contributed to the crash, safety board Chairman Christopher Hart said.
Initial interviews, collection of debris from the crash site and preliminary examination of evidence were expected to be wrapped up by the end of the week.
A human-factors expert joined the investigation team on Monday to look at cockpit displays, checklist design, training and other pilot operational issues. Siebold, the surviving pilot, had not yet been interviewed due to medical concerns, Hart said on Monday.
NTSB’s preliminary accident investigation report was expected in about 10 days.
(Reporting and writing by Irene Klotz; Editing by Steve Gorman and Mohammad Zargham)

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Richard Branson: We owe it to test pilot to continue Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo

Excerpt from smh.com.auThe Tony Blair grin was gone but Richard Branson was unbowed by disaster when he appeared on American breakfast television on Monday morning. He vowed his program to hurl paying customers into the...

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Safety Board Cites Improper Pilot Command in Virgin Galactic Crash



Excerpt from

wsj.com By Andy Pasztor


Accident Sets Back Ambitious Timetables for Space Tourism and Other Commercial Ventures.

MOJAVE, Calif.—An improper co-pilot command preceded Friday’s in-flight breakup of Virgin Galactic LLC’s rocket, according to investigators, when movable tail surfaces deployed prematurely.

Two seconds after the surfaces moved—with SpaceShip Two traveling faster than the speed of sound—“we saw disintegration” of the 60-foot-long experimental craft, according to Christopher Hart, acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
The co-pilot died in the accident, and the other pilot was severely injured.

The sequence of events released by the NTSB indicates that the rocket ship separated normally from its carrier and the propulsion system worked normally until the tail surfaces, called feathers, deployed.

The disaster, coupled with the explosion earlier last week of an unmanned Orbital Sciences Corp. cargo rocket destined for the international space station, has set back the ambitious timetables embraced by space-tourism proponents and other commercial ventures seeking to get beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Some in the industry predict difficulties obtaining additional private-equity funding for startup ventures, while others worry about nagging propulsion problems and public confidence. 

“Recent events bring home the reality that we’re in a very dangerous phase” of pursuing space activities relying on the private sector, said Howard McCurdy, a space history expert at American University. Launching rockets and vehicles “is always a very risky business,” he said, and no amount of ground tests “can duplicate the aerodynamic stresses and other conditions” of actual space flight.

Virgin Galactic had initially hoped to start commercial service by 2008, but persistent development and testing challenges have repeatedly pushed back the date. Before the accident, company officials were talking about inaugurating service by early 2015, with company founder Sir Richard Branson and members of his family slated to take the first ride. Now, the initial launch date is uncertain because the probe is likely to stretch for many months.

How much the fledgling industry is set back may depend on what investigators determine caused the two accidents. Some industry officials and analysts predict that Virgin Galactic’s fatal mishap may have a long-term residual impact as dramatic as the fallout from the 2003 in-flight breakup of the space shuttle Columbia, which killed all seven crew members. 

“It’s clearly bad news for commercial space,” said one veteran industry official affiliated with another commercial space company. “But from the beginning, people recognized a fatal event on some spacecraft was inevitable.” 

Earlier Sunday, George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic’s chief executive, defended the company’s safety procedures and indicated that the rocket motor on the craft that crashed was a derivative of a design that had been successfully tested on the ground and in the air for years.

“At the end of the day, safety of our system is paramount,” he said in an interview. “The engineers and the flight-test team have the final authority” to determine when and how experimental flights are conducted.

Virgin Galactic has pledged to cooperate fully with the probe, which also includes experts from the Federal Aviation Administration and Scaled Composites, a Northrop Grumman Corp. unit that designed and is testing the Virgin crafts—SpaceShip Two and its carrier aircraft, dubbed WhiteKnight Two. The pilots on Friday’s test flight were Scaled Composites employees.

Mr. Whitesides, a former senior NASA official, is in charge of the roughly $500 million project intended to take passengers on suborbital flights for more than $200,000 each. He said last week’s test flight wasn’t rushed. “I strongly reject any assertion that something pushed us to fly when we weren’t ready,” he said.

SpaceShip Two’s fuel tanks and engine were recovered largely intact. The hybrid motor fueled by nitrous oxide and a plastic-based compound was found some 5 miles from where large sections of the tail first hit the ground. Sections of the fuselage, fuel tanks and cockpit were located some distance from the engine itself.

The condition and location of various pieces of the wreckage suggest there was no propulsion-system explosion before the craft started coming apart miles above California’s Mojave Desert, according to air-safety experts who have reviewed the images.

“It’s hard to figure how an engine explosion” could produce such a debris field, said John Cox, an industry consultant and former accident investigator for the Air Line Pilots Association.

The rocket ship was equipped with six onboard video cameras and many sensors feeding data to the ground. The flight also was followed by radar, and was filmed from the ground and by a plane flying close by.

SpaceShip Two’s rocket motor received considerable attention immediately after the accident. Industry officials and news reports concentrated on the fact that it was burning a new type of plastic-based fuel for the first time in flight.

The new engine-fuel combination was tested on the ground about a dozen times in the months leading up to Friday’s flight.

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