Tina and I happened to arrive in Yosemite just as the Big Meadow wildfire took off. This was not what we expected to see in the park. I shot this from Wawona Road, about 2 miles outside of the Tunnel View area on August 27th.
Mono Lake is a high desert lake that sits outside the eastern edge of Yosemite National Park. It's fresh water springs pumping up through its alkaline waters produced tall limestone spires, called tufas, which look like sand castles.
An Arizona engineer is jumping into the civilian space race with a truly home-grown spacecraft. Unlike the massively funded projects by Virgin Galactic, Armadillo Aerospace, Blue Origin and others, the Hermes Spacecraft (not to be confused with the proposed but never built 1970s-era French shuttle of the same name) is being built without major corporate sponsorship or cash. The creator, Morris Jarvis, and his team are getting a bit of technical help from companies like Intel to make their dream, and hopefully the dreams of many others, a reality. His plan calls for early flights in which the 6-8 passenger Hermes craft will be taken to the edge of the atmosphere by a large balloon and released.
Providing that all the test flights work out safely, the first commercial trip would have the craft towed by balloons tethered to safety parachutes to 113,000 feet—about 21 miles high. During an undoubtedly scary free-fall back to the ground, passengers would experience about 5 minutes of weightlessness.
On later missions, the craft will ride on the back of a rocket to suborbital altitudes. Jarvis estimates civilians will be able to fly on Hermes for $25,000 for a balloon flight or $100,000 for the "E-ticket" (bonus points if you get the reference) rocket-powered version. That's quite a bit cheaper than the competition.
The Hermes virtual cockpit, which allows the craft to be piloted remotely during testing, will be on display at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco starting on August 19th.
Previously, at check-in, I have visually estimated your weight. From now on, you may be required to step onto the luggage scale. You must also certify, before boarding, that no part of your arm or torso will extend over your armrest and touch me or cause my arm or side to get hot at any time during the flight.
Now that Virgin Galactic is about roll out its new spaceliners, it's time to consider the more important aspects of the civilian space tourism industry. What, for example, will the stewardesses wear? And will Virgin's spaceships have the same groovy mood lighting as planes in the Virgin America fleet?
American Airlines is about to start charging extra for your FIRST checked bag. Think about that. What is it that your fare actually pays for these days? You pay extra if you book your ticket by phone, you pay extra for food, you pay extra for a seat that you can, you know, actually FIT into. Some airlines are even starting to charge extra for what they call a "premium" seat? What's a premium seat? Anything that's not a middle seat. Of course, none of these charges are included in the stated fares you see when you book your ticket.
Now this. Does American really think luggage is optional? And just imagine all the travel rookies who will now be trying to sneak a full-sized bag onto the plane as a carry-on so they won't have to pay the extra fee.
What I don't get is why American can't just increase the price of tickets to account for the rising cost of fuel. Most likely, every other airline will be following suit with their own checked bag charges, so it's not like there's a competitive advantage to hiding these charges. The only rationale I can see is that it's a way to prevent passengers from knowing the true cost of air travel. Moreover, it seems like a really bad PR and customer service move. People will be a lot angrier about paying extra fees when they check in at the airport than they would be about paying higher ticket prices in the first place. Even worse, this is only going to add a huge amount of delay and inconvenience to the check-in process. Now, in addition to fumbling with IDs and tickets, a huge percentage of passengers will have to complete a credit card transaction at the counter. It's going to be a mess.
Maybe it's time for Congress to get serious about passing an air travelers' Bill of Rights...
If you read magazines like Popular Science from the 1960's, it seemed like everyone would own jet packs and flying cars by now. Well, that never happened, and I for one feel gypped. Today, the big buzz is in private space flight. There are a number of companies — Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and Armadillo Aerospace, being just a few of many — vying to be "the next big thing" in space tourism. There's even a space port, partially financed by public money and certified by the FAA, being built in the Mojave Desert. Now another company, Xcor Aerospace, just introduced a new suborbital rocket intended for commercial space tourism. It's smaller than a private jet and designed to take one paying passenger at a time (along with the pilot) on 25 minute flights into space. Xcor hopes to begin flight testing in two years.
Whether it's Xcor or one of its many competitors, let's hope someone can make private space flight a practical reality in my lifetime. And while they're at it, maybe they could see what's holding up my jet pack...