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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A New Spatial Reality

In the late-1990s film Gattaca, employment by the space agency named in the film’s title is a highly-prized future profession. The film’s plot is based on obtaining a coveted crew slot on a mission to Titan, one of the moons orbiting Saturn. The film’s launch images convey the beauty of liftoff, but also a sense that here in the future, the sight of rockets arcing into the skies above population centers is a symbol of progress attained.

Off to a Saturn moon in Gattaca.

For many years significant spaceflight missions originating from United States soil began their climbs “uphill” from launch pads in either Florida or California. But now, reflective of the Gattaca imagery, the launch site palette of 2013 is expanding.

Proof of this was easy to spot the night of September 6, when the night skies of the 11 o’clock hour were brightened by a Minotaur V rocket accelerating to a velocity approaching two thousand miles per hour, passing through an area of maximum dynamic pressure 38 seconds after leaving the launch pad.

The rocket's red glare over Manhattan, September 6, 2013.

The Minotaur – bearing the eight-foot-tall Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) lunar studies vehicle – began its sojourn over the Atlantic Ocean not from venerable Kennedy Space Center or Cape Canaveral, but from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island in coastal Virginia. Though Wallops has been the site of origin for several significant launches in recent years, the tremendous visibility of LADEE’s journey to the moon – easily seen by millions in the densely-populated Mid-Atlantic region – has brought a new focus on Virginia’s spaceflight activities.

Virgin Galactic test flight over California's Mojave Desert, September 4, 2013.

Further to the west, operations are intensifying at Spaceport America, located in a New Mexico desert basin. This will be the operational inception point of Virgin Galactic’s suborbital passenger venture. Earlier last week, Virgin Galactic took another big step toward launching six-passenger crews into space with another successful test flight, this one taking place over the Mojave Desert. Spaceport Abu Dhabi is in the planning stages, although in truth the simplified launch methodology being employed by Richard Branson’s firm could be supported by myriad sites.

With increasing launch frequency on the board – including Orbital Science’s first attempt at an International Space Station resupply mission scheduled for a Wallops liftoff on September 17 – perhaps the future depicted in films like Gattaca is finally dawning.