What is it about the NW that makes the rich yearn for outer space?

Feb 28, 2012

What is it about our super rich tech guys and local culture that makes them want to send people into outer space?

Yesterday, the space venture backed by Jeff Bezos (of Amazon fame) announced it was ready to conduct a “pad-abort test” in the summer of 2012, according to Flightglobal. The test is a crucial milestone in qualifying the company's New Shepard vehicle for human spaceflight.  

In December, Paul Allen (of Microsoft fame) announced he was bankrolling a dramatic new space-craft, which aims to launch satellites later this decade, and maybe people, too. The project uses an airplane made from two rebuilt Boeing 747’s. 

Boyhood dreams

Both projects founded by Northwest tech gurus are racing to get to space first with the best equipment both as capital venture and, well, for the geeky-DIY thrill of it.

Here’s Allen, who said in December that he’s been fascinated by spaceships since he was a kid:

“I think it’s well known that I'm a huge fan of anything that pushes forward the boundaries of what we can do in science and technology, that’s my history, those are my passions. Anything from the Brain Institute, to SpaceShipOne, the radio telescope. Anything that pushes those boundaries and increases our ability to do new things, to me, is an exciting opportunity.”

Allen launched his space plans in a Seattle news conference. He announced his company Stratolaunch would build a system that looks a little like a flying catamaran. It will be the largest airplane ever built, with six jet engines. And hanging from the wing in the middle will be a rocket. The giant plane will fly to 30-thousand feet, and then drop the rocket, which will shoot from there into orbit. 

Bezos said in 2004 that he too has wanted to join the space race since he was a boy.

“I very much hope to go up one day, and I think that will happen,” Bezos said. “I think I will go up on a Blue Origin vehicle.”

The Bezos hop and fail

How Bezos' company Blue Origin describes its orbiter:

“Our New Shepard system will take astronauts to space on suborbital journeys. The New Shepard vehicle includes a Crew Capsule carrying three or more astronauts atop a separate rocket-powered Propulsion Module, launched from our West Texas Launch Site.

“Following liftoff, the combined vehicles accelerate for approximately two and a half minutes. The Propulsion Module then shuts off its rocket engines and separates from the Crew Capsule. The Propulsion Module will finish its flight, descend to Earth, and autonomously perform a rocket-powered vertical landing. “

Bezos announced in Sept. of last year: “Three months ago, we successfully flew our second test vehicle in a short hop mission, and then last week we lost the vehicle during a developmental test at Mach 1.2 and an altitude of 45,000 feet. A flight instability drove an angle of attack that triggered our range safety system to terminate thrust on the vehicle. Not the outcome any of us wanted …”

Since then the company has said a second New Shepard vehicle is being built, but declined to provide additional details, according to Flightglobal.

You can find videos of the company’s successful hop test flight here.

(Video purported to be representative of the Bezos venture.)

Competing space news

Reuters reported today that Virgin Galactic, an offshoot of Richard Branson's Virgin Group, expects to test fly its first spacecraft beyond the Earth's atmosphere this year, with commercial suborbital passenger service to follow in 2013 or 2014, company officials said on Monday.

The news service reports that nearly 500 customers have signed up for rides on SpaceShipTwo.

And Allen’s company said earlier this month that has closed in on the purchase of the first of two Boeing 747 planes from United Airlines.

His company engineers have “developed a complete plan for how the engines, landing gear, hydraulics and other subsystem components of these aircraft will be disassembled and reintegrated into a custom composite aircraft to be built by Scaled Composites in Stratolaunch's new integration facility being built at the Mojave Air and Space Port.”

Here's Stratolaunch's video of the press conference in Seattle:

Go here for a video demonstration of Allen's spaceship.