Space Travel Update: Texas, Virgin and the Federation

Space travel for all of us is slowly becoming a reality as legislators weigh in, job postings go up and the future begins to unfold before our eyes. Just a day after the 50th anniversary celebration of the world’s first human spaceflight in 1961, the timing could not be better.

Commercial Space Travel got a big thumbs up from the Texas legislature this week as lawmakers approved a bill Monday limiting the liability that space travel companies might face.

The Texas legislature move provides protection for space travel companies operating in the state. While still liable for gross negligence or damage to non-participants, those who sign up for a ride into space would assume the risk of space travel should they be injured or die.

Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic has launched its search for pilot-astronauts to work at their private spaceline. Qualified candidates can apply online as can those interested in booking a flight.

“These will be the very first commercial Pilots-Astronauts, something which will undoubtedly excite the interest of a great many” says Virgin in the job posting. Suddenly this is not the whim of a billionaire off on his next great adventure. Job postings bring it right down here to street level don’t they?

Gadling’s Justin Delaney took us to San Francisco last week as Gadling took part in Virgin’s latest celebration of innovation and gave us a look at commercial plans to pierce space with their Galactic platform.

Finally, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation is set for a big announcement today. The industry association of leading businesses and organizations working to make commercial human spaceflight a reality, will be making a major announcement today, the day after the 50th anniversary celebration of the world’s first human spaceflight in 1961.

Flickr photo by NASA Goddard Photo and Video

Europe expands high-speed train system with new bridge

A new bridge across the Ill river in Strasbourg is a major step forward for the European Union’s plans for a high-speed railway reaching from Paris to Bratislava, the BBC reports.

An earlier bridge had only one track and could only carry trains going a maximum of 100 kph (62mph). The new bridge has two tracks and can deal with trains going 160kph (99mph). The Paris-Bratislava line is one of a network of high-speed railways being built across the EU, but with a price tag of 63 million euros ($84 million) just for the bridge, construction is being affected by the economic crisis. Some countries have already cut back funding and delayed projects. Still, high-speed trains are becoming increasingly popular across Europe because they’re more comfortable than planes, and more convenient since they take passengers from city center to city center.

The French city of Strasbourg is close to the German border and home to the European Parliament. It’s also attractive to tourists for its medieval and Renaissance architecture.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Prehistoric balls may have built Stonehenge

There have been a lot of theories over the years about how Stonehenge was built. Moving massive stones ranging from 4 to 45 tons over hundreds of miles isn’t easy in modern times, and certainly was a challenge 4,500 years ago. The two leading theories–log rollers and wooden sledges greased with animal fat–both have detractors. Many archaeologists believe rollers would have left deep scars in the landscape and one can be found, while reenactments with sledges have shown it would take hundreds of people to move the largest stones.

Now National Geographic reports a new theory. British graduate student Andrew Young thinks grooved wooden rails fitted with stone balls would have made an easy surface on which to move the stones. The balls acted like ball bearings and giant stones could have been pulled along on top. He tried it out with a team of seven people and found they could easily move a load of four tons. Only a relatively short length of track would be needed because the rails and balls could be pulled up once the stone passed and placed at the front.

He got the idea by studying mysterious stone balls found near stone circles in Scotland. They didn’t appear to have any purpose until he noticed they’re all exactly 70mm (3 inches) in diameter, suggesting they were part of some greater mechanism.

It’s an interesting idea, but this former archaeologist isn’t convinced yet. No stone balls have been found in England. Young says old-growth wood could have worked just as well and wouldn’t have survived, and that’s possible, but civil engineer Mark Whitby told National Geographic that the biggest stones in Stonehenge would have crushed the balls into the tracks. A larger-scale demonstration is being planned to study this issue.

Generally the KISS method (Keep It Simple, Stupid) points to the most probable solution. Wood was plentiful and making smooth rollers out of tree trunks would have been the easiest solution. Rollers and a bunch of strong prehistoric Britons, helped by teams of oxen, would have been the cheapest and least technologically demanding way to move the stones. While this would have left marks on the land, it’s an open question whether they’d still be visible after 4,500 years of weathering.

The KISS method also explains why aliens didn’t build Stonehenge.

The balls idea is still worth investigating, and considering that Young has come up with such an innovative and perhaps correct answer to a major archaeological mystery while still a PhD student in biosciences hints that I’ll be writing more about him in the future.

[Photo courtesy Mister Rad via Gadling’s flickr pool]

Virgin Galactic’s spaceship Enterprise flies first solo run

The world is one step closer to the era of space tourism after an historic flight in the Mojave desert yesterday.

Virgin Galactic’s spaceship Enterprise took its first solo flight, detaching from the mothership Eve and landing on its own power.

Enterprise can carry six passengers and two crew. The mothership Eve carries Enterprise up into the sky before the Enterprise detaches and ignites its rocket, shooting it above the atmosphere and into space, but not high enough to achieve orbit. The rocket was not fired on this test flight and no passengers were on board. The crew consisted of pilots Pete Siebold and Mike Alsbury, who flew for 25 minutes before landing.

More than three hundred people have already signed up to take a suborbital ride on the Enterprise once it becomes operational. Rides cost $200,000 each and are scheduled to start in about eighteen months.

The British owner of Virgin, Sir Richard Branson, watched the test. The success of the operation came as good news after Virgin Galactic’s financial difficulties.

Would you fly into space if you had the money? Tell us what you think in the comments section!

Virgin Galactic launcher delayed

We’ve covered space tourism company Virgin Galactic a lot here on Gadling. What hasn’t gotten so much discussion is LauncherOne, a rocket that would take off from the WhiteKnightTwo mother ship, the same ship that carries SpaceshipTwo. While SpaceShipTwo is a space plane that would detach from the mother ship and fly into the high atmosphere, LauncherOne is a more conventional rocket that would carry a satellite weighing up to 440 lbs into low orbit.

Originally it was supposed to start sending satellites into space a year after the space tourism business started, but now LauncherOne is in trouble. The manager of the project has left and there’s no timetable for getting the system operational. One UK satellite company has backed out of discussions about using LauncherOne.

Virgin owner Sir Richard Branson said the tourism business is still on track and will start sending tourists into the highest reaches of the atmosphere within 18 months at the price of $200,000 a pop. More than three hundred people have already signed up.

What does LauncherOne’s troubles mean for space tourism? That’s not so clear. While the LauncherOne isn’t part of Virgin Galactic’s tourism service, it makes the whole program more financially viable. Without the fees charged to satellite owners to use LauncherOne, Virgin Galactic may have to raise its prices or shove in more passengers. Will coach class come to space? Stay tuned.

[Photo courtesy Mark Greenberg and Virgin Galactic]