|Google co-founder Sergey
Brin has his eye on space.
Google co-founder Sergey Brin has put down $5 million toward a flight to the international space station with the company that has sent millionaires and even a billionaire into orbit.
Virginia-based Space Adventures announced the identity of the future space traveler as well as its vision for the next decade of space tourism at a New York news conference today.
As part of the deal, Brin paid a $5 million deposit to Space Adventures, which would secure him a spot on the future Russian Soyuz flight to the station. The price tag for such a trip has run from $20 million (or less) to $35 million (or more). Thus, if Brin goes through with the purchase, he'll be paying millions more in the years to come.
Space Adventures' co-founder and chief executive officer, Eric Anderson, said Brin could choose to fly as early as three years from now, or 2011.
He said Brin would be the first of six founding members of an "Orbital Mission Explorers Circle" who would be granted access to future flights in return for the $5 million deposit. In a follow-up phone call, Anderson told me that another would-be space traveler - whom he would not name - contacted him just minutes after today's news conference. "I spoke to the person, who just signed up for the No. 2 spot," he said.
The company reached an agreement last month with Russia's space agency to purchase a Soyuz flight exclusively for its own purposes in 2011, and that would be the first opportunity for members of the Explorers Circle to fly, Anderson said. Two spots on that flight would be available for paying passengers, with a professional Russian cosmonaut in the driver's seat.
Space Adventures' arrangement for the 2011 flight is different from how the company has handled its other multimillion-dollar trips - which involved tagging along on a regularly scheduled "taxi flight" to the station. "We will be the first company to undertake a private mission to the international space station," Anderson said.
The 34-year-old Brin, who founded Google along with Stanford schoolmate Larry Page a decade ago, was the moving force behind his company's sponsorship of the $30 million Google Lunar X Prize. That competition would reward the first teams to put a privately funded probe on the moon.
Brin and Page have long been fans of the space effort.
"I am a big believer in the exploration and commercial development of the space frontier, and am looking forward to the possibility of going into space," Space Adventures quoted Brin as saying. "Space Adventures helped open the space frontier to private citizens and thus pave the way for the personal spaceflight industry. The Orbital Mission Explorers Circle enables me to make an immediate investment while preserving the option to participate in a future spaceflight."
If he goes through with the flight, Brin could become the richest human to go into space. He ranks as the fifth-richest American on Forbes magazine's 2007 list, with an estimated net worth of $18.5 billion.
Looking back, looking ahead
Space Adventures used today's news briefing as an occasion to celebrate its 10th anniversary in the space tourism business - and look ahead to the next 10 years.
The company reached orbit in 2001 when it brokered the precedent-setting spaceflight of Dennis Tito, a California-based investment adviser whose trip to the international space station shook up NASA officials. After Tito's trip, the space agency was more accepting of Russia's millionaire spaceflight participants, all of whom were Space Adventures clients:
Its sixth orbital client, video-game guru Richard Garriott, is due to fly to the station in October. Garriott will become the first son of a NASA astronaut (Owen Garriott) to go into space himself.
Space Adventures also has a seat reserved on a Soyuz flight scheduled for next April, and Anderson said the customer for that seat would be named later this year.
As Space Adventures' orbital successes have piled up, the company has raised its sights: In 2005, the company announced that it would offer trips around the moon, at a cost of $100 million a ticket, and in 2006 it listed a $15 million spacewalk option for its clients.
Garriott told reporters that he had been working on plans to do a spacewalk during his October trip, but "unfortunately, those have not manifested." As for the moon trips, the company hopes to fly at least one customer sometime in the next five years, said Peter Diamandis, who is a co-founder of Space Adventures as well as the founder of Zero Gravity Corp. and the chairman of the X Prize Foundation.
Although Space Adventures started out as a space tourism company, it's turned into something much more, Anderson said. "Space tourism isn't really the right word for what we do. ... This is private space exploration," he said.
The company has had its hands in suborbital and zero-gravity flight as well as orbital adventures: Just in the past couple of years, Space Adventures announced deals with the Russians to build a suborbital passenger spaceship, as well as deals with Singaporean investors and Arab sheiks to build future international spaceports.
Anderson declined to discuss how much progress has been made on the spaceship development effort, although the Russians have acknowledged that they're working on a 16-person suborbital craft. Diamandis said that Space Adventures' international expansion plans would begin with zero-gravity airplane flights in Europe, the Persian Gulf states and Asia, most likely in cooperation with partners. Actual spaceport development would come later, he said.
Space Adventures' most recent milestone came this year when it completed its acquisition of Diamandis' Zero Gravity Corp., which has emerged as the biggest commercial provider of weightlessness flights. Zero Gravity made a splash last year - and opened a new frontier for adventurers with disabilities - when it gave world-famous physicist Stephen Hawking a generous taste of zero-G.
Someday, Hawking hopes to take an even more ambitious ride on a suborbital spaceship - most likely Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, backed by British billionaire Richard Branson. That hints at the challenges Space Adventures may encounter if the personal spaceflight revolution takes off the way the company's founders hope.
Questions for the future
Virgin Galactic has the edge in the race to offer suborbital space tourism, due to Branson's billions as well as the track record of SpaceShipTwo's design team. The list of competitors includes other companies headed by billionaires or millionaires, such as Blue Origin, Bigelow Aerospace, Armadillo Aerospace, SpaceX and PlanetSpace. Will those deep-pocketed companies give Space Adventures a run for its money - or will they end up being partners?
"We will choose to partner with one of them" sometime in the next couple of years, once suborbital spaceflights become a commercial reality, Diamandis said.
Anderson said the quoted price for a suborbital flight was about $100,000 - the same as it has been for nearly a decade. He wouldn't entirely rule out adjusting that price upward when suborbital service actually starts, but he said "we've not changed it because I do believe that's the right price point."
To date, Space Adventures' orbital business has been the most lucrative part of the operation. But that business has depended on the Russians' sale of surplus seats on their Soyuz craft heading to the international space station. If the space shuttle fleet is retired as scheduled in 2010, the requirements for transporting crew members to and from the station could wipe out that surplus.
The arrangement announced today indicates that Space Adventures might find itself bidding against NASA (or other space agencies) for future seats on the Russian Soyuz craft. What will that do to the company's business model - and its currently cordial relationship with NASA?
If the Russians can ramp up production to deliver five Soyuz craft a year, that would probably accommodate NASA's requirements as well as Space Adventures' needs, NBC News space analyst James Oberg told me. But the last two Soyuz descents from the space station have been rockier than expected, and space officials are looking into whether the increased production has led to lapses in quality control.
"My concern is that the Russians are right now struggling to double the production rate, from two to four Soyuzes a year," Oberg said. "If the indications hold that these problems are fabrication oversights, then the idea of producing even four Soyuzes a year is problematic. On the other hand, it's a problem that must be solved. A paying customer has the clout to demand a solution — and to get more insight into the problems."
In response, Anderson said the Soyuz and the Russians have had a good safety record going back many years. "When you add it all together, I don't think this is anything that's really going to put a strain on them," he told me.
There's yet another cloudy scenario for the decade ahead: Suppose the economy takes a downturn, or suppose the space effort suffers another setback. Will the multimillion-dollar demand for space adventures hold up? Or will the grand visions laid out today by Space Adventures turn out to be as insubstantial as the visions laid out by Rotary Rocket in 1998, and MirCorp in 2000?
Fasten your seatbelts: To paraphrase Bette Davis in the movie "All About Eve," it's going to be a bumpy night ... or a bumpy decade.
Update for 3:40 p.m. ET June 11: Much has been made elsewhere about Space Adventures' plan to purchase an entire Soyuz mission - that is, two seats for paying passengers with a professional cosmonaut in the driver's seat. This isn't the first time that the "private mission" concept has come up, however. The company floated the idea five years ago, as noted in this archived story from 2003.
Update for 3:30 p.m. ET June 12: Russia's Itar-Tass news service quotes Russian space chief Anatoly Perminov as saying he has "no information" about plans to send Brin to the space station. Perminov also told Itar-Tass that there were no plans to send space tourists to the station after the yet-to-be-scheduled trips of two Kazakh cosmonauts.
Representatives of the space agencies supporting the station are to meet next month and decide when the station's long-term crew will go from three to six, Perminov said. That will increase the demand for Soyuz seats. "There is simply no room for space tourists," he was quoted as saying. "Space tourism will be suspended."
When I asked Anderson about this, he noted that Brin hasn't yet made a commitment for a specific space trip, so his name has not been passed along formally to the Russians. As for the remark about "no room for space tourists," Anderson said that comment should be interpreted in the context of Russia's plan to provide four Soyuzes a year for transferring space station crews.
Space Adventures' purchase of a Soyuz mission would be in addition to the crew transfer missions, he noted.
"This is nothing new," Anderson told me. "It's a discussion of the additional difficulty of providing spaceflight participant seats if the crew goes to six with only four Soyuzes."
NASA / ESA / STScI / AURA
The galaxy IC 4040 dominates the stage in this detail taken from Hubble's
view of the Coma Cluster. Click on the image for a zoomable version.
If galaxies are your thing, you simply have to zoom in on the Hubble Space Telescope's latest picture of the Coma Cluster, one of the densest collections of galaxies found to date.
The image, released today as part of the Hubble Heritage program, was assembled from data gathered by Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys in late 2006 and early 2007.
The entire cluster encompasses a spherical shape more than 20 million light-years in diameter, more than 300 million light-years from Earth in the northern constellation Coma Berenices. Hubble's mega-view takes in a scene several million light-years across, about a third of the way out from the cluster's center.
Hundreds of galaxies can be seen in the full-resolution view, which you can peruse as a zoomable HD View image. When you get to the HD View version, you can tweak the tone by clicking on a button in the upper right corner of the image.
If you don't want to go the HD View route, you can still feast your eyes on the HubbleSite's zoomable image. But we hope you'll find HD View to be a cool way of experiencing space imagery, not only from Hubble but also from the Earth-observing Landsat 7 satellite.
The star of the Coma Cluster show is the spiral galaxy highlighted in the detail image you see above, designated IC 4040. The configuration of the spiral's dusty arms suggest that the galaxy has been disturbed in the past, the Hubble Heritage team says in today's image advisory.
Below IC 4040 and a little bit to the left is a lenticular galaxy known as RB67 110. If you look closely in the zoomable view, you'll see a tiny spiral galaxy just to the right. This labeled image from the Hubble team provides a guide. To put Hubble's view in its proper context, you can peruse this Digital Sky Survey image of the full cluster, or click on this zoom-in video from the European Space Agency.
Most of the galaxies in the picture (and in the full cluster) are elliptical galaxies, relatively featureless "fuzzballs" that tend to be on the older side of the scale. Astronomers believe ellipticals result from galactic collisions, such as the one that's expected when the Andromeda Galaxy runs into our own Milky Way billions of years from now.
If galaxies are your thing, you don't need to stop with the Coma Cluster: You can also check out the galactic collisions recently documented by Hubble - and click through our collection of the greatest hits from the cosmos.
Update for 1:20 a.m. ET June 11: I should add that the HubbleSite has lots of other zoomable images to enjoy. You can find them using a Google search or Live Search. (Live Search is powered by Microsoft, which is a partner in the msnbc.com joint venture. HD View was developed by Microsoft Research.) To learn more about zoom tools, check out the Zoomify Web site.
When gasoline prices crossed the $4-a-gallon milestone, that got a lot of people thinking about ways to reduce transportation costs. Many are taking a second look at pedal power and mass transit. Others are looking at energy technologies that offer alternatives to fossil fuels. Longtime Cosmic Log correspondent Christopher Eldridge takes a totally different view: Instead of figuring out cheaper ways to travel, how about figuring out cheaper ways not to travel?
Eldridge has been working on that challenge for years, and he sees communal living as the ultimate answer. He's into the sixth edition of his book on the subject, titled "Conceptual Communal Home Design," and he sent along this message as food for thought:
"Sure, hybrid cars and wind generators are great, but wouldn't it be so much better if, instead of jumping into our cars and driving to work in the morning, we could just roll out of bed and work 'productively' right from our own homes? Living efficiently and self-sufficiently on a very local level like this is not only good for the environment and for our personal time, it would be the absolute key to surviving nearly any type of disaster, pandemic, economic collapse, or energy crisis we can think of.
"Being able to work right from home is absolutely the best possible method of saving energy because so much less travel would be needed. Imagine, if you will, building much more robust homes with features like:
- 2,000 square feet of sub-industrial-scale wood and metal working shops able to cast our own engine block or farm implements from scratch.
- 1,000 square feet of office space for a myriad of private practices and small stores.
- Dual 12-person craft rooms for sewing and pottery.
- Our own automotive repair bays.
- Exterior camping/hiking/biking/gardening support facilities.
- Commercial computer and multi-line phone systems.
- Garage bays big enough for and able to support large carpenter/plumber/electrician-type work trucks with all their equipment.
- Rooftop hydroponic gardens able to provide every resident in the home with 70-plus square feet of 24/7/365 vegetable growing surface.
- A martial arts school/gymnasium right in our own home.
"With such facilities in our homes, we can endure almost anything and save far more energy that we do, right? Although such elaborate facilities and features aren't possible in an ordinary home, they are indeed possible when we combine our resources and skills in a true, purpose-built communal facility.
"Communal homes gain the advantage of a fundamental principle known as the economy of scale. By sharing kitchen, dining, bathroom and utility space (which are ordinarily only used about 5 percent of the time for the purpose they are intended) we gain the advantage of having more resources available for offices, shops and work rooms. By sharing a small fleet of standardized minivans we can accomplish our travels with far fewer vehicles.
"By using a multi-story commercial-quality home design (easily affordable with just the savings realized on travel and vehicle expense, and on day-care costs) we can also create a facility with an 85 percent lower footprint (saving land) and with 70 percent less surface area exposed to the cold of winter or the heat of summer to save on electicity, building materials and repair expenses.
"Most importantly, we aren't just talking about the communes of old... but super high-tech facilities where individual privacy is paramount. Such homes would have segregated living areas, and master bedroom suites with full entertainment centers, personal computers, ample storage space for adults and a double-door privacy entrance. There'd be wider hallways, soundproof materials within the walls and floors, and top-quality appliances to meet or exceed expected demands. Bathrooms would be divided into separate shower rooms and half baths, game room/sports bars would be added along with libraries and craft rooms. Even things like a multiuse racquetball court, or a 46-seat movie theater, or conference centers, or an emergency-bed down area for disaster victims are entirely possible and would help to offset any perceived lack of privacy.
"Are you getting the idea? So much more is possible in the home for us to enjoy and yet at much less cost to the environment.
"Given the ever-present and seemingly growing potential for super-disasters, such homes and their ability to provide for most of our needs in times of crisis would also lend a greater degree of stability to our lives. Such commercial-quality homes would be less vulnerable to high winds, would have less surface area to be damaged or to lose heat if the power fails, and would have dedicated visitor bunk-bedrooms for an influx of friends and family members who have either lost their homes or had to evacuate from a potential disaster zone. Generators and solar panels to keep the home running during such times would also be more affordable with more people footing the bill.
"Overall, the adequate and robust designs of our homes have been grossly overlooked for far too long as we continued in the age-old battle with the Joneses for bragging rights. Isn't it time we see 'our homes' as the best possible solution to all the pressing environmental problems, disaster risks and quality-of-living needs? To share a home is - to me - an acceptable price to pay for such robust stability and for so many features we would otherwise never be able to afford on our own."
The local-living trend has been gathering steam lately, as my colleague Allison Linn notes today in her report on the "locavore" movement. Would you consider communal living? What do you think of other concepts, such as vertical farming and green commuting? Feel free to share your experiences and opinions below.
Alan Boyle / msnbc.com
Software billionaire Paul Allen takes journalists and VIPs on a
tour of the Flying Heritage Collection on Friday. The plane with
the painted teeth is a Curtiss P-40C ground attack fighter.
Software billionaire Paul Allen has unveiled a new museum that recognizes milestones in the history of flight - including an episode in which he himself played a role: the flights of the SpaceShipOne rocket plane.
Although Allen's Flying Heritage Collection focuses on the fliers of the past, the longtime airplane buff is still looking forward as well as backward. In an exclusive interview, he hinted that he's considering at least one more pioneering aerospace venture.
Allen holds the No. 11 spot on Forbes' list of the richest Americans by virtue of his role in starting up Microsoft (which, ahem, is a partner in the msnbc.com joint venture). But more recently the 55-year-old Seattle native has become as famous for how he's using his billions: as the owner of the Seattle Seahawks, Portland Trail Blazers and Seattle Sounders, for example ... as an investor in entertainment ventures such as Dreamworks and Vulcan Productions ... as the benefactor behind the Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum and myriad other civic projects.
But you can't help but get the impression that aerospace has a special place in Allen's psyche. His $25 million-plus investment made it possible for Scaled Composites founder Burt Rutan to create SpaceShipOne - which led to winning the $10 million Ansari X Prize and gaining what could amount to a $25 million licensing deal with British billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic tourist venture.
Through the years, Allen also has spent millions to acquire and refurbish vintage aircraft from the heyday of military aviation - including America's Curtiss Jenny, Britain's Spitfire, Japan's Zero and Germany's Messerschmitt Bf 109. Now Allen has a venue worthy of the collection.
After sitting for years in Arlington, Wash., the restored planes that make up the Flying Heritage Collection have been moved down to a refurbished 51,000-square-foot hangar at Everett's Paine Field - and on Friday, the facility finally opened its doors to the public. Spokesman Roger van Oosten said Allen spent $5.2 million to renovate the hangar, with $2.2 million of that cost reimbursed by Snohomish County. Allen is to pay the county $370,000 per year for 10 years for leasing the hangar, van Oosten said.
At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Allen noted that the opening came on the 64th anniversary of D-Day. He recalled that his own father took part in the Normandy Invasion, protected in part by the innovations in aviation that gave the Allies air superiority on that day.
"When I look at the planes in this collection, I think of the people who worked under extreme pressure to find ways to advance the technologies of flight," Allen said. "I think of the nights they couldn't sleep, the problems they had to overcome, the failures they endured on the way to ultimate success. The Flying Heritage Collection is a tribute not just to pilots, but to all the technicialns and dreamers who said we can do better, and did."
During an impromptu tour, Allen said one of the most beautiful warplanes was a P-51D Mustang - which is painted as it was during World War II, right down to the nine swastikas that stood for the American pilot's "kills." The pilot behind those downings, retired Air Force Capt. Harrison "Bud" Tordoff, flew in from Minnesota for the opening.
"It's nice to see a piece of history that you were associated with preserved," said Tordoff, now 85.
The P-51D - and yet another World War II plane, the P-47 Thunderbolt - are both due to rise into the air once again on Saturday when the Flying Heritage Collection kicks off a series of every-other-week flyarounds for historic planes (weather permitting, of course).
That's one of the big attractions of the museum: The public will actually get to see some of the planes (though not all of them) in operation. "Our goal is to restore these planes, to preserve them in authentic flying condition and share them with the public for generations to come," Allen said.
Among the oddest planes in the hangar are three Nazi aircraft that most surely will not be flown. One is a V-1 buzzbomb, the unmanned "cruise missile" that terrorized London in the latter days of the war. Another is a piloted version of the V-1, which was never flown in combat. Adrian Hunt, the collection's executive director, told me that putting a pilot in the V-1 turned out to be a terrible idea.
"The theory is that you open the cockpit and you jump out just when you're getting close to the target," he said. "There's a slight design fault there. Once you open the cockpit, that's the intake for the rocket - and it tends to suck in things, including people. That could be a problem."
Aaron Blank / Flying Heritage Collection
|The Me-163 Komet rocket plane has been called the
"deadliest plane ever built," but it also served as an
antecedent to the SpaceShipOne rocket plane.
Then there's the Me-163 Komet rocket plane, a snub-nosed craft that was designed to fly for just eight minutes, shooting up and diving down to buzz Allied bombers. The plane entered action too late to have any impact on the war, and in retrospect it looks like another bad idea from the Luftwaffe. On the Defense Tech Web log, David Hambling calls it the "deadliest plane ever built" - for its pilots, that is, not for its foes.
Despite all that, the Komet left its mark on aviation technology: Allen called it "an antecedent to the SpaceShipOne project," along with the rocket planes of the 1950s and 1960s, of course. A video next to the Nazi rocket plane replays the SpaceShipOne flights, and Hunt said the collection may soon offer an even more substantial reminder of the Allen-financed team's achievements.
"The main focus of this exhibit is the technological change in the middle of the 20th century, but obviously it gave rise to things afterward," Hunt said as he stood by the trio of Nazi rocketships. "So we're probably going to have on display a replica of SpaceShipOne, because these things ultimately gave rise to SpaceShipOne."
The actual SpaceShipOne craft is hanging in the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, but this replica - one of several created in the wake of the rocketplane's flights - is the next best thing. It's currently on display a few miles south on Interstate 5, at Seattle's Museum of Flight, but will take its place in the collection as early as this summer, Hunt said.
One-on-one with Paul Allen
The Komet and SpaceShipOne were much on my mind when I sat down for a couple of minutes one-on-one with Allen. He preferred to talk about the legacy of past flights, but couldn't resist slipping in a reference to a venture that is apparently not yet ready for prime time. Here's a transcript:
Cosmic Log: I wanted to ask you about linking the SpaceShipOne experience with the Flying Heritage Collection. How tickled are you to have the Komet rocket plane here?
Allen: Extremely. It's such a rare airplane, and the fact that we were able to pull off a trade with the museum in the U.K., to bring that here for the area people to see – that was just an amazing, fortuitous event.
I got to see pilots fly SpaceShipOne, and anytime you fly a rocket straight up, those pilots are incredibly brave. Of course, with the technology in World War II, when rocketry was in its infancy, the idea that you'd be able to create an actual functional fighter plane that would attack Allied bomber formations – that's just amazing. It's a small little airplane, if you go in and see it. It's a tiny plane, but it had a couple of 30mm cannon, and there were no Allied planes that could catch it.
Q: Do you feel as if there are modern analogs to the people who had such a part in influencing aerospace in the mid-20th century? Who would we look toward for the next generation of flying heritage?
A: I think that's a great point. The team that did SpaceShipOne at Scaled Composites, that Burt Rutan led, that was only roughly 25 people. So yes, there are people today who are innovating in every area of aerospace, whether they're at Scaled Composites; or Elon Musk, somebody who's doing a private rocket; or Richard Branson, who is working with Scaled Composites on SpaceShipTwo to have tickets for private spaceflights available. There's a tremendous amount of innovation, and that's just in private sector. Obviously NASA continues to do many great things as well.
Q: You had such a role in getting SpaceShipOne off the ground, are you looking at other ways to continue that moving to that goal, or are you taking a continuing role in what Burt and Sir Richard are doing?
A: No, they've licensed our technology, and they're working on the SpaceShipTwo commercial, private, ticketed flight effort.
We're looking at at least one other thing now, but there's nothing to announce today.
Q: But the important thing is that you're keeping your hand in.
A: Yeah, I think that we had such tremendous success with SpaceShipOne, and that was such an incredible experience. For a kid who grew up in north Seattle and used to build plastic rockets in the basement, paint them and everything, to be part of a private space effort that was the first to get a man up there twice in two weeks and win the X Prize - that was just really rewarding.
Update for 11:45 a.m. ET June 10: I originally mentioned that the V-1 terrorized London during the blitz, but a commenter points out that the period known as the Blitz lasted only until May 1941. London later suffered additional waves of aerial attacks - this Wikipedia article lists the "Baedeker Blitz," the "Baby Blitz" and finally the V-weapons offensive. I've amended this item to reflect the correction. Thanks for setting me straight, Jeremy!
Some commenters are saying that the plane pictured with Paul Allen at the top of this item is a Warhawk rather than a Tomahawk. All I can go with is the information I've been provided, as well as evidence that the P-40 line included Tomahawks as well as Warhawks (and Kittyhawks, by the way). But I know better than to argue with airplane buffs, so I've removed the Tomahawk reference in the caption - and I'll leave it to the commenters to thrash it out.
Update for 1 p.m. ET June 11: I rephrased the first paragraph of this item, as well as later references, to make absolutely clear that the collection will include a replica of SpaceShipOne, but not the real thing. I also fixed a typo that referred to the collection as the "Flight Heritage Collection."
H. Bond and K. Exter / STScI / AURA / NASA / NOAO
This image of the planetary nebula SuWt 2 reveals a bright ringlike structure
encircling a bright central star. The central star is actually a close binary system.
The scientists behind NASA's three Great Observatories had a great opportunity to show their stuff this week at a gathering of thousands of astronomers from around the world. The good stuff included a wide shot of starbirth in our home galaxy, a second look at a supernova's leftovers, and a break in "the case of the missing dwarf."
In all three cases, the results weren't the result of one team working on its own. Observations from multiple instruments and even multiple telescopes were pooled together to create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. This week's cosmic pictures serve to show what can happen when telescopes team up.
Mega-view of the Milky Way
Two teams using instruments on NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope combined their data to create an unprecedented portrait of the star-forming regions in the Milky Way. One set of infrared observations was contributed by the Galactic Legacy Infrared Mid-Plane Survey Extraordinaire team, or GLIMPSE for short. Another set came from the Multiband Imaging Photometer for Spitzer Galactic Plane Survey Legacy team, also known as MIPSGAL.
E. Churchwell / U.Wis. / NASA / JPL-Caltech / GLIMPSE
|Hundreds of thousands of frames from the Spitzer
Space Telescope were stitched together to create this
portrait of star formation in the inner Milky Way. The
mosaic is so wide it's divided into five stacked strips.
Click on the image for a larger version.
In all, more than 800,000 images were stitched together into a mosaic of the Milky Way's galactic plane that takes in 120 degrees of width and just 2 degrees of height. The portrait is so detailed, shallow and long that you have to post it on a wall - or look at it using a zoomable image browser - to get the full impact.
"This is the highest-resolution, largest, most sensitive infrared picture ever taken of our Milky Way," Sean Carey, an astronomer at NASA's Spitzer Science Center who leads the MIPSGAL team, said in a news release. "Where previous surveys saw a single source of light, we now see a cluster of stars. With this data, we can learn how massive stars form, map galactic spiral arms and make a better estimate of our galaxy's star formation rate."
Spitzer's infrared sight is particularly good at seeing through the dust that shrouds newborn stars. Stellar nurseries show up as swaths of green, with young stars (looking like yellow and red dots) carving away bubbles in the dust. The wisps of red that fill most bubbles are composed of graphite dust particles. Older stars show up as blue specks, and the dusty remnants of dying and dead stars look like translucent orange spheres.
The detailed imagery shows that our galaxy is crowded with stars, many of which don't show up in visible wavelengths. "With these Spitzer data, we've been able to catalog more than 100 million stars," said Edward Churchwell, an astronomer at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who is the principal investigator for the GLIMPSE team.
Second look at a supernova's leftovers
While Spitzer leans toward the long-wavelength side of the electromagnetic spectrum, the Chandra X-ray Observatory focuses on short-wavelength X-rays. Chandra is thus most suited to spot high-energy phenomena, such as the effects of black holes and exploding stars.
NASA / CXC / ROSAT / CTIO / NRAO
|The composite image at left combines radio (orange), X-ray (blue) and optical views (gray and white) of the supernova remnant W28. The detail image at right is the Chandra X-ray Observatory's view. Click on the image for a bigger version.
Chandra's image of the week is a closer look at a supernova remnant known as W28. The latest imagery focuses on the shape and extent of the high-energy emissions at W28's very center. That view can be combined with imagery documenting the scene in other wavelengths. Radio emissions were mapped by the Very Large Array in New Mexico, the optical-wavelength view came from the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, and earlier X-ray imagery was provided by the international ROSAT satellte.
The result is a complex picture that blends together characteristics from various standard types of supernova remnants. Each wavelength provides more information about how the supernova shock wave is interacting with the cloudy environment surrounding W28's parent star.
"By studying W28 and others like it, astronomers hope to better understand the complexities involved when a star explodes in a crowded neighborhood," the Chandra team said in this week's image advisory.
The case of the missing dwarf
The third and best-known of the Great Observatories is the Hubble Space Telescope, but in this case, it was the Hubble team rather than the telescope itself that made the key contribution.
At this week's meeting of the American Astronomical Society in St. Louis, Katrina Exter and Howard Bond of the Space Telescope Science Institute proposed a solution to a mystery surrounding the planetary nebula SuWt 2. The gaseous ring of stellar gas glows about 6,500 light-years from Earth in the constellation Centaurus.
What set the ring aglow? The usual suspect would be a star that puffed up and blew away all that gas, then shrank into a white dwarf. But no such dwarf has ever been detected, either in the imagery from ground-based telescopes or in data from NASA's International Ultraviolet Explorer satellite. Instead, astronomers have focused on two suspicious-looking binary stars whirling around each other every five days. Neither star is a white dwarf - in fact, they're hotter than our sun, although not hot enough to light up the nebula's ring of gas.
In their effort to solve the mystery, Exter, Bond and their colleagues conducted a stake-out on the two stars, using ground-based observations from the Cerro Tololo observatory, the New Technology Telescope at the European Southern Observatory in Chile, the Anglo-Australian Telescope in Australia and the South African Astronomical Observatory.
The stars turned out to be larger than would have been expected for their masses, and they're also rotating more slowly than expected. That suggests that the stars are on their way to becoming red giants - and thus wouldn't be responsible for creating the ring.
So what's the solution? The astronomers suggest that a third star, orbiting farther out, became a red giant and puffed up to engulf the two stars we see today. That could have caused a downward spiral that spun up the whole system, causing the red giant's envelope of gas to whirl away and create the glowing ring.
"If the giant's core were of high enough mass, it would then shrink and cool off rapidly to a faint white dwarf, which might explain its current invisibility," the Hubble team reported in a news release about the findings.
So the case of the missing dwarf isn't exactly closed - but thanks to Exter, Bond and their colleagues, there's a new prime suspect in the mystery.
To get the full lineups for the Spitzer teams, check out the GLIMPSE and MIPSGAL Web sites. The team behind the Chandra W28 study includes Jonathan Keohane (Hampden-Sydney College), Jeonghee Rho (Spitzer Science Center), Thomas Pannuti (Morehead State University), Kazik Borkowski (North Carolina State University) and Frank Winkler (Middlebury College). The SuWt 2 research team includes Exter and Bond (Space Telescope Science Institute) as well as Keivan Stassun (Vanderbilt University), Pierre Maxted and Barry Smalley (Keele University) and Don Pollacco (Queen's University).
|"Microcosm" focuses on
E. coli and the new
science of life.
Can a whole book actually be written about one single-celled organism? "Microcosm" pulls off the feat by using the E. coli bacterium as a guidepost to life's secrets.
E. coli? Isn't that one of the biggest villains of the bacterial world? The one responsible for the spinach scare and last year's tainted-beef recall? Yes, those problems were caused by bad breeds of E. coli - but for every bad strain, there are hundreds of good strains you can't live without.
"You have several billion E. coli inside of you right now, and they're going to be with you until you die," science writer (and blogger) Carl Zimmer told an audience at Town Hall Seattle this week, capping a West Coast book tour for "Microcosm."
Over the years, Zimmer has written about subjects ranging from zombie cockroaches to species-hopping to the seat of the soul - and when he started formulating the plan for his latest book, he wanted to address one of the world's greatest mysteries: What is life, and how does it work?
That subject is just a teensy bit too broad for one book, however. So Zimmer looked for a way to scale his scope back, and address the what-is-life question in a microcosm - literally, a cosmos on a microscopic scale. And E. coli was the obvious choice. Zimmer took his lead from Nobel-winning biologist Jacques Monod, who once said, "What is true for E. coli is true for the elephant."
E. coli is the Joe Six-Pack of the microbial world: German-Austrian pediatrician Theodor Escherich found it in 1885 as he rooted through baby diapers, looking for the causes of infectious disease. (The "E" in E. coli stands for Escherichia, a genus name that honors the discoverer.)
Escherich and the researchers who followed in his footsteps found that E. coli could live on all sorts of things - milk, potatoes, blood - and could survive under a wider range of conditions than most microbes. Starting in the 1930s, it became the microbial model of choice for experiments aimed at figuring out how genes worked.
Genetic 'gold standard'
Today, E. coli is "the gold standard of genetic familiarity," Zimmer writes. Scientists know more about how E. coli works than about virtually any other living thing.
|Carl Zimmer uses E. coli as a microcosm of all biology.
Even though it's just a one-celled organism, the darn thing has a molecular sense of smell that passes along a signal that food is nearby - and it has a system for getting to that food, by whipping its tails around in particular patterns that semi-randomly get it where it needs to go.
Those tails - also known as flagella - have even contributed to a cultural controversy over evolutionary theory vs. intelligent design. How could undirected evolution ever produce those tricky whips, which seem to work like tiny outboard motors? The flagellum became a hot topic during 2005's Dover evolution trial - and was cited in the judge's ruling against intelligent design.
Zimmer addresses the courtroom case in "Microcosm," as well as the way E. coli supports the case for evolution in the laboratory. The bacterium has proven so adaptable to changing conditions that scientists are able "to put natural selection under a microscope, teasing apart the individual mutations that benefit E. coli," Zimmer writes.
One of the longest-running experiments is being conducted by Richard Lenski and his colleagues at Michigan State University. For 20 years, Lenski has let E. coli run its course over 44,000 bacterial generations in the lab. He freezes samples every 500 generations, and keeps careful track of how the bacteria cope with a low-glucose diet.
|E. coli bacteria quickly form
colonies when they are smeared
across the goo in a petri dish.
Just this week, Lenski published findings about a bizarre twist that is described in Zimmer's blog: Even under the carefully controlled lab conditions, one bacterial strain gained the ability to digest citrate - something that E. coli isn't supposed to be able to do.
The researchers were able to run the tape backwards, checking exactly when the citrate-munching bugs learned the trick. At the 31,500-generation mark, they found that about 0.5 percent of the bacteria could consume citrate. That population grew for a while, then was almost rendered extinct, and then came back with a vengeance to dominate the entire flask.
The assumption is that one genetic mutation provided a relatively poor method for digesting citrate, and that a later mutation provided the full recipe for success. Zimmer said E. coli's chances of evolving into a citrate-eater were on the order of 1 in a trillion - and yet, it happened.
"It may not be the origin of new species, but it's a major transition," Zimmer said.
E. coli could serve not only as a tool for looking backward at evolution's course, but also as a tool for pushing forward on medical and technological challenges.
Genetically modified E. coli is already being used to manufacture human insulin, and Zimmer describes efforts to turn the bacteria into photographic film, anti-cancer "torpedoes" and biofuel factories. They can also be transformed into microscopic computers for solving sticky math problems.
Scientists have even tweaked E. coli in the lab to use amino acids that are not used by any other type of living organism. "In a sense, we've actually created alien life on Earth," Zimmer said.
E. coli and its ilk could eventually help scientists answer more of those cosmic questions:
Zimmer doesn't downplay the possibilities.
"Jacques Monod said, 'What is true for E. coli is true for elephants.' I wonder if it's true for aliens," he said.
"E. coli is already up in space, it's in the space station. So if you look up and look at the space station at night, you'll be looking at E. coli. I don't think that when and if we get to Mars, we will discover E. coli on the Red Planet. But I do wonder if there will be some striking similarities between the Martians and this really remarkable microbe."
This chart traces the political fortunes of Democratic candidates on the Iowa
Electronic Markets. Yellow stands for Barack Obama, blue stands for Hillary
Clinton, green stands for John Edwards and red stands for the rest of the field.
Now that the presidential primary season is over, economists are analyzing how the political prediction markets sized up against the pollsters - and looking ahead to the bigger campaign ahead.
Like the polls and the pundits, the markets were sometimes thrown for a loop during this season of political surprises. But in the judgment of economist Justin Wolfers, who has been monitoring the ups and downs of political fortunes for years, "the markets got it the least wrong." And the markets already have picked a clear favorite for the White House prize.
Prediction markets let investors put money down on the chances that a particular person (or party) will win out in a campaign ... or, for that matter, the chances for an actor to win an Oscar, or for a football team to win the Super Bowl. It sounds a lot like betting - but the difference is that shares in the proposition can be bought or sold (at higher or lower prices) as long as the futures contract is open.
If the proposition pans out, each share pays a set amount - for instance, $1 on the Iowa Electronic Markets, the only prediction market that has the federal government's blessing to operate in the United States. If the proposition doesn't come true, the shares become worthless.
The shares for Barack Obama, who became the Democrats' presumptive nominee on Tuesday, are worth more than 90 cents each. The shares for Hillary Clinton, his biggest rival for the nomination, are worth less than 10 cents each. However, those prices didn't just get to be that way on Tuesday. They've been virtually unchanged for the past few weeks.
"To our market, yesterday's news wasn't really news," IEM director Joyce Berg, an accounting professor at the University of Iowa, told me today.
Similarly, the prediction markets have favored the Democrats over the Republicans for months. Wolfers, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, said he was struck by the way the market for the general election race reacted to Tuesday's news.
This chart from the Iowa Electronic Markets shows the values for shares that would
pay off in the event of a Democratic presidential win (in blue) vs. the shares for a
GOP win (in red). The trend line indicates that the Democrats have consistently
been given more of a chance for victory, although the margin has varied.
"The Democrats' chance of taking the White House jumped by quite a large amount, considering that not that much actually happened," he told me today.
He speculated that investors were reacting to the fact that Clinton seemed to be taking her setback in stride, even though she hasn't formally conceded the nomination. "The real news is that it appears this thing is not going to drag on until the convention," Wolfers said. "She has not come out fighting."
Are markets magic?
Unless something happens to shake up the markets, which include offshore establishments such as InTrade as well as the IEM, the trend appears to point toward a future Obama administration. But how good are those markets, really?
Last month, Wired magazine's John McQuaid wrote that prediction markets are going into the general election campaign "battered from a tough primary season." He cited New York Times columnist Paul Krugman's observation that the markets "know no more than the conventional wisdom."
However, the numbers tell a different story. Krugman wrote what he did just after Clinton's win in January's New Hampshire primary - which was not predicted by the pollsters or the pundits. In contrast, "the market said it was maybe a 1-in-14 chance," Wolfers said. High odds, to be sure, but not all that high.
No one really claims that the prediction markets have some mystical power to aggregate information. But year over year, the data indicate that prediction markets work better than political polling, perhaps in part because the participants in the market have to put money where their mouth is.
That record has been borne out by research going back to the Bush-Dukakis race back in 1988, said George Neumann, an economics professor at the University of Iowa who was a co-founder of the IEM and is now on the venture's board of governors.
"Our standard for many years was to compare ourselves to the polls, but that's just like shooting fish in a pond," he told me today.
The numbers game
This year, the Caveat Bettor blog compared InTrade's predictive powers against the Zogby polls, and last month InTrade was declared the winner with a record of 7-3 vs. Zogby's 3-7 (plus 11 state-by-state "ties"). The result was "unsurprising to those who know a little bit about the scholarship, economics and/or track record of prediction markets," according to the blog.
Neumann sizes up the performance of the markets from a different perspective: How soon did the investors settle on a consensus pick? "The thing that impressed me was how quickly the markets selected the eventual winners," he said.
In the Democratic as well as the GOP race, the winner rose to the top by mid-February. "That gives you some idea how far in advance a knowledgeable investor knows what's going to happen. And that's sort of startling," Neumann said.
He said past studies have indicated that the pace of financial contributions, as reported by the Federal Election Commission, was a significant market-mover. "I bet if we look ... we'll see that the sharp upturns are related to how much money Obama raised, or how much money Clinton had to give her campaign to keep running," Neumann said.
Beyond the horse race
But this isn't just about the campaign. Neumann said the research that goes into political markets is being applied to other fields as well. For yeasr, the IEM has been working on an Influenza Prediction Market for health-care professionals, and Neumann said the experiment could do for public health what the political markets are doing for campaign prognostication.
The key challenge is to predict the course of a flu epidemic two weeks in advance, which would give agencies enough time to scale up vaccinations and head off bigger problems. "Two weeks in advance, our market certainly outperformed statistical methods," Neumann said.
He said the cost-benefit analysis for flu prediction hasn't yet been worked out in detail, but "just on the raw question, 'Can you learn faster?' ... the answer appears to be yes."
The IEM's Berg said the experiment also showed that "the people with information aren't necessarily the people you think of as the experts."
She said school nurses and pharmacists had the best record for predicting the course of a flu epidemic - which makes sense. They're the ones who actually see the leading indicators: an uptick in sick students, or in the number of prescriptions filled.
Multiple market outcomes can be combined to suggest answers to higher-level questions, even in the political realm, Neumann said. For example, would Obama or Clinton do better against John McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee?
"If we did this right, we could figure out who's the stronger candidate. ... We didn't get around to doing that this year, [but] that turned out to be one of the bigger issues in the campaign."
To address that question, researchers would set up three markets: one market for weighing the Obama-Clinton market, a conditional market for Obama vs. McCain, and another conditional market for Clinton vs. McCain. If Clinton didn't face McCain, the investors in that market would simply get their money back.
Market trends could be analyzed to arrive at a prediction about who would do better against McCain. A similar combination could be used to ask, for example, how the passage or non-passage of gun control legislation might affect future murder rates.
It all sounds like an economist's dream. Or a politician's nightmare.
"The conditional probability times the marginal probability of the condition is equal to the joint probability," Neumann said. "`I'd hate to be the person who had to educate people on that, because it would drag them back to those old college courses."
Do you think prediction markets will turn out to be the wave of the future, or is their usefulness essentially limited to handicapping horse races? Feel free to add your comments below.
A new president is at the helm of Scaled Composites, the company that produced the world's first private-sector spaceship and is now working on a fleet of second-generation rocketships.
According to a news release issued this afternoon, Doug Shane is moving up from vice president and will take responsibility for day-to-day operations at the company, which is based in Mojave, Calif., and was acquired last year by Northrop Grumman.
Company founder Burt Rutan has been named chief technology officer and chairman emeritus.
"I suggested this change to our organizational structure because I want to focus on developing our talented, innovative team and ensuring we continue to provide our customers the creative technical approaches that only Scaled offers," Rutan said in the news release. "I am successfully recovering from about eight months of significant heart health challenges, and with this move look forward to many more years of fun here at Scaled."
Rutan led the team behind the SpaceShipOne rocket plane, which won the $10 million Ansari X Prize in 2004. He has also guided the Scaled effort to build a SpaceShipTwo fleet of passenger vehicles for British billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic venture. At January's SpaceShipTwo design rollout, the 64-year-old Rutan signaled that he was giving bigger roles to a new generation of engineers at Scaled.
Scaled said Shane joined the company as a founding member in 1982, and since 1989 he has been responsible for business development, contracts and proposals as well as the company's flight test operations.
The mothership for SpaceShipTwo, known as White Knight Two, is due to be rolled out in Mojave next month. Virgin Galactic expects to begin passenger spaceflights no earlier than 2010.
Courtesy P.Z. Myers
|P.Z. Myers is a blogger as well as
a biologist at the University of
Minnesota at Morris.
P.Z. Myers is the evolutionist creationists love to hate: They hate him so much that he was expelled from an advance screening of "Expelled," even though the anti-evolution movie includes an interview with him.
During a visit to Seattle, the biology professor, blogger and "godless liberal" recounted the tale with relish - and then predicted that old-time creationism will be making a comeback.
Not that he's looking forward to that: Myers bases that prediction on his view that efforts to undermine evolutionary theory without referring to religion, using a concept known as intelligent design, have fallen short. Back in 2005, a federal judge ruled that intelligent design was basically a religious concept, and thus should not be taught in public-school science classes.
He said the secular version of intelligent design was no longer "a big factor in the wars here."
"This," he said, pointing to an classroom-friendly illustration from Answers in Genesis comparing Noah's Ark with a Boeing 747 jet, "is a much bigger factor. People want to believe in biblical creationism, not that secular intelligent-design stuff."
The proponents of intelligent design might take issue with that view. The folks at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute keep track of all the twists and turns in the evolution debate, including my wacky ramblings in Cosmic Log. The intelligent-design concept - that is, the idea that some complex things in nature are best explained by an intelligent cause - figures quite a bit on their side of the debate.
Even at the Discovery Institute, however, the debate is increasingly being cast on different grounds, as an argument for academic freedom rather than for an intelligent designer per se. Teachers should have the right to teach what they believe is right, even if it runs counter to the scientific mainstream. It's hard to take issue with that in the abstract, and not even Myers would assert that Charles Darwin's 150-year-old views should be accepted as gospel.
"Often we put too much emphasis on Charles Darwin," he said.
The problem comes when folks want to teach in science class that the entire edifice of evolutionary biology should be torn down because some chinks are still unfilled or out of place. Usually the reason for doing that is not out of a sense of scientific integrity, but because the edifice seems to stand in the way of the dissenters' moral or religious views.
Myers believes that the religious underpinnings beneath the intelligent-design argument will become more visible as the secular strategy falls short. "They're not going to be hiding the fact that they've got a religious motivation behind their goals," he predicted.
A fair number of public high-school science teachers might be sympathetic to that motivation, based on findings published last month by the open-access journal PLoS Biology. A survey of 939 teachers, conducted by mail and online between March and May, showed that 16 percent believe that "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so."
That doesn't mean all those teachers want to bring Genesis (or the Koran) into the classroom. In fact, there need not be any linkage between a teacher's personal beliefs and what's taught in public school. Nevertheless, it's a statistic that worries Myers.
"One out of six of our high-school science teachers are young-earth creationists," he observed.
You'll never find Myers, a biology professor at the University of Minnesota at Morris, in league with that 16 percent. He's as well-known for his atheism as he is for his work in evolutionary biology - and he didn't mince words during his Monday night talk at Seattle's Pacific Science Center.
"I personally feel that religion itself is a lie and a danger," he said. In his view, even those who hold to religious faith at the same time that they hold to evolutionary theory are being "wishy-washy" in one way or another.
One questioner asked Myers whether that meant Brown University biologist Ken Miller, who has often said his passionate defense of evolution doesn't conflict with his religious beliefs, was being a wishy-washy scientist?
"No," Myers answered wryly, "I think Ken Miller is a wishy-washy Catholic."
Myers acknowledged that scientists sometimes have a hard time getting their perspective across forcefully, and so he provided a five-point prescription for wishy-washiness:
That last piece of advice is something close to Myers' heart. He recalled one time recently when he argued with a creationist for two hours straight. "He was so mad at me," Myers said.
Expelled from 'Expelled'
Which brings us to the "Expelled" episode: Last year, he agreed to be interviewed for a project called "Crossroads," which was portrayed as a documentary about the intersection of religion and science - going so far as to sign a release and accept payment for his time and trouble. Weeks later, he was worried to learn that the project was actually a diatribe against Darwin.
"I got fooled," he admitted.
In advance of the film's opening, Myers and a colleague of his showed up at the theater where a free preview was playing, hoping to find out how he was portrayed in the finished film. Unfortunately, he was recognized by a film producer and was told to leave the premises.
Or was that actually fortunate?
The way Myers tells it, the incident was a plus: He could capitalize on the publicity of being expelled from "Expelled" - while his colleague, the equally atheistic British biologist Richard Dawkins, had to sit through a movie that ended up making him hopping mad.
"I never imagined that they would do the perfect thing," Myers said, "which was to just throw me out, so I didn't have to go see the crappy movie, but Richard Dawkins had to go see it."
In between the anecdotes, predictions and the hate-mail readings (taken from Myers' in-box), the biologist provided a long reading list of books and blogs. Here's a sampling that could keep you busy for months:
Myers urged scientists who felt they had something worth saying to start up their own blogs. The software makes it easy to write a blog entry, he said: "Any idiot can do it."
What are your favorite science blogs? Feel free to contribute your own recommendations (or, for that matter, point us to your own not-so-idiotic blog) as a comment below.
Update for 2 p.m. ET June 4: Michael Bradbury has posted the full podcast of Myers' talk at Real Science. The talk was presented by the Northwest Science Writers Association and the Forum on Science Ethics and Policy.
Laura Rauch / AP
Brian Binnie rides on SpaceShipOne after his flight to win the Ansari X Prize
on Oct. 4, 2004. A new book chronicles the SpaceShipOne saga.
Before it was ever named SpaceShipOne, the world's first private-sector spaceship was designed for a splashdown if necessary. And when the rocket plane and its carrier airplane made a farewell trip to the museum, SpaceShipOne looked so much like a missile that a skittish air controller nearly denied the pilot permission to land.
These and other inside stories come to light in a glossy book titled "SpaceShipOne: An Illustrated History." Aviation and aerospace writer Dan Linehan's 160-page volume is chock-full of photos and diagrams, as you'd expect a coffee-table book to be - but this coffee-table book also contains plot twists that weren't widely known four years ago, when SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X Prize.
For that, Linehan needed access to the sometimes-secretive players in the drama - ranging from aerospace guru Burt Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites in Mojave, Calif., to software billionaire Paul Allen, who put more than $25 million into the first-ever privately backed space effort.
Linehan begins the story well before the X Prize, with Rutan's rise as an airplane designer who gradually set his sights beyond the atmosphere. Rutan's initial plan was to build a space capsule that would be air-launched from something like his long-winged Proteus airplane, then come back down buoyed by a parachute and shuttlecock-type fins.
"It was on the drawing board in '93," Linehan told me today.
Initially, the capsule was designed to come down over water, so that it would splash down safely even if a helicopter failed to catch it in midair. After analyzing the design, Rutan decided to go instead with a rocket plane capable of gliding to its landing on a runway. However, he stuck with the idea of designing the wings so that the craft was certain to come down in the right orientation, no matter what happened during re-entry.
That's why the comparisons to the shuttlecock stuck, even though SpaceShipOne ended up looking nothing a badminton birdie. "That's really where the term 'feathered flight' came from," Linehan explained.
Linehan traces every one of SpaceShipOne's flights, beginning with the first unpowered tests in the spring of 2003 and climaxing with the three honest-to-goodness spaceflights of 2004. Photos and diagrams show how the design was tweaked along the way, and the book also boasts annotated pictures of the craft's instrument panel. "That's the first time that all these instruments have been called out," Linehan said.
Rutan had intended to keep SpaceShipOne flying even after the X Prize was won, in order to test the business plan for space tourist flights. But that plan was called into question after the first private-sector spaceflight in June 2004. The curators of the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum told Rutan that they wanted to put SpaceShipOne alongside Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, the Bell X-1 and other pioneering aircraft.
When Rutan's financial backer heard that, he didn't want to take any extra chances with what was already turning into a piece of aviation history.
"When we got that request, Paul Allen called and said, 'Listen, I don't want you to fly it anymore. Just get the X Prize. Two more flights and that's it,'" Rutan recalled in the book. At first, Rutan considered arguing with Allen, "and then I realized that he really was right."
The museum wanted the plane in the exact condition it was in after June's flight. That meant the decals for the X Prize and Virgin Galactic had to be removed. It also meant undoing some repairs: The plane's rocket motor fairing buckled during the first spaceflight, leaving a big dent that was fixed for the two flights that followed. After those flights, the dented fairing was put back on the craft.
To this day, some people think the dent was done by accident when the Smithsonian put the craft on exhibit, Linehan said. "It's interesting how the rumors and folklore go around," he said.
Among the most bizarre stories is the tale of SpaceShipOne's final journey to the museum. The rocket plane was loaded beneath its White Knight carrier aircraft, then flown in hops across the country. The final 500-mile hop took it from Dayton, Ohio, to Washington's Dulles International Airport. But when pilot Mike Melvill sought clearance to land, he was ordered to turn around instead.
The flight controller apparently thought that SpaceShipOne looked too much like a missile, slung on the underside of a strange aircraft's belly. That was a big problem for Melvill. "He literally told the guy that if he didn't land he was going to run out of gas," Linehan said.
After pleading with the control tower, Melvill finally landed with his historic cargo on a side runway that the commercial airlines weren't using. And the rest was literally history.
But is Linehan's book the last word? Even he refuses to go that far.
"I definitely don't consider this the definitive history. ... There are a lot of stories that are part of the history that still need to be written," he said.
Some of those stories may well come out in a book yet to come from Joel Glenn Brenner, an author and journalist who was embedded with Rutan's team. Linehan said Rutan and the rest of the SpaceShipOne team saw his richly illustrated book as a "complement" to Brenner's work.
"They wouldn't have given me this kind of access if it was going to be the same kind of book," Linehan said.
There's another sense in which the last word has not yet been written: The SpaceShipOne team is now hard at work on SpaceShipTwo - backed this time by British billionaire Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic and a myriad of other Virgin subsidiaries.
The saga of SpaceShipTwo, which may become the first privately developed spacecraft to take on paying passengers, is still in its early chapters: Last week, Virgin Galactic announced that White Knight Two, SpaceShipTwo's super-sized carrier aircraft, is scheduled for its rollout next month. The upgraded rocket plane that would be launched from White Knight Two isn't likely to take to the air for its first tests until next year, with passenger service beginning in 2010 or later.
Linehan refers glancingly to the post-SpaceShipOne era at the tail end of his book. But to get the long-range view, you really have to turn to the very beginning: In one of the last things he wrote before he died this March, science-fiction great Arthur C. Clarke hails the rise of "a new breed of 'astropreneurs'" who are building a new industry without relying on government funding:
"In that sense, space travel is returning to where it started: with maverick pioneers dreaming of journeys to orbit and beyond, some carrying out rocket experiments in their own backyards. Burt and his team have been a great deal more successful than Robert Goddard ever was in his lifetime (and, thankfully, no one is ridiculing Burt the way they did with Goddard).
"Yet, today's astropreneurs like Paul Allen and Burt Rutan are driven by the same spirit of enquiry, adventure and exploration that sustained Lindbergh and Goddard. This, then, is the inside story of how citizens reclaimed space."
For more inside stories, check out Michael Belfiore's overview of the astropreneur industry, "Rocketeers," as well as our own online history of the "New Space Race." And feel free to add your own footnotes to history as comments below.
Correction for 12:30 p.m. ET June 3: I originally said that the dent on SpaceShipOne's motor fairing was pounded back into metal - but I should have known that wasn't the case, because much of the rocket plane was constructed from composite. A commenter from Mojave (see below) set me straight: A new fairing was made after the June 2004 flight and and installed on SpaceShipOne. When it came time to take the plane to the museum, SpaceShipOne's team simply put the old, dented fairing back in place. I've fixed the reference in the item itself. Thanks, Z.C.R.!