Is Long Beach’s Future in Space?

By: 
Bill Pearl

For several years, the nationally famous Zero G aircraft has offered parabolic weightless flights from Long Beach Airport as part of its national schedule. (This writer was the only LB reporter aboard its Oct. 25 LGB flight, which was filled with area tourists.)

Next to LB Airport, Virgin Orbit is preparing satellites for launch. And while Elon Musk’s Hawthorne headquartered Space X made headlines by sending four astronauts to the International Space Station, a small firm, Rocket Lab, headquartered in Long Beach, is independently launching satellites on small rockets with plans to recover its launch vehicles using parachute technology.

This growth is basically organic, privately pursued (acknowledging Musk’s Space X carried NASA astronauts) – with private enterprise predictably competing for what proponents view as a potentially lucrative market.

Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit, based at 4022 Conant St., says on its website (https://virginorbit.com) it’s “on a mission to open space for everyone.” It says “Small satellites are ushering in an era of space capabilities – connecting us across vast distances, stimulating the global economy and expanding the limits of human knowledge.”

Its launch page states “When your satellite arrives at our payload processing facility in Long Beach it’ll feel right at home in our strictly regulated clean room. We monitor particle counts, humidity and temperature to ensure our clean room operates at ISO 8 cleanliness standards.” [The satellite is launched from Virgin’s “Cosmic Girl” aircraft available from multiple launch locations across the globe.]

But Virgin isn’t alone. It has at least one competitor right up the street.

Rocket Lab, headquartered at 3881 McGowen St. in Douglas Park, plans in the coming days to deploy “30 satellites to unique orbits using the Electron launch vehicle’s Kick Stage space tug. The satellites will enable internet from space, test new methods of deorbiting space debris and enable research into predicting earthquakes. The launch will also feature a 3D printed mass simulator for Valve’s Gabe Newell to raise funds for Starship Children’s Hospital.”

It will be the firm’s 16th launch using its “Electron” rocket which will lift off from New Zealand’s Mahia Peninsula during a 14-day launch window that opened on Nov. 15 (CA time). In addition, the firm announced that it will “attempt to recover the first stage of its Electron rocket...the ‘Return to Sender’ launch.

The test will see Rocket Lab attempt to bring Electron’s first stage back to Earth under a parachute system for a controlled water landing before collection by a recovery vessel. [Update: This effort was successful. See lbreport.com story here: https://www.lbreport.com/news/nov20/rocket1.htm]

A company release states: “Work on Rocket Lab’s recovery program began in early 2019 and the ‘Return to Sender’ recovery attempt follows a series of successful tests of recovery and hardware systems over the past 18 months. These include a successful mid-air recovery capture of a test rocket stage by a helicopter; successful drogue and main parachute deployment tests in subsequent mock stage exercises dropped at altitude; and successfully guided re-entries of the Electron’s first stage across two real missions in December 2019 and January 2020 respectively.”

Following the outcome of this attempt, “the final phase of Rocket Lab’s recovery program will be to capture Electron’s first stage mid-air by helicopter before the stage is returned to Rocket Lab production complexes for refurbishment and relaunch. If Rocket Lab’s recovery program is successful, Electron would become the first and only reusable orbital-class small launch system in operation.”

When Zero G graciously allowed me to cover its Oct. 25 Long Beach weightless flight it was a decade-long dream come true for me personally and professionally. Zero G’s Boeing 727 climbs at a 45 degree angle (flyers lie flat and feel 1.8 Gs, roughly twice their normal weight) until the pilot crests the top of the ascent and descends at roughly a 20-30 degree angle producing about 15-20 seconds of weightlessness 12 times in a row  at Zero G (plus three introductory parabolas letting flyers become acclimated.)

The weightless result is way beyond an amusement ride. It’s not anything like a roller coaster with a stomach dropping rush. It was an ethereal, other worldly, physically gentle and (for me) an overwhelming sensual experience. Example: on the first Zero G parabola, the floor gently descended, leaving me floating. I tried to walk but that didn’t work because my feet were floating. Despite being advised before the flight not to try to “swim,” I instinctively did so and my legs spun like pedaling a bike with a broken chain.

Some flyers spun and twirled and displayed graceful moves. In contrast, I was a “spaz in space” (my term). I was oblivious to how I looked, more interested in absorbing every moment of the weightless experience.

When I was able to touch the floor, I pushed off and flew up to the ceiling. Despite my feet on the ceiling, I didn’t feel upside down. I just looked at the floor and wondered if it was up or down. I now realize why astronauts have to train to work in this counter-intuitive weightless environment.

At one point I found myself floating above a young woman when the pilot announced we’d be pulling up at 1.8 G’s again. That meant in about two seconds I’d be plastered on top of her in a rather ungentlemanly position if both of us didn’t move...and fast. The lady scooted aft; I maneuvered forward and we narrowly avoided a potentially mortifying parabolic moment.

Zero G participates in scientific research (although not from Long Beach, at least not yet.) See LBREPORT.com coverage https://www.lbreport.com/news/oct20/zerog3.htm here and https://www.lbreport.com/news/oct20/zerog4.htm here.) In October 2020, NASA selected Purdue University’s School of Aeronautics and Astronautics and School of Mechanical Engineering to test technologies in the weightless environment.

A university town like Long Beach might be well positioned to participate in future Zero G research programs.

Despite the ongoing pandemic, Zero G’s Oct. 25 LGB flight was filled to its COVID capacity (24 flyers including me instead of 34 pre-COVID. About a half dozen Zero G weightless experienced flight crew assisted flyers. Everyone had to wear face masks. All flyers had their temperatures taken before boarding. Seating (required by FAA for take offs and landings) wasn’t distanced but air aboard the 727 jet is, like other commercial jets, changed every three minutes. This writer wore a woven face mask under a Zero G issued paper face mask. For the parabolic portion of the flight, I also used a face shield to cover my eyes to my chin in addition to the two face masks.

Zero G has added a Nov. 29, 2020 flight from LGB in addition to a previously scheduled March 13, 2021 flight. Cost for the Nov. 29 flight is $6,700 for 15 parabolas (12 weightless), a flight suit (you keep), Zero G merchandise, a weightless certificate, breakfast and online access to still photos by a Zero G on-board photographer plus video from six GoPro cameras mounted in the plane.

Commercial and scientific opportunities in space are emerging. Long Beach is arguably well positioned as a “go” for launch.

Bill Pearl is the publisher of lbreport.com, an online local news source since August 2000.

Category:

Add new comment

Beachcomber

Copyright 2020 Beeler & Associates.

All rights reserved. Contents may not be reproduced or transmitted – by any means – without publisher's written permission.