Space tourism celebrates tenth anniversary

space tourism, Dennis Tito
Space tourism
is ten years old this week. On 28 April 2001 millionaire Dennis Tito became the first person to go into space as a tourist and not an astronaut or scientist.

In an interview with BBC today he talked about how thrilled he was and called his eight days being in orbit “paradise.”

While space tourism is the ultimate in high-cost adventure travel–only seven people have done it so far and Tito is said to have paid $20 million for the privilege–private companies are hoping to make it more widely available. They also want to make it more comfortable. Tito was crammed “elbow to elbow” in a Russian capsule after NASA refused to put him on one of the Space Shuttles. Not that he cared at the time. Check out this video of Dennis Tito’s arrival at the International Space Station. The guy’s euphoric!

A number of private companies are looking into commercial space travel. The most serious contender is Virgin Galactic, which has already built a spaceport and put their spaceship Enterprise through a test flight. The company hopes to push an orbital trip down to $200,000, just one percent of what Tito paid. Who knows? Maybe good old free-market competition will push the price even lower than that.

Even more ambitious is Excalibur Almaz, a company based in the Isle of Man that has bought some Russian space capsules that they’re refurbishing. They boast that they’ll offer trips around the Moon by 2015.

Best of luck folks, but I won’t be looking for a Lonely Planet Outer Space in the bookstores anytime soon.

[Photo courtesy NASA]


Second-to-last Space Shuttle launch is big tourism draw

Space Shuttle, Space Shuttle Endeavour
Tomorrow’s launch of the Space Shuttle Endeavour has turned into a major tourist event, the Associated Press reports. NASA estimates half a million people will show up for their second-to-last chance to see a shuttle launch. Other estimates vary from 250,000 to a whopping 700,000. That could rival the crowds that came to see the first Moon mission.

Hotels are sold out and homeowners near John F. Kennedy Space Center are reaping the benefits by renting out spare rooms. Local businesses are also seeing a boom. The AP estimates the launch could pump $15 million into the local economy.

Let’s hope so, because when the last shuttle goes into space this summer, there won’t be any more launches for quite some time. NASA hasn’t finished developing anything to replace the aging shuttle fleet and transport to the International Space Station will be the job of the Russians for the time being.

The Endeavour launch is scheduled for 3:47 EDT tomorrow. It will be mission number 134 for the fleet. The final mission will take place June 28 or later and the honor will go to the Space Shuttle Atlantis.

I’m not surprised this is getting so much attention. I grew up with the Space Shuttle and I’ve always wanted to go to a launch. Sadly, I don’t think I’ll make it. I’ll be cheering, though, especially for mission commander Mark Kelly, husband of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot by a crazed gunman in January. She’s recovered enough to be present when Kelly heads for the stars.

I’ve never met Kelly, but I have met Gabrielle Giffords. She’s the younger sister of a college friend and I met her twenty years ago when she was a bright young Fulbright scholar. While I only chatted with her a few times I always had the impression she’d go far. My friend and I drifted apart, as college friends often do, but over the years I always paid attention to Gabrielle’s career. I wasn’t surprised in the least when she became a Congresswoman. And I won’t be surprised if I see her back in Congress one day.

Have a speedy recovery, Gabrielle, and enjoy the launch for me.

[Image courtesy NASA]

Cockpit Chronicles: Six surreal sights seen by pilots

I’ve said it before; the office view from the pointy-end of an airliner is something that can only be matched by an astronaut’s view.

But that’s not to say we don’t get to see a few celestial sights of our own. No, I’m not going to touch on the rumored UFO sightings by pilots, although I promise I’ll keep my camera ready, just in case. I’m talking about the stunning sights, both man-made and natural that we can witness if we take the time to look for them.

Here are examples of six ‘out of this world’ sights as seen from the cockpit:

1) Rocket plumes and Shuttle launches:

On March 5th, while coming back to Boston from Santo Domingo, we saw the rocket plume of the secretive X-37B project. Even though it launched from Orlando, which was at least 600 miles away, we knew right away what it was. The spiraling exhaust left circles in the sky.

We knew to look for this as a possibility as our flight was dispatched with extra fuel, in case we needed to be re-routed well away from the launch area which was noted at the bottom of our flight plan.

The first sign of the rocket appeared as a trail of exhaust that began to swing off into a contorted lasso. The new moon, less than 24 hours old, presented itself in just the right spot amongst the rocket blast. Of course I had to pull out the camera.

%Gallery-118861%Occasionally, a Shuttle launch can be spotted as well. Back in the 727 days, before carrying a camera everywhere I flew, I saw a Space Shuttle launch while flying from San Juan to Tampa.

Passengers can get lucky as well, as seen in this video that caught the ascent of the Space Shuttle Discovery:

2) Noctilucent Clouds

Another rare natural event, which some speculate is actually enhanced by rocket and shuttle exhaust plumes, are noctilucent clouds.

The conditions have to be just right in order to witness these clouds that live at 300,000 feet, (80 to 85 kilometers) an altitude which seems impossible, considering the lack of atmosphere, for a cloud to exist.

They’re most commonly seen during a two month period that straddles the summer solstice. Furthermore, most sightings occur between 50 and 70 degrees latitude; perfect if you live north of New York, Madrid or Beijing and south of Barrow, Alaska.

Finally, as if to make it as difficult as possible for anyone to catch sight of these clouds, they’re only visible for an hour or two before sunrise or for a while after sunset. The reflecting sun illuminates the clouds from below, lighting them up in the dark sky.

I flew across the Atlantic at night, during the perfect time to witness these clouds, for eight years before finally sighting them. Two weeks before snapping these pictures, I had seen a wisp of a cloud that I probably wouldn’t have given any thought to.

But a British Airways pilot explained the clouds to a few curious pilots over our air-to-air frequency that’s often used to share ride information or to collect an email address of a passing flight if an especially good photo is taken.

He spelled the cloud to a pilot, who asked again for the name. N-O-C-T-I-L-U-C-E-N-T.

I vowed to look that up when we landed.

Less than two weeks later, the captain and I dimmed the lights (a time-consuming task involving 30 knobs that will be the subject of a future Cockpit Chronicles video) so we could get a better look at what appeared to be the Northern Lights.

They were spectacular. But there was one thing that didn’t seem quite right. They weren’t moving at all. Typically the Aurora Borealis glow and change shapes every five seconds or so.

After a few minutes I mentioned noctilucent clouds to Mark, the captain. The clouds lit up the arctic sky, although it was two to three a.m. over this part of the Atlantic. The sun wouldn’t be up for a few hours.

Initially I was disappointed that I only had a wide angle lens with me, but it turned out to be just the right look. I think it ranks as my favorite shot ever.

3) Satellites

I have to confess. I never knew it was possible to see satellites with the naked eye when I was a new pilot flying in Alaska. “Look at that traffic.” I said to the captain.

But soon, it became obvious that this ‘traffic’ was missing the rotating beacon or nav-lights typical of an airplane. And it was traveling too fast for its size.

Space shuttle floating away from the International Space Station last week.Jerry Lodriguss at Astropix

After that, I made it a practice to look for satellites when the conversation in the cockpit died off. Again, after dimming the cockpit lights, it was possible to see north-south satellites while flying over the interior of Alaska. I’ve since seen them going in other directions while flying in the jet. Typically, however they’re best seen between one and three hours after sunset, or before sunrise. Just like the noctilucent clouds, the reflecting sun lights them up well.

It’s possible to track the largest of these kind of objects, the International Space Station, and it’s really worth marking down the times it will pass overhead your area for a look. Set your alarm and check it out yourself. Maybe you’ll catch smaller satellite as well while looking. There’s even a good iPhone or Android app that I’ve been using while away from the computer and you want to know when the next satellite, space station or shuttle will pass overhead.

4) Northern Lights

While not exclusively spotted from aircraft, there’s no better time to see the the Northern Lights than while you’re flying at night, away from the bright lights of a city with a clear view to the north. I’ve caught them as far north as Fairbanks, Alaska and as far south as Spokane, Washington (which were the brightest, surprisingly).

If you’re on a night flight across the Atlantic and you just happen to be sitting on the left side of the airplane while traveling east, be sure to open your window shade once or twice to see if you can see anything glowing off in the distance. Very rarely will a pilot announce anything about the Aurora Borealis on these flights, since we presume that most passengers would rather not be disturbed. (See poll below).

5) Meteors and comets

Meteors are probably just as easy to see from the ground, but when you’re in an airplane for hours at a time, with no buildings or lights to obscure your view, it’s far more likely that you’ll see more meteors than those stuck on the ground (a.k.a. groundlings). Usually just one pilot will see the meteor, saying something along the lines of, “Aww, you just missed a bright one there” to the other pilot. If the light show continues, someone might mention it on the air-to-air frequency. The airwaves were lit up years ago when the Hale-Bopp comet first appeared. And just as in the noctilucent example, someone on the air knew all about the comet and proceeded to tell us exactly what we were looking at.

6) Static discharges or St. Elmo’s Fire

Finally, I thought I’d round out our collection of surreal sights with a video taken on one of my flights of a static buildup, sometimes referred to as St. Elmo’s fire, that we occasionally see when flying in the vicinity of thunderstorms.

Wikipedia has a full explanation of what causes this.

With the advent of the new dimming window shades on the 787, passengers are apt to see more of this type of show in the future. All it takes is a slight glow coming through a dimmed window and passengers will hopefully want to investigate by brightening up their shade. Perhaps they’ll get to see what we so often take for granted.


Photos by Kent Wien, Jerry Lodriguss and Aresauburn.

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston. Have any questions for Kent? Check out the Cockpit Chronicles Facebook page or follow Kent on Twitter @veryjr.

Cockpit Chronicles: Back to the simulator

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as a co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston.

“You have training!” read the message at the top of our company website.

Unlike our vacation or monthly schedule, we have no choice in the timing of our training. So every nine months, plus or minus a month, we know that we’ll be called back to the flight academy for four or five days of what we call “recurrent.”

Ground School

The first two days consist of classroom training that covers subjects such as performance, (which mostly deals with takeoff performance calculations), emergency equipment, federal regulations, security and finally a review of the aircraft’s systems, such as the electrical, hydraulic and flight controls of both the 757 and the 767.

At times, these courses can be tedious. Watching a video on the proper way to set up a 56-man life raft every nine months can test your abilities to stay alert. In fact, it’s torturous.

This year, however, we had a redesigned human factors class. Human factors training covers some of the common mistakes discovered through a pilot self-disclosing program known as “ASAP.”

Often these mistakes are re-created in a simulator and filmed for use as a training aid. This year, one of my flights was featured in the class.

Usually this isn’t something anyone would be proud of. Fortunately it was a video I made for entertainment purposes only. It showed a typical three-day trip from Boston to Paris and it’s now used to lighten things up a bit in the class before diving into more serious topics.

A Shiny New Toy

The other new experience came during the simulator training. The company is in the process of retrofitting all their 757 and 767’s with a new type of cockpit display. These LCD screens are much larger and they replace many of the round dial instruments that are common in the older Boeings.

Currently only one of our airplanes is flying with these new panels, but two of the simulators have been modified, allowing us to get some training in the new layout before flying one for real.

The LCD screens are larger and they display more information without having to switch pages as we’ve had to do in the original design. It’s bright and clear, and it makes flying an approach a little easier, eliminating the requirement for one pilot to display a raw data page while the other displays their map page during certain approaches.

I know there are some people out there who prefer the round dials and old ‘steam gauge’ cockpits, but these people probably would prefer we did away with enclosed cockpits, too. At some point, you have to embrace new technology.

Eventually these screens will include satellite weather and Jeppesen approach plates with airport diagrams built in, an upgrade called the Class 3 electronic flight bag. This will allow us to shed a couple of heavy books from our kit bags.

Since I’m a gadget nut, I’m always in favor of any new technology we can get in the Boeing. Small, general aviation aircraft have had some of these features available to them for years and it’s about time we caught up.

The Simulator

This time I’d be going through the class by myself, which meant that instead of being paired up with another captain, I’d fly with an instructor who would play the role of captain for the scenario. After a two-hour briefing, the instructor, also known as a “sim-P,” or simulator pilot, put me in the box to practice a few maneuvers while getting used to the gorgeous new displays.

The two sim-Ps were retired from Braniff and Eastern Airlines. I’ve always been impressed with these former line pilots. They know what they’re doing and they approach their jobs with surprising enthusiasm, even though they’ve been flying or instructing for quite a few decades.

George and Gary, both former pilots of now defunct airlines, get the simulator ready.

The FAA requires the training of certain maneuvers. You can expect to see aborted takeoffs, an engine failure during the critical phase of flight [like just after lifting off the ground] and a windshear scenario. We also fly a variety of approaches–ILS’s, VOR, RNAV and visual approaches–often times with only one engine operating.

After the required maneuvers are completed, they often give you a chance to see or try something you could never do in the actual airplane. I asked to do a no-flaps takeoff, since that had been in the news lately as well as a landing where I attempted to fly slow enough to touch the aft fuselage at touchdown.

The flaps-up takeoff went surprisingly well. I suspect the 757 has the wing design and the added thrust to handle that situation better than the DC-9 or MD-80’s that have had problems. Of course, there would never be a situation that you’d want to be in this predicament, but it’s nice to know more about what the airplane can do?

The intentional tail strike turned out to be much more difficult than I expected. Even though I was 15 knots slower than the normal approach speed for our weight, we still didn’t touch the aft part of the fuselage to the ground. After touchdown, I pulled back and I was surprised to see how much of an angle was required to finally get a strike. This 757 was much less prone to a tail strike than the 767-300 or even the 737-800.

We continued down the runway dragging the rear end. I imagined huge sparks flying from our tail section. This would have been an expensive lesson in the real airplane that would have resulted in a visit to the chief pilot’s office followed by some remedial training.

After 4 hours in the simulator, George was confident I’d pass my checkride with a check airman the next day.

Fortunately, I’d have Gary, the former Eastern pilot who acted as my captain during the training session, with me in the left seat for the checkride.

The next day from 6 to 8 p.m., I answered the questions the check airman asked about the airplane’s systems and then we discussed some of the problems pilots have seen on the line.

At 8:15, Gary and I jumped in the simulator and flew a variety of maneuvers and dealt with some equipment failures and fires for two hours, and then we took a short break before coming back to the 757 simulator for the official checkride.

For the next two hours, we operated as a normal flight from Reno to San Francisco. We discussed the unusual two-eng
ine and single-engine departures from Reno, that require a variety of turns to avoid the high terrain in the area, and we also looked at the arrival into San Francisco.

We made sure to discuss the procedure for a one-engine go-around at SFO and how its path differed from the two-engine go-around. Had we not briefed this difference, the check airman would have almost certainly given us an engine failure followed by a go-around.

With just a push of a button, our instructor could have created one of literally hundreds of problems for us to contend with. But this flight was to simulate a more normal scenario with a single mechanical problem, which is more realistic.

After taxiing out and taking off, the check airman gave us a small air-conditioning problem that was resolved quickly. The issue, a ‘pack trip,’ was small enough that we could continue the simulated flight to San Francisco.

Compared to the day before and the first two hours of the checkride, this was a rather simple task. We landed, pulled up to the gate and finished the parking checklist before the walkway was lowered to the hydraulically-actuated simulator for our ‘deplaning.’

The check airman gave a short debrief. His only issue for me that night was that I hadn’t annunciated “Autopilot Off” loud enough when I clicked the button on the yoke to hand-fly the approach. A legitimate gripe that I’ll happily take after four-hours in the simulator.

While I enjoyed the initial training that lasts four to six weeks and the excitement that comes with learning a new airplane, no one ever looks forward to recurrent training. And even though I managed to crack a smile and have a few laughs with some great instructors this week, it was an exhilarating feeling to leave the flight academy knowing I was good for another 9 months.

After training, I had to fly a four-day trip over Thanksgiving, but you might want to hold off with any sympathy for me until after you see where I’ll be going. Stay tuned!

Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on some of Kent’s trips as an international co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 based in Boston.

Mommy, what does space smell like?

Now you know. According to a NASA flight engineer on a International Space Station mission, space smells like “an arc welding torch repairing heavy equipment for a small logging outfit.” Or more succinctly, “pleasant sweet-smelling welding fumes.”

Yums. Another useless (but quite interesting) piece of trivia to know.

Of course, there’s always somebody to burst your bubble. One theory is the smell has something to do with LCVG and PLSS, which are responsible for regulating and radiating heat away form the user (respectively). Out in the space vacuum, these chemicals may get vaporized, and hence, that “sweet-smelling welding fume.”

Then, there’s the alternative explanation. “That’s God’s crotch you’re smelling.”