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Cosmic Log: Oct. 8-14, 2005

Oct. 14, 2005 |
Evolutionary turnabout: The tide in Pennsylvania's intelligent-design trial is shifting, with the pro-Darwin plaintiffs coming to the end of their witness list and the pro-design defendants getting ready to call their witnesses. The tide in the scientific community is shifting as well, with scientists starting to realize that they have to plead their case more forcefully in the court of public opinion — and at the same time recognizing that they won’t always win an “us-vs.-them” debate.

On both sides, Web logs are ramping up to cover the intelligent-design debate in general and the trial in particular. For the pro-ID view, there's Evolution News & Views and Intelligent Design the Future. For the other side of the argument, there's The Panda's Thumb and Pharyngula. Carl Zimmer's award-winning blog, The Loom, doesn't get into the trial so much, but does an excellent job of explaining the deep wonders of evolutionary science.

Scientific societies are getting into the act as well: It's no longer just Talk.Origins and the National Center for Science Education vs. Answers in Genesis and Creation Science Evangelism. The American Association for the Advancement of Science has put together extensive resources on the evolution debate. And over the next week, the Geological Society of America will be presenting several panels on the issue, including a presentation on "grassroots activities" for promoting the teaching of evolutionary biology. The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology is also addressing the topic at its annual meeting next week.

The National Science Foundation has provided support for an "Explore Evolution" exhibit that's making its way around the country, as well as a Web site called Understanding Evolution (which sparked a lawsuit this week, in yet another legal turnabout).

Will all this activity and legal wrangling make much of a dent in public opinion? Even some of ID's sharpest critics wonder about that. In his blog, Nathan Newman says the Pennsylvania court case may be counterproductive even if the plaintiffs win:

"Yes, we need to fight for the truth of scientific accuracy and evolution in the public sphere, but using the courts because we have failed to convince a majority of the population of evolution is both anti-democratic and bad strategy over the long term."

And in a posting to the scholarly Cambridge Conference Network, Towson College planetary scientist Alex Storrs observes that "confronting ignorance with information is rarely effective," and that it's generally up to students (and, by extension, the wider public) to work out the truth on their own:

"We all know that science isn't done by public debate and consensus, but the majority of the human race doesn't know this, and feels these are good ways to arrive at the 'truth.' My approach to the problem is to try to give my students the best education I can, whether they want it or not. I take an entire semester to do this, not just an hour or two of debate, and even then don't achieve 100 percent results."

In that spirit, then, here's another helping of reader mail on the subject of intelligent design:

Dennis McClain-Furmanski, Lawton, Okla.: "The next time discussion turns to 'intelligent design,' I have a couple of pertinent suggestions for the Used Book Club. A major proposition of the ID contingent is that the universe and its contents, including life, are so complex, that it would require some sort of intelligent agent to guide the creation. I suggest first then, 'Chaos: Making a New Science' by James Gleick."It elegantly describes the historical and scientific backgrounds of the discovery of the forces in nature that are really at work, as opposed to the idealized problem-and-answer sets provided in most science textbooks. It covers the discovery of chaos in complex dynamic systems and how this results in coherent complex structures that seem to defy thermodynamics. It also covers the people involved in these discoveries and their stories, and culminates with the creation of the Santa Fe Institute for the Study of Complex Systems, which I've had the honor of attending twice."The bottom lines here are that the amount of complexity involved in many natural processes is far beyond calculability and therefore far beyond any notion of 'intelligence' that we might conceive of, and that such complexity arises normally from the known forces of nature. Evolution is only one of the many topics covered as as emergent property of a complex system."And should anyone not be satisfied with this excellent layman's treatment of the subject, and want a more rigorous statement refuting the ID assertions, I recommend 'Energy Flow in Biology' by Harold Morowitz. In this work, Morowitz works out, using (only!) thermodynamics and physical chemistry, precisely that which the ID people contend required an intelligent agent: the development of life on Earth. While Gleick's book is an educational yet recreational read, Morowitz's work is a dense and detailed scientific treatise providing a deeply and fully supported explanation of that which some claim defies explanation. It is, in short, a direct refutation of intelligent design, by providing a falsification of their implied hypothesis that intelligence was a necessary antecedent for the structure of the world we know."

I'll take up Dennis' suggestion and designate "Chaos" as this month's selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club, which highlights books with cosmic themes that you should be able to find at your local library or used-book shop. As a reward for coming up with the selection, he's getting the book of his choice from Cosmic Log's remainder table (in this case, "The Republican War on Science" by Chris Mooney). Send in your suggestions for future CLUB Club selections and you might win a book as well.

And just to keep my reading list balanced, I'm working my way through Lee Strobel's "The Case for a Creator" (though I'm not crazy about the tagline, "God did it. Case closed"), as well as Richard Dawkins' "The Ancestor's Tale."

Bob Davis, "I am a health-care professional and use scientific principles everyday in my job. The fact that I don't buy into the theory of evolution in no way limits my ability to apply scientic fact to my job. Therefore, the idea that our children will suffer scientifically because we teach evolution as theory and not absolute fact has as many holes in it as the theory of evolution itself."Ross Whitaker, Rosepine, La.: "I don't see what's wrong with allowing another theory on creation being taught in our schools. The fact that both theories are taught should make classes more interesting and allow for individual debate. I think both views allow each student to come up with their own beliefs about human origin. And I think a good teacher would welcome the opportunity to let their students understand both sides of the argument despite of their personal belief."Patrick Murphy, Bainbridge Island, Wash.: "I am a high-school science teacher with an M.S. in biology and an M.S. in Ed. in physical science. Citing 'gaps' in evolutionary theory cannot be taken as support of 'intelligent design.' There are many examples of gaps in our understanding of how the world works; we do not fill in the gaps with supernatural explanations. We do not fully understand the entire quantum theory of the atom, but chemistry teachers don't teach that this is evidence of a creator. We do not fully understand how tornadoes form, but meteorologists don't teach that God is in the wind. We do not fully understand how matter creates gravity, but cosmologists do not teach that God is at the center of a black hole. Evolution does not deny the intervention of a creator, nor does it support the idea. Science takes no stand on the existence of God, because the concept lies outside the realm of science."Richard Stoecker, Columbia, Ill.: "Several people whose comments you posted argued that scientist should be more disciplined in their approach to arguing against ID. I agree. I have seen too many lower their arguments into sarcasm or worse. However, when one is pressed to defend evolution, and provides strong facts and logical reasoning, only to have them blithely shoved aside in favor of religion and faith, I can easily understand the frustration. The real reason that scientists are up in arms about ID is that this debate is not occurring through science. It is occuring through political channels. To a real scientist, searching, finding, documenting evidence, proving their case is of the highest order. ID proponents have not and cannot provide any real evidence. There is no proof. ID is not falsifiable. So, they take their case to the school boards using the fundamentalist Christians as tools to promote it. ... This is politics and religion at its worst. We have a 14-year-old and a 16-year-old. First and foremost to us is that they understand facts, logic, reasoning ... critical thinking. That is sorely needed now. Without that, the U.S. will continue to slide back into the Dark Ages."

Oct. 14, 2005 |
China's place in space: Now that China has sent humans into space for a second time, and appears to be on the road toward setting up a rudimentary space station, how should the rest of the spacefaring world (including the United States and Russia as well as their lesser partners in Europe and Japan) view the Chinese effort? As friend, foe or perhaps friendly rival?

A BBC analysis focuses on the potential for a new space race, perhaps with India and Japan pooling their resources to advance their own space aspirations, as a counterweight to China. Indeed, Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun called for the Tokyo government to overhaul its approach to space as a response to this week's Chinese mission. Things could start getting interesting.

The feedback from Cosmic Log correspondents, sent in response to an item on Wednesday, spanned the spectrum between friend and foe. Here's a selection:

Mark R. Whittington: "I think China should be considered a rival in space exploration. First, China is a totalitarian country that commits human rights violations as a matter of policy. So taking it on as a partner raises certain moral objections. Second, competition is a good thing, providing as it does a spur for innovation and accomplishing goals. What better way to ensure that we actually do go back to the moon than having the anxiety that China might get there first?"Mike Litaker, Kannapolis, N.C.: "Inclusive political and economic policies have brought China into the mainstream of world social and economic intercourse. They are a powerful and energetic force and deserve respect. China's political system is in evolution and requires patience and respect on the part of Western and Eastern states. I would think that within five years that China should be included as a full partner in space exploration and research."Steve: "China will always be a rival.  At its core, the Chinese government is based on ideals that are incompatible with those of the United States and most Western governments. Can two governments be partners when their philosophies are so opposite? At its surface, China seems intent on becoming a world-dominating economic power.  Can two countries be true partners when one country always seeks to take advantage of the other through lack of enforcement of intellectual property rights? Interacting with other countries on space-based programs would allow China to rapidly acquire advanced technology that normally would take perhaps a decade or more to develop.  Combine this with the Chinese government's ability to determine economic priorities, thus pushing a huge amount of capital investment into desired areas, and you've set the stage for yet another industry (aerospace) to become dominated by a foreign power.  In addition, need I mention that any advanced technology acquired by China's space program would be shared with its military programs?  Do we really want to further narrow the technological gap between China's military and ours?"Ken Emmanuelli, Coram, N.Y.: "One must consider that since NASA has grounded its space fleet, and if the Russians have any serious problems in the near future with its space program. we may actually need the assistance of the Chinese government's space program to replenish personnel and goods, make repairs or in case of an emergency. Both the U.S. and Russia should not only allow the Chinese to join the international space program, they should continue to assist them in advancing thier program. Why not take the lead in joining all of our nations for a better future for generations to come?"

Oct. 14, 2005 |
Mars site gets a makeover: If you haven't checked out the Web site for Mars Odyssey's Thermal Emission Imaging System recently, it's time to take another look: The site has been redesigned to highlight Martian thermal imagery with ultra-cool zoom views (including tons of dust devil tracks at Gusev Crater) as well as a "Live From Mars" scrolling picture gallery.

Oct. 14, 2005 |
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
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Oct. 13, 2005 |
Galactic lady in red: One of our nearest galactic neighbors, the Andromeda galaxy, reveals a dusty ring of starfire in a stunning new picture from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. The infrared view cuts through the galaxy's glare and highlights the spiraling lanes of dust that are heated up by stars within — as well as gaps that are just as intriguing.

Because Spitzer can focus on specific infrared wavelengths, the telescope is particularly good at seeing what's old, cold or dusty in outer space. Visible-light views of the Andromeda galaxy show a bright, relatively smooth disk, but Spitzer can shed more light on the spiral's underlying structure.

Spitzer's astronomers focused on the most prominent ring of star formation, which appears to be split into two forks at lower right. They speculated that the asymmetrical gap may have been caused by interactions with the several satellite galaxies that surround Andromeda.

"Occasionally, small satellite galaxies run straight through bigger galaxies," Karl Gordon of the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory said in today's Spitzer image advisory. "It appears a little galaxy punched a hole through Andromeda's disk, much like a pebble breaks the surface of a pond."

Nasa / Ssc / Caltech

Our own Milky Way galaxy has satellites as well, but the Andromeda galaxy is the closest spiral galaxy to ours — only 2.5 million light-years away. Astronomers expect Andromeda and the Milky Way to clash with each other in, say, 3 billion years or so — putting a heck of a dent in each galaxy.

Spitzer's 24-micron infrared view also traces the spiral arms within Andromeda's ring of star formation, as well as a central bulge that glows with the light emitted by the warm dust around old, giant stars. The space telescope's science team also has provided a visible view and an infrared composite for comparison's sake — rounding out the "Three Faces of Andromeda."

This fiery view of Andromeda is actually a mosaic of 11,000 separate snapshots, taken during an 18-hour time period on Aug. 25, 2004, which was the one-year anniversary of Spitzer's launch. For more about Spitzer and its contribution to astronomy, check out this archived story about our window on the infrared universe.

Oct. 13, 2005 |
Mining the moon: NASA says ultraviolet images from the Hubble Space Telescope hint at a "newly discovered abundance" of titanium and iron oxides that could be processed to yield oxygen and metals for future lunar settlements.

Details of the find will come out at a Washington news briefing that will be aired at 1 p.m. Wednesday on NASA Television. But SpaceRef provides additional details about what Hubble was looking for, and the PERMANENT Web site has plenty of good information about lunar minerals, including ilmenite, a.k.a. iron titanium oxide.

Ilmenite, an "economically attractive titanium mineral," was found to be particularly abundant around the Apollo 11 and Apollo 17 landing sites. PERMANENT also says the mineral is good at trapping hydrogen from the solar wind, which could conceivably be combined with oxygen to produce water for lunar settlers.

In addition to looking at Apollo sites, Hubble was tasked with looking for titanium oxide on the Aristarchus Plateau, which has been mentioned as a candidate site for a lunar base (check out this PDF file). If you put it all together, Wednesday's news briefing may well provide an interesting look at NASA's plans for lunar exploration and even settlement.

Among the panelists:

  • Jennifer Wiseman, Hubble program scientist at NASA Headquarters.
  • Jim Garvin, chief scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.
  • Mark Robinson, research associate professor at the Center of Planetary Sciences at Northwestern University.
  • Michael Wargo, Exploration Systems lunar scientist at NASA Headquarters.

Oct. 13, 2005 |
Science on the fringes of the World Wide Web:
• • (via Slashdot)

Oct. 12, 2005 |
Martian view from the top: NASA's Mars rovers are still going strong 21 months after they landed on the Red Planet, as evidenced by Spirit's picture of the summit of Husband Hill, snapped last month and released last week. But that doesn't mean it's all smooth sailing.

Spirit's twin, Opportunity, faced a particularly slippery situation over the past week, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory reported Tuesday in a mission update. The rover's telemetry indicated that its wheels were slipping in Martian sand dunes along the path to Erebus — threatening a repeat of the jam that mired Opportunity several months ago. This time around, Opportunity was able to back out onto bedrock, giving mission managers a chance to plan a better path to the crater.

Meanwhile, Spirit is still on Husband Hill's high road: The enhanced-color image you see here shows two bedrock outcrops at the summit, nicknamed Tenzing and Hillary to honor Everest explorers Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. At last report, Spirit was lining itself up to make some up-close observations of the rock surface at Hillary — and the latest raw images show Spirit's robotic arm stretched out to collect data.

Based on the view from Spirit's panoramic camera, the rock has the type of fine layering that could help scientists learn more about the region's watery past.

For still more about the resilient rovers' mission, check out the mission updates from principal investigator Steve Squyres. Also, Mars rover researcher John Grotzinger is scheduled to speak about the prospects for water and life on Mars in a Webcast lecture at the University of Texas at 8 p.m. ET Thursday (with a tip o' the Log to Martian Soil). And finally, keep checking our "Return to the Red Planet" section to monitor progress in Mars exploration.

Oct. 12, 2005 |
Rocket recap: Exactly how many people turned out for Sunday's Countdown to the X Prize rocket festival in Las Cruces, N.M.? As the event was going on, the estimates ranged from 7,500 or less to 20,000 or more. But today, Katie Roberts of the New Mexico Economic Development Department told me that "we feel comfortable with the figure of 15,000." She said that estimate would take in staff and volunteers as well as children under 12, who were admitted free and thus left no paper-ticket trail.

Oct. 12, 2005 |
China and the space club: Now that China has repeated its feat of putting humans safely into space, the congratulations have been coming in from the two other nations to do so.

"China once again has demonstrated that it is among the elite number of countries capable of human space flight," NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said in an agency statement. We wish them well on their mission, and we look forward to the safe return of their astronauts."

"We are delighted at our Chinese friends' success and are ready to develop cooperation with them in all spheres, including manned space exploration," the Itar-Tass news agency quoted Nikolai Moiseyev, deputy director of Russia's Federal Space Agency, as saying.

There's already been a good amount of Russian-Chinese space cooperation in recent years, as can be seen in the Soyuz-like design of China's Shenzhou spacecraft and the amount of training that Chinese "taikonauts" have received from Russia's Star City cosmonaut complex. But is China really ready to join the space club? Should they be invited to take part in the international space station effort, which could use a hand right now?

Last month, Russia's head of manned spaceflight, Alexei Krasnov, told me in Moscow that the time isn't right to bring China fully into the international fold — but that the situation could change relatively soon:

"So far, the Chinese space program has been implemented in a very expeditious way. ... But I would not conclude that they are ready to integrate into international space programs, in the same way that we are integrating our efforts in a project like the ISS. "But so far, we can definitely say they are pursuing their national goals in space. And there are some caveats on the practical side — like the adherence to the international regime on nonproliferation issues, which prevents them effectively from being part of the international projects. But I believe this issue will be resolved in the near future."The logic of life will bring them to the club of countries adhering to the nonproliferation agenda, especially for space technologies, missile technologies. Then they will have the ability to decide whether they would like to join, or pursue their national goals further. It will be a question of choice. But they certainly have ambitious plans."

Considering China's current political and military situation, should Beijing be considered a space rival, or a potential partner to be courted? Let me know what you think, and I'll pass along a selection of the feedback as the Shenzhou 6 mission unfolds.

Oct. 12, 2005 |
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
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Oct. 11, 2005 |
Tips for space tourists: So you want to go into zero-G? Don't smile too much during the interview. Eat light. Close your eyes when the going gets tough. And never accept a cosmonaut's invitation to play chess.

Those are just a few bits of advice from "The Space Tourist's Handbook," a 192-page guide for armchair astronauts as well as folks who might actually have the $20 million to spare for the kind of space ride that scientist-businessman Greg Olsen just completed.

The handbook (published by Quirk Books, $15.95) provides rundowns of spaceports, vehicles and other experiences that cater to space buffs. Co-author Eric Anderson, the president and chief executive officer of Space Adventures, said the book was written in part to whet the wider public's appetite for adventures that could well become far more affordable in time.

"We wrote it for people who want to fly to space in their lifetime, and are interested in knowing what it’s like," Anderson told me.

Anderson's Virginia-based company worked with the Russians to send three millionaires, including Olsen, to the international space station — so there's plenty of information about the Russian training routine, including some commonly used Russian phrases (for example, "Kahk-da eh-tuh vrah-sheh-nyeh ahstah-noh-veet-suh?" means "When will this spinning stop?")

But you'll also find advice for less pricey space experiences, such as high-G jet joyrides and zero-G parabolic flights. There are even tips for spectators at Russia's launch pad in Kazakhstan: The key thing to remember is that if you see the rocket blow up, you have two or three seconds to dive into the blast trench.

That kind of advice probably reflects the perspective of the handbook's other co-author: Joshua Piven, who also co-wrote "The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook." Frankly, the tips on how to avoid the unpleasant scenarios associated with spaceflight are among the most entertaining parts of the book — and could well be applied to other spheres of activity as well.

For example, during the medical interviews, trainees shouldn't smile too much because "excessive smiling or laughter will indicate nervousness and possible psychological instability." If you look off to the left while answering questions, the interviewer may think you're lying. And uncontrollable sobbing is definitely a no-no.

Other tips are aimed at keeping you in good graces with your professional crewmates while you're in orbit: Be sure to clean up after using the vacuum-equipped space toilet, be ready to apologize at the drop of a helmet, and politely decline any invitation to play chess. "Though especially popular with Russian cosmonauts, playing chess on the space station is serious business and can lead to conflict," the book explains.

For somewhat less stressful experiences, such as a weightless-simulation flight, the book says you can avoid motion sickness by eating light before you get on the plane, and closing your eyes if you start to feel squeamish.

The handbook even lays out a "30-day preflight fitness schedule" for space fliers that sounds like a pretty sensible prescription even if the closest you come to outer-space adventure is a "Star Wars" movie marathon.

For hard-core space buffs, the book has two other things to recommend it:

  • Anderson offers hints about ideas that haven't yet fully taken hold, such as the placement of a spaceport in Dubai, or the use of Russian MiG-31 jets to launch small spacecraft on suborbital trips. "I think you can read something into that," he told me.
  • Every book includes a come-on for a "Win a Trip to Space" sweepstakes, with a suborbital space travel package as grand prize. Of course, you don't have to buy the book to enter the contest. Check out Quirk Books' contest Web site for the entry form and official rules. Entries are being taken online until next June 30.

By next June, we'll have a better idea of how the space tourist market is shaping up — and Anderson said the next edition of the handbook just might be bigger and better as well. "I believe that we'll update it periodically," he said. "It'll have more vehicles and more destinations."

Oct. 11, 2005 |
Support for space tug: Orbital Recovery Group says it has made its first reservation for a satellite recovery mission, using its ConeExpress Orbital Life Extension Vehicle. The London-based company says the CX-OLEV space tug would give a boost to a telecommunications satellite in 2009, although the satellite operator is for now unnamed. The robo-booster would be carried to orbit as a secondary payload on a European Ariane 5 launch vehicle, then link up with the satellite to provide propulsion, navigation and guidance — extending the satellite's useful life by at least five years.

Oct. 11, 2005 |
X-files from the scientific Web:
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Oct. 10, 2005 |
Einstein in prime time: When you think of Albert Einstein, you usually think of a frizzy-haired old guy in a sweatshirt. And when you think of his most famous formula, E=mc2, you usually think of some brain-bending string of equations, leading to an atomic bomb explosion. You probably don't think of a handsome devil building on centuries of work by smart people to arrive at a moment of transcendence.

Watching "Einstein's Big Idea," the docudrama making its debut Tuesday on most public-TV stations, could change all that.

This episode of PBS' "Nova" series doesn't follow the usual script for a "Nova" documentary. Sure, it's based on real science, and draws primarily from David Bodanis' best-selling book "E=mc But "Einstein's Big Idea" tells the story of mass-energy equivalence as if it were a multigenerational "Masterpiece Theatre" costume drama — which is a refreshing change of pace from the typical high-tech, lab-coated explanation.

Of course, the central thread is Einstein's puzzling-out of cosmic conundrums, with Einstein played by Aidan McArdle (the elvish sidekick from "Ella Enchanted") and Shirley Henderson (Moaning Myrtle from the "Harry Potter" movies) as his wife, Mileva Maric.

But there are also interspersed vignettes about each piece of the E=mc2 puzzle — energy, mass, celerity (the speed of light) and even the "squared" — touching upon the contributions of Maxwell, Faraday, Lavoisier and other greats. In all these vignettes, the scientists aren't portrayed as dowdy drones, but as sharp folks who can even show off some unscientific sex appeal. Which is perfectly fitting — since, for example, the 18th-century mathematician behind the "squared" part of the equation, Emilie du Châtelet, was Voltaire's lover.

Bodanis and some definitely un-dowdy present-day researchers, including theoretical physicists Michio Kaku and Lisa Randall, comment on Einstein and the equation. And the show's Web site offers plenty of extra goodies, including book excerpts, quizzes and interactives.

We have some goodies ourselves in our special report on the 100th anniversary of E=mc2 and Einstein's legacy, including a slide show that visually traces the great man's life. And if you want to get still more views of Einstein in his prime, check out the American Institute of Physics' online exhibit or a 1927 film clip narrated by Nancy Thorndike Greenspan, the biographer of Einstein contemporary Max Born.

Oct. 10, 2005 |
The next space passenger? Japanese entrepreneur Daisuke Enomoto has been considered the likeliest prospect to follow New Jersey millionaire scientist Greg Olsen to the international space station as a paying passenger, based on leaked reports. Now an official at Russia's Federal Space Agency, Alexei Krasnov, is quoted by the RIA Novosti news agency as saying Enomoto is starting cosmonaut training for a flight next fall.

Krasnov is also quoted as saying that the annual number of seats available for extra riders to the space station would be doubled from the current two to four in 2009 — which could mean more business for Space Adventures, the Virginia-based company that has brokered Olsen's trip as well as the previous two millionaire visits.

Oct. 10, 2005 |
Wonder and whimsy on the World Wide Web:
• (via Slashdot)

Oct. 8, 2005 |
Rocket racers revved up: Four pilots have stepped up to blast off with the Rocket Racing League, and one of them — former astronaut Rick Searfoss — is already taking a few turns in the cockpit for demonstrations of the prototype "X-Racer," XCOR Aerospace's EZ-Rocket.

During this week's Countdown to the X Prize Cup festivities in Las Cruces, N.M., Searfoss called himself a "once and future astronaut." He's been flying practice runs in the EZ-Rocket plane over the past few weeks, and on Sunday he'll put the craft through its paces publicly at a combination air show and trade show at Las Cruces' airport.

XCOR President Jeff Greason said Sunday's show would be the EZ-Rocket's swan song. After the demonstrations, the now-outdated plane will be retired to make way for the next-generation rocket planes that XCOR is designing for the Rocket Racing League.

The other three pilots are also revved up for next year's first true rocket-powered race in New Mexico.

Granger Whitelaw, a co-founder of the Rocket Racing League, confirmed that aerobatic pilot Sean Tucker will join Searfoss on the list of pilots. Two others say they are also planning to participate: Erik Lindbergh, who is the grandson of aviation great Charles Lindbergh and followed his historic trans-Atlantic trail three years ago; and Jim Campbell, a former test pilot who went on to create the Aero-News Network.

Campbell said he wasn't at all scared by the prospect of flying a rocket-powered plane through an aerobatic track at speeds of up to 300 mph.

"I'm excited as hell," he told "It may be the most challenging flight in my whole life. I can't wait."

Lindbergh said the races should rekindle a sense of excitement in the rocketry realm and beyond. "Rocket racing ... Woo-hoo! That's how we're going to get people involved," he told fellow space enthusiasts during a symposium at New Mexico State University.

Whitelaw hopes that the rocket races will generate the same kind of buzz that's associated with NASCAR and Indy car races. He said he's involved in talks with potential rocket sponsors (such as toy companies) as well as TV networks that might broadcast the races (or perhaps a reality-TV show) — and he expects those talks to bear fruit in about six months. So stay tuned.

Oct. 8, 2005 |
More space ventures: Amid the Countdown to the X Prize festivities, a couple of announcements related to space commercialization have surfaced:

  • NASA says Zero Gravity Corp. will conduct parabolic weightless flights from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Nov. 5-6, taking off and landing from the same runway used by the space shuttle. Most of the fliers will be teachers who want to conduct simple microgravity experiments to share with their students back in the classroom, NASA said. Zero Gravity has already done a couple of weightlessness-simulation flights for the space agency under an experimental arrangement.
  • Oklahoma-based Rocketplane Ltd. says it's partnering with Texas-based SpaceShot Inc. on a venture that would let Internet users play an online skill game "for less than $5," with Rocketplane suborbital spaceflights as prizes. The idea of space-trip contests isn't exactly new. In fact, some sweepstakes already have given away tickets on future flights. But in all these cases, the prize payoff won't come until commercial space travel becomes a reality.

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