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

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]

Google Wants a Moon Rover Bad: More Private Space Travel to Follow?

Fly me to the moon. If it’s a robot you’re talking about, you’re on. Google has a grand plan. The company will pay 30 million dollars to the company that can make them a robotic moon rover, get it there, and get it to beam images and a video back to Earth so they can put it on their Web site. This endeavor is being run like a contest. Any private company in the world that can do this by the end of 2012 gets the dough. If there isn’t anyone who is successful by then, the contest is still on until 2014, but the prize money drops to $15 million.

If you have a private company that might be up to the task, here’s a little check list to help you keep track of the Google X Prize contest requirements. The moonrover must be able to:

  • survive a landing with cameras and high definition video in working order
  • trek at least 1,312 feet on the moon
  • take pictures of itself, plus panoramic shots and a real time video (close to real time)
  • beam those shots and video back to Earth so they can be posted and streamed on Google’s Web site.

These robot building races are not new. In a contest last year, robots raced across the Mojave Desert. William Whittaker who is at Carnegie Mellon University, was in charge of two of those robots and now has his eyes on Google’s carrot, and probably not so much for the money. It’s not that anyone will make a fortune if they are successful. Space missions are pricey. Getting the rover to the moon is a large part of the cost so financially it may be a wash, particularly if you don’t meet the 2012 deadline.

From what I read, it sounds like the challenge of saying, “We did it” might make this happen more than the money will. If it does, this might make commercial space travel closer to the rest of us. Since Google has paired with X Prize Foundation, the organization responsible for the first private spaceflight in 2004, I’d say we might be watching a moon rover do it’s thing on our computer screen one of these days. By 2012, I wonder what those computers will look like? Doesn’t 2012 sound like a long way away? It’s only 7 years. Gaad.