GMA Co-anchor Michael Strahan, Alan Shepard’s Daughter to Fly to Space with 4 Others on Blue Origin’s New Shepard Vehicle

Upper left to right: Lane Bess, Cameron Bess, Evan Dick; Lower left to right: Dylan Taylor, Laura Shepard Churchley, Michael Strahan. (Credit: Blue Origin)

New Shepard’s 19th mission will be the first to carry a full manifest of six astronauts to space.

KENT, Wash. (Blue Origin PR) — Blue Origin today announced the crew of its upcoming NS-19 flight on December 9 will include two honorary guests and four paying customers. Guests include Good Morning America co-anchor Michael Strahan and Laura Shepard Churchley, the eldest daughter of Alan Shepard, who was the first American to fly to space. The four customers include space industry executive and philanthropist Dylan Taylor, investor Evan Dick, Bess Ventures founder Lane Bess, and Cameron Bess. Lane and Cameron Bess will become the first parent-child pair to fly in space. 

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To Briefly Go: Billionaires Branson & Bezos Battle for Bragging Rights Where Few Have Gone Before

Richard Branson wears the SpaceShipTwo flight suit. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)
  • Fewer than 25 suborbital spaceflights have ever been conducted
  • Most suborbital launches were conducted with vehicles retired decades ago
  • No suborbital flight has ever carried a paying passenger
  • There is no agreement on what even constitutes a suborbital spaceflight

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

When Richard Branson and three Virgin Galactic employees strap into their seats aboard SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity on Sunday, they will briefly go where not very many have gone before: suborbital space.

Of the 374 attempts to launch astronauts to space since Yuri Gagarin flew into Earth orbit 60 years ago, only 23 were suborbital flights. The majority of those launches were conducted during the 1960’s using vehicles that long ago became museum pieces. One ended with the loss of the spacecraft and its pilot. And two flights were unintentional ones involving vehicles being launched into Earth orbit.

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60 Years Ago: Alan Shepard Becomes the First American in Space

HOSUTON (NASA PR) — In 1961, the United States and the Soviet Union found themselves in a race to put the first human being into space. The United States initiated Project Mercury in 1958 to put the first American into space and selected its first group of astronauts in 1959 to begin training for that mission. The Soviets kept their plans secret but began their own human spaceflight program and selected their own team of 20 cosmonauts in 1960.

The Soviets won the race in April 1961 when cosmonaut Yuri A. Gagarin completed a single orbit around the Earth aboard his Vostok capsule. On May 5, 1961, Alan B. Shepard became the first American in space during a suborbital flight aboard his Mercury capsule named Freedom 7. Three weeks later, based on the success of Shepard’s brief flight, President John F. Kennedy committed the United States to achieving a lunar landing before the end of the decade.

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Three Space Anniversaries: Two Triumphant, One Tragic

Yuri Gagarin

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

This week, the space community marked two triumphant achievements, and dutifully ignored a third space-related anniversary that marked the darkest depths of depravity to which human beings can sink.

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Good Riddance: Disney+ Cancels The Right Stuff

Television’s Mercury Seven weigh in on whether their series is headed for the dust bin of history. (Credit: National Geographic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Deadline reports Disney+ has canceled The Right Stuff, the poorly received television adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s classic book of the same name. Unless Warner Bros. Television, which produced the series, can convince another network to fund a second season, the woebegone show will become a historical footnote about a real historical era.

I managed to catch several episodes recently, and I was profoundly unimpressed. It made going to space a rather dull affair. What were the problems? Let me count the ways.

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Reps. Posey, Crist Introduce American Space Commerce Act

Bill Posey

WASHINGTON, May 11, 2020 (Bill Posey/Charlie Crist PR) — As we pass the 59th Anniversary of the first American human space flight launch that saw Alan Shepard pilot the famous Freedom 7 capsule as part of the Mercury program, U.S. Representatives Bill Posey (R-Florida) and Charlie Crist (D-Florida) introduced bipartisan legislation to build on that important legacy and keep America first in space.

The American Space Commerce Act (H.R. 6783) supports American leadership in space by providing an incentive for American space firms to keep investing in America and launching from American soil.

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National Astronaut Day Celebration Set for Tuesday

NEW YORK (uniphi space agency PR) — Today,  uniphi space agency, a division of uniphi good LLC, is proud to announce the fifth annual National Astronaut Day, featuring an incredible line-up of Astronauts, musicians and entertainers, all participating in virtual, free, family-friendly events, activities and performances on Tuesday, May 5th, 2020. 

This year, in addition to raising funds and awareness for seven charities, the campaign will include a social media campaign to thank the “Frontline Superstars” who have been working tirelessly during the global pandemic, a collaboration with Giving Tuesday Now, and specifically with Giving Tuesday Kids (GTKids), who will be actively participating in different Astronaut activities throughout the day.

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Virgin Galactic Pilots Join 80.46-Kilometer (50-Mile) Club

Richard Branson with the pilots of SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Virgin Galactic pilots Mark “Forger” Stucky and Frederick “C.J.” Sturckow, who were awarded civilian astronaut wings last week, are among 18 pilots who have flown suborbital flights.

The two pilots flew SpaceShipTwo Unity to an altitude of 51.4 miles (82.72 km) on Dec. 13, 2018. That accomplishment qualified them for civilian astronaut wings using an American definition that places the boundary of space at 50 miles (80.46 km).

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Branson’s Autobiography: After SpaceShipTwo’s Loss the Blame Game Began

Nitrous oxide and cabin atmosphere vent from the disintegrating SpaceShipTwo. (Credit: MARS Scientific/NTSB)

Part 3 of 3

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Finding My Virginity: The New Autobiography
Richard Branson
Portfolio
Oct. 10, 2017
482 pages

On the morning of Oct. 31, 2014, a nightmarish vision that had haunted me for months became a real-life disaster in the skies over the Mojave Desert. SpaceShipTwo dropped from its WhiteKnightTwo mother ship, lit its engine and appeared to explode. Pieces of the space plane then began to rain down all over the desert.

The motor had exploded. Or the nitrous oxide tank had burst. At least that’s what I and two photographers – whose pictures of the accident would soon be seen around the world – thought had occurred as we watched the flight from Jawbone Station about 20 miles north of Mojave.

We really believed we had seen and heard a blast nine miles overhead, the photos appeared to show one, and it was the most plausible explanation at the time.

We were wrong. More than two days after the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) revealed that co-pilot Mike Alsbury had prematurely unlocked SpaceShipTwo’s feather system during powered ascent. The ship hadn’t blown up, it had broken up as the twin tail booms reconfigured the vehicle with the engine still burning at full thrust.
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A Niche in Time: First Flight

Richard Branson addresses the crowd before SpaceShipTwo’s glide flight. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Part 5 of 5

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The morning of Dec. 3, 2016, began like so many others in Mojave. The first rays of dawn gave way to a brilliant sunrise that revealed a cloudless, clear blue sky over California’s High Desert.

This was hardly newsworthy. For most of the year, Mojave doesn’t really have weather, just temperatures and wind speeds. It had been literally freezing overnight; the mercury was at a nippy 28º F (-2.2º C) at 4 a.m. As for Mojave’s famous winds – an enemy of roofs, trees and big rigs, but the lifeblood of thousands of wind turbines that cover the landscape west of town – there really weren’t any. It was basically a flat calm.

In other words, it was a perfect day to fly.

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A Niche in Time: Human Flight Through the Ages

Montgolfier brothers balloon

UPDATE: The series is now complete with publication of parts 4 and 5. Links to all the stories are below.

During an extended stay in Paris some years ago, I ventured out beyond the Le Boulevard Périphérique to the Le Musée de l’air et de l’espace at Le Bouget. Having made many a pilgrimage to the American museum with a similar name on the National Mall in Washington, DC, I was interested to see how the French interpreted the history of human flight. It was an eye-opening experience.

Having often gazed up at the Wright Flyer suspended over my head in the Milestones of Flight Gallery, I was accustomed to thinking of human flight as a strictly 20th century development. But, the French museum dated it back 120 years earlier to a pair of equally ambitious brothers, Joseph-Michel and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfiers, who launched piloted balloons. A good part of the museum was devoted to this much earlier phase of flight.

I was reminded of the visit some years later watching HBO’s adaptation of David McCullough’s book, “John Adams.” There’s a great scene of the acerbic, candid-to-a-fault founding father watching a Montgolfier balloon launch with his urbane and delightful wife, Abigail, and the equally urbane and delightful Thomas Jefferson.

It’s a terrific scene in a great mini-series. Watching it you get a sense of the wonder that Parisians felt at the time watching something that would have seemed impossible to them not long before. There’s something universal about flying that excites people no matter what century they live in or what technology is used. The same sense of wonder and excitement connects the Parisians of 1783 to early 20th century Americans who saw an airplane for the first time and those who watched Alan Shepard’s launch from Cape Canaveral in 1961.

Despite the differences in time periods and technologies, there are some fundamental things that are required for all major advances in flight regardless of when they are made: imagination, daring, physical courage and financial backing. And luck. No small amount of luck.

Today, Parabolic Arc begins a five-part series looking at three different periods in powered human flight. We will compare and contrast them to see what essential lessons can be drawn from them. If the first two installments appear to have little to do with spaceflight, please be patient. All will be revealed.

The first post takes us not to 18th century France but to a lake in Southern Germany at the turn of the last century where an aristocrat gave the Montgolfier brothers’ invention a major upgrade.

The Series

Part 1: Behemoths of the Sky
Part 2: “One of the worst catastrophes in the world”
Part 3: “Lock the doors”
Part 4: One Chute
Part 5: First Flight











A Look at the History of Suborbital Spaceflight

Neil Armstrong with the X-15 on the dry lake bed at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.

With Richard Branson once again predicting that Virgin Galactic will fly SpaeShipTwo into space before the end of the year, it seems like a good time to take a look at the history of suborbital spaceflight.

The number of manned suborbital flights varies depending upon the definition you use. The internationally recognized boundary is 100 km (62.1 miles), which is also known as the Karman line. The U.S. Air Force awarded astronaut wings to any pilot who exceeded 80.5 km (50 miles).

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Boldly Going Where 14 Men Have Gone Before

For nearly a dozen years, Virgin Galactic has used the number of individuals who have flown into space as a target to shoot for once the company began suborbital space tourism service. Virgin promised to double the number, which was around 500 when the company launched in 2004, within the first year of operation. That year was originally targeted for 2007 in the confident days after the success of SpaceShipOne.

That goal has long since faded away, and it’s unlikely Virgin will double the number of space travelers during the first year. In any event, the number of space travelers cited by Virgin has always been a bit misleading. The company’s well heeled customers, who are paying upwards of $250,000 per flight, will actually be joining a much more elite group on their suborbital flights.

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