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Alan Boyle: Cosmic Log

'Weightless' flights could start this summer

April 23, 2004 | 8 p.m. ET
Countdown to zero-G:
Starting this summer, you'll be able to get a substantial dose of aerial weightlessness without having to work out a deal with the Russians or NASA — that is, if things work out the way Peter Diamandis plans.

Diamandis, who is chairman and chief executive officer of Zero Gravity Corp. as well as founder and president of the X Prize Foundation, says Zero Gravity's flights are scheduled to get off the ground in June, assuming the Federal Aviation Association approves. He provided an update on the long-simmering project today during the Space Access '04 conference in Phoenix.

The flights, modeled after the ones provided by NASA's "Vomit Comet," would give paying passengers about 20 short doses of zero-gravity in the course of a 90-minute flight.

NASA's zero-G flights are conducted purely for scientific or training purposes, and aren't for sale. Space Adventures offers a similar zero-G experience, but you have to go to Russia and fly on an Ilyushin-76 to get it. List price for the Russian tour package is $6,995.

The price point for Zero Gravity's offering would be substantially less than that — $2,950 — and Americans wouldn't have to take the long trip to Russia. The ride would be on a cargo Boeing 727, leased from Amerijet International Airlines and specially outfitted for the flight. The operation would be based in Fort Lauderdale and Miami, Fla., Diamandis said, but the planes could go on the road for special events.

Between now and the start of service, FAA authorities have to check out the way Zero Gravity will be modifying the cargo jets to make sure they're up to spec, and they'll monitor four demonstration flights scheduled for May, Diamandis said. Volunteers need not apply; Zero Gravity staff members will be taking those practice flights, he said.

The company could start taking deposits for later flights as early as next week. Watch the Web site for updates. Diamandis noted that he's been working on the project since 1993 — and hopes that Zero Gravity will be "an overnight success after 11 years of hard work."

April 23, 2004 | Updated 7:10 p.m. ET
Xcor gets launch go-ahead:
California-based Xcor Aerospace has received the world's second launch license for a reusable manned space vehicle, the Federal Aviation Administration announced today. The license, coming just weeks after the precedent was set for Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne project, helps clear the way for Xcor to test its suborbital space plane more extensively in the Mojave Desert — but there are more steps required.

Xcor hasn't entered the X Prize competition, but it's hoping to be a big player in the market for suborbital spaceflight, with seats priced in the under-$100,000 range. Check out the full story.

April 23, 2004 | 8 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
'Nova' on PBS: 'Lost Treasures of Tibet'
The Economist: Dark side of the moon
NASA's 'new and improved' Space Place
Military.com: Army develops liquid body armor

April 22, 2004 | 4:15 p.m. ET
Your turn on Earth Day: Has politics ruined the environmental message of Earth Day? Or is politics really what the day is all about?

The day was first set aside by San Francisco in 1970 to "remind each person of his right, and the equal right of every other person, to the use of this global home and at the same time the equal responsibility of each person to preserve and improve the Earth and the quality of life thereon."

That first Earth Day was celebrated on March 21, the date of the vernal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. But a month later, the Environmental Teach-In held a complementary observance also known as Earth Day — and the rest is history.

A lot has changed since then, both in the environmental state of the world and in attitudes toward Earth Day and eco-politics. In honor of the day, here are some of the observations received in response to this week's Earth Day scene-setter:

James G. Edwards, Clovis, N.M.: "As one who's made life changes, doesn't drive an SUV, rescued four dogs and 30 cats, etc., I have to say that the growing politicization of the environmental movement greatly distresses me: To be exact, I find the infiltration of leftist ideology and the adoption of guerrilla-style tactics by radical animal rights groups is disturbing.

"It's as if the left is this black hole circling the world that sucks you into it the moment you let go of the finest point of order. But what is the left's actual tangible record on the environment?

"Seventy-five years of leftist stewardship of one-quarter of the world's surface has created an environmental catastrophe that makes capitalism's record in, say, Brazil, seem mildly unfortunate. The former Soviet Union is a semi-radioactive wasteland. Lake Baikal is a dead sea. The delicate taiga has been destroyed for hundreds of miles around concrete cities built by 'pioneers' just after the Stalin era. Not to mention the cultural and human wasteland of what was one of the world's great civilizations.

"China, too, contributes more to atmospheric pollution than any other country on Earth. The life expectancy of workers is half what it is in the West. Hundreds if not thousands of miners die every year.

"Yet these two nations — or their remnants — are never singled out for stricture by Earth First, PETA, etc. The doublethink is mind-boggling.

"Maybe the 'environmentalists' can't see the forest for the trees, but what 18 years of education can't provide, the merest acquaintance with the way life is lived, in the streets and in the sticks, should: perspective. And this is exactly what the left, including the 'earth movement,' lacks. I always knew that if environmentalism veered into dictating to people how they should be living, without first changing their hearts and minds, it would fail. And so it has."

Wade Whitlock, Aberdeen, Md.: "Earth Day, and the Bushies are proposing another study! What kind of manipulation are they going to put on the 'EKG' data, do you suppose? How good would it be for giving warning of a massive change in the polar caps or the Atlantic Conveyor? If Bush gets another four years, there will be four less years to get our sensory organ clusters out of our ventral orifices and get busy doing what we should have been doing since the 1970s.

"Petroleum is too valuable as a feedstock to waste as a fuel. Coal is too damn dirty to be used without some really heavy duty processing (I really don't appreciate having my grandkids breathing mercury, arsenic and much of the rest of the periodic table.).

"Go on the highways and watch the Stupidly Useless Vehicles doing 80-plus in a 55 zone with no speed enforcement. The Maryland State Police are targeting 'aggressive' drivers now. Their gas mileage is probably about 10 mpg.

"So, we are counting contrails instead of targeting the real problem: the Bush Oligarchy and the Republican Party. (I was a card-carrying Goldwater Conservative until Dubya was nominated — then I really got Independent!) Or maybe we are going to have a 'faith-based' ecology!"

S.A. Franklin, Picayune, Miss.: "With regard to Earth Day, I think it's important that the international community get involved. Facts that we know are: ozone depletion, cancer rates escalating, ground water depletions, glaciers melting, etc., to name a few. If people would make even small changes in their neck of the woods, we may be able to circumvent problems on a global scale; it's not one country's agenda, it's all of ours. Take a macro view of what's happening. We see the symptoms, let's make changes for the betterment of mankind while we still can."

Richard Bennett, Gurley: "I think all you environmentalists should set the example for the rest of the world. Go home disconnect all your electrical and electronic appliances. Turn in your car keys, and ride a horse — better yet, walk to the next major event you want to demonstrate against. Do this for a year, then I will listen to your story. For now, stuff it."

Bill McCartney, Yukon, Okla.: "I can't make an informed position statement concerning Earth Day and the environment, but I can about what I see in this country today; politics will prevent any notable change. It will take a warlike effort from a united populace, and America is so dramatically divided at this time, I only see more of the same. This America is not FDR's America. Greed rules ... sad."

Chris Cole, Sterling, Va.: "... Should we be better stewards of this world that has been entrusted to us? Absolutely, and we have improved immensely in the last couple of decades. We should continue to improve our efforts.

"Should we turn ourselves into a horse-driven, agrarian third-world caricature of ourselves in the process of returning to the perceived pristine 'innocence' of our pre-industrial roots? I cannot imagine many of the proponents of radical environmental policies would be willing to return to the disease, mortality and quality-of-life metrics that prevailed in 'the good old days.'

"Besides, imagine replacing tens of millions of vehicles with horses. Then imagine the associated logistics of removing and properly disposing of another kind of pollution (or, rather, the vegetation transformation byproducts). ...

"Alternative energy sources? OK, pursue them with gusto, but as they say in theater auditions, in the meantime 'don't quit your day job.' Change is a process that the mature can understand, but which militates against the instant gratification worldview of the petulant and immature. We didn't get where we're at overnight and we won't solve all the problems overnight either. Society can't be quickly jerked into a new direction like a nimble little Zodiac rubber boat; it's more like trying to turn the QE2. Chart a course and resolutely steer towards it, but don't jump overboard if the results do not appear immediately. Stick with it and stay the course."

April 21, 2004 | 4:10 p.m. ET
Future astronauts: The names of NASA's next crop of astronauts are leaking out, even though the official announcement is being held back until May 6. As NBC's James Oberg reported two weeks ago, the space agency has selected 14 astronauts for the class of 2004, including three Japanese candidates who have been previously named.

The class also includes three teacher-astronauts, keeping alive a tradition that started with New Hampshire's Christa McAuliffe, who died in the 1986 Challenger tragedy, and that continued with Idaho's Barbara Morgan, who has gone through full NASA training and is waiting for her first flight.

This year's candidates include Joe Acaba, a teacher from Dunnellon Middle School in Florida, and Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger, an astronomy teacher at Hudson's Bay High School in Vancouver, Wash. The third space teacher has not yet been named publicly, but it's only a matter of time.

The U.S. Air Force, meanwhile, announced on Wednesday that the class would include one of its own, Maj. James Dutton of Edwards Air Force Base in California. Dutton, a noted test pilot for the F/A-22 Raptor warplane, was the only airman selected out of 208 who applied, the Air Force said.

This year's astronaut candidates will have to take up residence in the Houston area and train at NASA's Johnson Space Center for at least a year before they can become eligible for spaceflight. By then, there may well be a new breed of private-sector astronauts on the scene, courtesy of the X Prize competition. That will surely be a topic of conversation at the Space Access ’04 Conference in Phoenix, where I'll be spending the next couple of days.

There's already a buzz surrounding what may well be the X Prize endgame, with big announcements due next month. Rumors are rife about upcoming launch licenses, flight attempts, behind-the-scenes books and spaceport plans. Stay tuned for the news from Phoenix.

April 21, 2004 | 6:45 p.m. ET
Coming attractions on the World Wide Web:
NASA: A gathering of planets, Vol. II
European Southern Observatory: Venus Transit 2004
Defense Tech: Are you ready for some spyball?
Wired.com: Virtual reality the world over

April 20, 2004 | 8:30 p.m. ET
Touchscreen troubles: This week is providing more ammunition for the folks who are worried about the pitfalls of electronic voting systems. Today, the Oakland Tribune says attorneys warned the country's biggest e-voting provider, Diebold Election Systems, that its uncertified software could get it in legal trouble. Diebold reportedly used the faulty system anyway last month for California's Super Tuesday primary — an election marred by glitches and irregularities.

A Diebold spokesman told the Tribune that "those issues can be addressed" and that the company was working with California election officials to iron out any problems. But the report drew an outcry from e-voting skeptics.

Those skeptics seem to be increasingly active: Today, a new group called "Voters Unite!" is starting a leafleting drive to inform local election officials about the potential problems. On Wednesday, a coalition of activists is planning an anti-e-voting rally, to coincide with a meeting of the California State Voting Systems Panel.

The issue of e-voting security and privacy also will be highlighted at the annual Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference, conducted this week in Berkeley, Calif. E-voting activists already are reportedly recruiting volunteer "Clean-Up Crews" who would monitor polling places and get the word out about computer-related irregularities.

It may seem ironic that e-voting has sparked such a controversy in high-tech America, while it's been seen as a godsend for countries such as India, Mexico, Australia, Brazil and elsewhere. Perhaps it's because the other countries have built in some low-tech safeguards, or perhaps it's just because so many more people in America know about computer technology and its limitations. Check out this report on the e-voting debate, part of our comprehensive coverage of the controversy.

April 20, 2004 | 8:30 p.m. ET
Scientific stops on the World Wide Web:
Nature: Old records saved by particle physics
Slate: What does a planetary protection officer do?
Scientific American: Seeking the densest matter
Popular Science: The most potent force in science today!

April 19, 2004 | 11 p.m. ET
Earth Day vs. doomsday: It may sound like a holiday, but there's likely to be more soul-searching than celebrating when Earth Day rolls around on Thursday.

On one hand, there's a new crop of eco-scares, ranging from fossil-fuel depletion to ocean degradation to ice-age devastation. On the other hand, governments and industries are all too willing to brush off or paper over environmental problems, particularly in an election year.

PBS' contribution to the Earth Day debate, "World in the Balance," manages to avoid a state of panic as well as a state of denial. The two-hour double feature, airing Tuesday on most public-TV stations, traces the environmental implications of population trends, economic development, global outsourcing, women's rights and AIDS.

Instead of taking on the controversies surrounding U.S. policies on climate change, oil exploration and pollution standards — which would be the predictable course for a show about environmental issues — "World in the Balance" looks at how the dynamics of population and consumption are playing out in India and Japan, Kenya and China.

But there's a message for Americans as well. For example, Dan Jaffe, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington, found to their surprise that the air wafting over the Pacific to America's West Coast was laden with pollutants traceable to China.

"We're one of the most consumptive countries in the world," Jaffe says, "and if the rest of the world emulates us, the global atmosphere is going to suffer ... the world is going to suffer."

So what is to be done? You can make lifestyle changes, and you can follow suggestions from the Environmental Protection Agency or the Sierra Club. But if you're of a scientific bent, you'll also want to get a better handle on the environmental data and contribute your own observations. Here are a couple of initiatives of particular interest:

GLOBE/NASA Contrail Count-a-Thon: Students and scientists across the country will be observing jet contrails on Earth Day. "Contrails, especially persistent contrails, represent a human-caused increase in the Earth's cloudiness, and are likely to be affecting climate and ultimately our natural resources," GLOBE says. The survey results could help scientists gain insights into links between contrails and climate.

Earth Observation Summit: Forty-seven countries and the European Commission will be meeting in Tokyo next weekend to move ahead on plans to produce what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls an "Earth EKG" — a matrix of environmental statistics that could give advance warning of, say, disease outbreaks or crop failures. For more on the concept, check out NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher's comments at "State of the Planet ’04."

April 19, 2004 | 11 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
EV World: Bubble fusion results replicated (via Slashdot)
BBC: Brain chips could help the paralyzed
N.Y. Times (reg.req.): Seeking the lost fleets of Persian Wars
IOL: Ancient inscribed slab brought to light
Science News: Reinventing the yo-yo

The fine print: Looking for older items? Check the Cosmic Log archive. Share your perspective on cosmic subjects with Alan Boyle. If you link to this page, you can use http://cosmiclog.msnbc.com or http://www.cosmiclog.com as the address. MSNBC is not responsible for the content of Internet links.


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