Friday, August 20, 2010

The Hockey Stick of Professional Astronauts

Note: This article has been updated to clarify its focus on the number of people getting to space, removing to my best capability what mistakenly came across as comparing suborbital systems with no track record to much more capable orbital systems in any other term than the fact of raising the count of people getting above 100km, the official border of space.

Astronaut is a general term for people who get to space, meaning beyond 100 kilometer (62 mile) altitude, also known as the Kármán line. Over the passing decades since the first astronauts, the title was worn mostly by government workers, hand-picked to do some pretty ordinary things such as install antennas and structural modules, measure blood pressure or grow plants (not counting the early days anomaly of going to the moon). Of course, doing these things about 400km above sea-level, relying on technology for life-support in an otherwise very hostile environment and all that after being strapped to a rocket. OK, not so ordinary after all.

For several years, and with more vigor than ever since the first X-Prize and SpaceShipOne, several companies (some of which presented at NSRC earlier this year) are working on a type of vehicle that will take people to space and back without completing an orbit (suborbital) and in between provide three to five minutes of micro-gravity, useful as a joy ride or for conducting science. As these vehicles become human rated, it is possible that after it took about fifty years to get the first five hundred people into the sixty two mile club, it may take a tenth of that or less to get the next five hundred in. I'll leave the economics aside, as I want to try and understand the nature of these next five hundred and ponder about their similarities and differences to the five hundred that saw the curvature of the Earth first.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Space Birthdays - Real and Science Fiction

Space birthday - Collage Greetings
Thanks to twitter and @thinkgeek I noticed that today is the birth date of Gene Roddenberry, the father of Star Trek. A short search leading to the Brainy History web site revealed somewhat of a statistical aberration - three Star Trek people and three astronauts were born on this date.
Apart from Gene Roddenberry, both Jonathan Frakes (Commander William T. Riker) and Diana Muldaur (Dr. Katherine Pulaski), both from Star Trek: The Next Generation, were born on this date.

On the NASA front, astronauts Franklin Story Musgrave (only astronaut to fly on board of all five Space Shuttles), Michael J. Massimino (shuttle astronaut, a.k.a. @astro_mike, perhaps the most active astronaut on social media, the first astronaut to tweet from space) and Charles F. Bolden Jr. (shuttle astronaut, NASA administrator since 2009) were all born on this date.
On the Russian side, Vladimir Borisovich Alekseyev was also born on that date (a Soyuz VI cosmonaut), meaning that out of the 547 astronauts (at least according to Wikipedia), four were born on August 19, about 0.73%, or about 2.7 times more than the statistical 1/365 chance of being born on a certain date (leap year excluded).

For those of you still in this world, Happy Birthday! Don't forget to look up!