The Barnstorming Era Of Spaceflight Begins

[ Posted Thursday, December 9th, 2010 – 18:59 UTC ]

Well, that's one of those headlines that's a lot better poetically than literally, I'll admit up front. But yesterday's news in spaceflight deserves some sort of mention, because it could be the start of a new era. A private company launched a capsule into orbit, and then recovered it by splashing it down in the Pacific Ocean. This was a test flight, but eventually the company will use this arrangement to ferry astronauts up to the International Space Station for the United States, after N.A.S.A.'s space shuttle is retired forever.

This is truly a stunning development. It may be the largest government "privatization" program ever to be accomplished. This is the first time in history an entity other than a government has achieved this technological advance. From the Associated Press story:

The capsule built by Space Exploration Technologies Inc. (or "SpaceX") splashed down into the Pacific Ocean, right on target, following a three-hour mission that should pave the way for an actual flight to the International Space Station next summer.

N.A.S.A. wants to enlist private companies to handle space station supply runs as well as astronaut rides after the shuttles stop flying next year. Until then, the space agency will have to continue paying tens of millions of dollars to the Russians for every American astronaut ferried back and forth.

Prior to Wednesday's test flight, recovering a spacecraft re-entering from orbit was something achieved by only five independent nations: the United States, Russia, China, Japan and India, plus the European Space Agency, a consortium of countries.

N.A.S.A. immediately offered up congratulations, as did astronauts, lawmakers, and aerospace organizations and companies.

"I'm sort of in semi-shock," said the company's C.E.O., Elon Musk. "It's just mind-blowingly awesome. I apologize, and I wish I was more articulate, but it's hard to be articulate when your mind's blown -- but in a very good way."

Speaking from the company's headquarters in Hawthorne, Calif., Musk said his Falcon 9 rocket and the capsule named Dragon operated better than expected.

If astronauts had been on board, "they would have had a very nice ride," Musk told reporters. "The vehicle that you saw today can easily transport people," with the addition of escape and life-support systems.

Elon Musk is also the C.E.O. of Tesla Motors, another forward-thinking company who is building the coolest electric car you've ever seen. The article continues:

The capsule circled the world twice, then parachuted into the Pacific. It splashed down roughly 500 miles off the Mexican coast, within a few miles of the targeted area. Recovery crews were quickly on the scene, putting floats on the spacecraft.

Musk raised his arms in victory when the three red-and-white-striped parachutes deployed. He knew then "it was a done deal."

"This was done with 1,200 people," Musk noted, versus the efforts of entire countries and their supporting industries.

The spacecraft carried thousands of patches for company employees; no official payload was required for this test. A humorous payload, though, was on board. Musk promised to divulge its identity Thursday so it would not overwhelm Wednesday's headlines. An Army nanosatellite hitched a ride on the upper stage of the 158-foot rocket in a technology demonstration.

The accolades quickly mounted as the afternoon wore on.

"These new explorers are to spaceflight what Lindbergh was to commercial aviation," said N.A.S.A. Administrator Charles Bolden.

This impressive achievement should be taken together with the continuing story of Richard Branson's efforts to provide private trips to space (albeit for a very short period of time), with his "SpaceShipOne" prototype and his work on a commercially-viable reusable vehicle (naturally, named "SpaceShipTwo"). His new venture will operate as "Virgin Galactic," which is overselling their capabilities a bit, but does keep Branson's "Virgin" theme in naming his companies. The state of New Mexico is fully on board with this concept, and has moved forward on building the world's first public "spaceport" so Branson's company will have a place to operate from. He hopes to begin offering rides to space next year.

Taken together, these two companies may be ushering in a new era of spaceflight -- the beginnings of the commercialization of space travel. There's even a third company, Orbital Sciences, that has also contracted with N.A.S.A. to provide supply runs to the space station. Other companies are also in development, but not as far along.

How this all works out is anybody's guess. But private spaceflight is now emerging from the realm of science fiction to take its place in the real world. Initially, it may prove to be nothing more than a very expensive thrill ride -- the world's biggest rollercoaster drop. But when astronauts begin moving up to and down from the space station on private rockets, it will have proved to be viable beyond mere novelty status.

But I have to admit -- even as expensive as Branson's rides will be -- that it evokes the nostalgic era of barnstorming, when private citizens were offered airplane rides for the first time. Of course, barnstorming was nothing more than ex-pilots from World War I making a living and having some fun at the same time -- but it ushered in the age of commercial aviation. Meaning something born out of silly escapism can grow and mature into an entire industry no 1920s barnstormer could have ever imagined in his wildest dreams. As if to illustrate this, there was a followup story today on the whimsical payload in the SpaceX launch, which I will leave you with for now:

The California rocket company that launched a spacecraft into orbit and successfully returned it to Earth this week has revealed its secret payload -- a wheel of cheese.

Space Exploration Technologies on Thursday released photographs of the wheel in a container that was bolted to the floor of its Dragon capsule for Wednesday's test flight from Florida.

SpaceX says the flight of the round of Le Brouere was a tribute to the Monty Python comedy team, which had a famous cheese shop sketch.

After circling the world twice, the capsule parachuted to a Pacific Ocean splashdown and the cheese is now on a barge headed to California.


-- Chris Weigant

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


14 Comments on “The Barnstorming Era Of Spaceflight Begins”

  1. [1] 
    dsws wrote:

    "which is overselling their capabilities a bit"

    No kidding. A hundred thousand light years at .99c, anyone? It won't seem that long, but half the species on the planet will have evolved into something completely unrecognizable by the time you could send home a postcard. Offer not available in this universe.

    "SpaceX says the flight of the round of Le Brouere was a tribute to the Monty Python comedy team, which had a famous cheese shop sketch."

    Customer: Most certainly! Now then, a trans-galactic ticket please, my good man.

    Beetle Juice: (lustily) Certainly, sir. Where would you like?

    Customer: Well, eh, how about a little jaunt to Rigil Kentaurus.

    Beetle Juice: I'm, a-fraid we're fresh out of tickets to Rigil, sir.

    Customer: Oh, never mind, how about Sirius?

    Beetle Juice: I'm afraid we never have seats on that flight at the end of the week, sir, we start booking the next on Monday.

    Customer: Tish tish. No matter. Well, stout yeoman, one ticket to Proxima Centauri, if you please.

    Beetle Juice: Ah! It's beeeen en route, sir, for eight years. Was expecting it this morning.

    Customer: 'T's Not my lucky day, is it? Aah, Luyten 726-8A?

    Beetle Juice: Sorry, sir.

    Customer: Ross 154?

    Beetle Juice: Normally, sir, yes. Today the ramscoop broke down.

    Customer: Ah. Epsilon Eridan?

    Beetle Juice: Sorry.

    Customer: Achird, Eta Cassiopeiae?

    Beetle Juice: No.

    Customer: Any flights to Altair, per chance.

    Beetle Juice: No.

    Customer: Formalhaut?

    Beetle Juice: No.

    Customer: Antares?

    Beetle Juice: No.

    Customer: Epsilon Cygni?

    Beetle Juice: (pause) No.

    Customer: Canopus?

    Beetle Juice: No.

    Customer: Capella, Castor, Cor Caroli? Beta Canum Venaticorum?

    Beetle Juice: No.

    Customer: Deneb, perhaps?

    Beetle Juice: Ah! We have a flight to Deneb, yessir.

    Customer: (surprised) You do! Excellent.

    Beetle Juice: Yessir. It's..ah,'s a bit long...

    Customer: Oh, I like long flights.

    Beetle Juice: Well,.. It's very long, actually, sir.

    Customer: No matter. Fetch hither the boarding pass to journey to the brightest star in Cygnus!

    Beetle Juice: I...think it's a bit longer than you'll like it, sir.

    Customer: I don't care how fucking long it is. Hand it over.

    Beetle Juice: Oooooooooohhh........!

    Customer: What now?

    Beetle Juice: The dog's eaten the tickets for that flight.

    Customer: (pause) Has he.

    Beetle Juice: She, sir.


    Customer: Iota Draconis?

    Beetle Juice: No.

    Customer: Epsilon Pegasi?

    Beetle Juice: No.

    Customer: *have* some interstellar flights, don't you?

    Beetle Juice: (brightly) Of course, sir. It's a galactic travel agency, sir. We've got--

    Customer: No no... don't tell me. I'm keen to guess.

    Beetle Juice: Fair enough.

    Customer: Uuuuuh, Betegeuse.

    Beetle Juice: Yes?

    Customer: Ah, well, I'll have a trip there!

    Beetle Juice: Oh! I thought you were talking to me, sir. Mister Beetle Juice, that's my name.


    Customer: Gagrux?

    Beetle Juice: Uh, not as such.

    Customer: Uuh, Garnet Star?

    Beetle Juice: no

    Customer: Kaus Borealis,

    Beetle Juice: no

    Customer: Polaris,

    Beetle Juice: no

    Customer: Merope,

    Beetle Juice: no

    Customer: Mesarthim,

    Beetle Juice: no

    Customer: Gamma Microscopium?

    Beetle Juice: Not *today*, sir, no.


    Customer: Aah, how about Arcturus?

    Beetle Juice: Well, we don't get much call for it around here, sir.

    Customer: Not much ca--It's the single most popular star in the galaxy!

    Beetle Juice: Not 'round here, sir.

    Customer: {pause}and what IS the most popular interstellar destination 'round hyah?

    Beetle Juice: Tau Ceti, sir.

    Customer: IS it.

    Beetle Juice: Oh, yes, it's staggeringly popular in this manor, squire.

    Customer: Is it.

    Beetle Juice: It's our number one best seller, sir!

    Customer: I see. Uuh... tickets to Tau Ceti, eh?

    Beetle Juice: Right, sir.

    Customer: All right. Okay. 'Have you got any?' he asked, expecting the answer 'no'.

    Beetle Juice: I'll have a look, sir... nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnno.

    Customer: It's not much of a galactic travel agency, is it?

    Beetle Juice: Finest in the district!

    Customer: (annoyed) Explain the logic underlying that conclusion, please.

    Beetle Juice: Well, it's so tidy, sir!

    Customer: It's certainly uncluttered with tickets....

    Beetle Juice: (brightly) You haven't asked me about Pollux, sir.

    Customer: Would it be worth it?

    Beetle Juice: Could be....

    Customer: Have you --SHUT THAT BLOODY BAZOUKI OFF!

    Beetle Juice: Told you sir....

    Customer: (slowly) Have you got any tickets to Pollux?

    Beetle Juice: No.

    Customer: Figures. Predictable, really I suppose. It was an act of purest optimism to have posed the question in the first place. Tell me

    Beetle Juice: Yessir?

    Customer: Have you in fact got any trans-galactic flights here at all.

    Beetle Juice: Yes,sir.

    Customer: Really?

    (pause) Beetle Juice: No. Not really, sir.

    Customer: You haven't.

    Beetle Juice: Nosir. Not a one. I was deliberately wasting your time,sir.

    Customer: Well I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to shoot you.

    Beetle Juice: Right-0, sir.

    The customer takes out a phaser and shoots the owner.

    Customer: What a *senseless* waste of carbon-based life.

  2. [2] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    What leapt to my mind while writing this was the original MP sketch, and how it would have been added in:

    CUSTOMER (in exasperation): Well then, do you have any of that space cheese?

    PROPRIETOR: Space cheese?

    CUSTOMER: You know, that wheel of Le Brouere that was shot into orbit by the Yank company? The rarest cheese on Earth? I thought I'd just give that a shot, on the off chance you just got some in...

    PROPRIETTOR (checking clipboard): Well, let me just see... nope, none in this delivery... maybe next Tuesday...


    And, not to get picky, but when you say: the time you could send home a postcard.

    Surely you meant a space-postcard? I mean a real one would take forever and a day...


    OK, now for a personal question -- did you get to see the launch?


  3. [3] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Related note:

    Anyone interested in why this tickled my fancy should procure a copy of the short story "Requiem" by Robert A. Heinlein. It's available both in the short story collection "The Man Who Sold The Moon" and the longer collection "The Past Through Tomorrow."

    Well worth your time, I guarantee it. The spirit of D.D. Harriman lives on....


  4. [4] 
    Michale wrote:


    I think you have suffered a schizoid embolism.. :D

    It was dsws who posted that, not I.. :D


  5. [5] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    Dang, you're right. I just saw "long movie quote" and immediately leapt to the conclusion "Michale must have posted this." Don't know why that happened... heh.

    My apologies to dsws, for his fine efforts in posting that hilarious takeoff of the cheese shop sketch!

    Mea culpa!



  6. [6] 
    Michale wrote:

    Dang, you're right. I just saw "long movie quote" and immediately leapt to the conclusion "Michale must have posted this." Don't know why that happened... heh.

    Are you saying I have a rep?? :D hehehehehe

    On another note, I want to see how much power I have over your DONATION Graph... :D


  7. [7] 
    Michale wrote:


    Didna move it at all. :(

    Oh, well.. I have banked some more comments.. :D


  8. [8] 
    Americulchie wrote:

    Personally I think it is a bit of a reach to call Corporations barnstormers;but then again I am somewhat of a curmudgeon.Having read We,and Spirit of St.Louis;both great reads that stand the test of time;I can't muster a sense of the barnstormer these mercenary projects.Perhaps I am a purist.

  9. [9] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    The graph isn't automatic. I have to manually do the math, and then edit the image, and then post it.

    Today's Friday, so FTP is being written and edited (always a busy day of the week here) right now.

    Check back tonight, I promise I'll update the graph by then. As it stands, it is up to date to about midnight last night.



  10. [10] 
    dsws wrote:

    I didn't see the launch.

  11. [11] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    OK, there you go!

    Michale has just put us not only over 3/4ths of our goal, but actually over 80%.

    Woo hoo!



  12. [12] 
    Michale wrote:

    Woot!!! :D


  13. [13] 
    Michale wrote:


    Personally I think it is a bit of a reach to call Corporations barnstormers;but then again I am somewhat of a curmudgeon.Having read We,and Spirit of St.Louis;both great reads that stand the test of time;I can't muster a sense of the barnstormer these mercenary projects.Perhaps I am a purist.

    Corporations are not the evil entities that our President wants us to believe.

    Everything we have, everything we own, everything we can do came from one of two places.

    Military R&D or Corporate R&D..


  14. [14] 
    Americulchie wrote:

    I am not arguing the merits of research;I knowwe have better living thru chemistry;the old Dupont adage.What I am saying is Barnstorming to me speaks of daredevil loners ie.Chas.Lindbergh; not moneyed FatCats.Becoming more Socialist by the minute.;)

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