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Friday, November 6, 2009

••◊ Spaceward Ho!

Wednesday I had an opportunity to observe the Lasermotive team as they competed in the NASA sponsored space elevator competition at the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Airforce Base in Mojave, CA. Time to let my inner nerd...oh, who am I kidding, my outer nerd fly (sorry for the pun). The goal of this part of the competition was to climb a steel cable attached to a helicopter a distance of 1km at an average rate of 5m/s with wireless power beamed from the ground; the prize being $2 million dollars if they could do it. NASA holds these competitions as part of the centennial challenges. The most well known one so far in the x-prize won a few years back, which is now spawning the space tourism industry. (warning, self indulgent part here...) I provided the Lasermotive team with a design for the power supply and motor drive circuitry, which mainly consisted of knowing the right industry contacts to get reference designs. Now if only the prize money was divided up by climber weight (yee haw!).

I really wanted to make a panorama of the base camp all the way up to the helicopter, but it was too difficult to align the pictures even with a 200mm lens. Click on the picture below to get a feel for what the helicopter looked like from about 1.5 miles away with a 200mm lens. Thank goodness for a 21MPixel camera. Surprisingly I can make view the stripes on the side of the helicopter with the full rez image.

For the greater part of the day I was in a NASA hangar (i.e. home for wayward scientists) about a mile away from the launch base camp. Their rules precluded using an optical viewfinder on my camera because even at this distance we weren't safe from stray reflections from the 10kW laser firing at the climber. I wish I had rented a 600mm lens and borrowed a 2x extender. It was nearly impossible to find anything with live view without zooming in 10x. Because the hangar opening was in full sun I had to improvise a shade in order to see the LCD at the back of my camera, so I pulled out a photo umbrella cover and used it as a black overhead cover, sort of like what you see with the old-old portrait cameras. Looks odd, but it worked.

The first team up was the Kansas City Space Pirates. After a couple failed attempts to start their climber they were finally off, only to have the climber stall about 3/4 of the way up the cable. Ouch. Time's up...NEXT. Can't say I was di$$$appointed.

During the lunch break there was a "media hour" where I managed to sneak into one of the media vans and shuttle out to the launch base camp. Seeing as how I only really knew one person on the Lasermotive team, and he wasn't there, this was actually my first time meeting most of the flight team. After making a few introductions I went around and started taking pictures. First was the vast lake bed itself. On the north end of the air force base there is a dried up lake bed where all of this was taking place, so if it started raining fiery bits of space elevator - no biggie. In this photo the steel cable is laying on the desert floor beside the two people.

The second picture above is the actual climber. Not the most visually appealing industrial design, but it's really designed to be light weight. 5.2kg to be exact, with 180 grams of "payload" (pink toy video cameras to record the flight).

In the third picture above you can see Tom Nugent, President of Lasermotive being interviewed for an upcoming documentary on the competition. Behind them is Anela, whom I started a conversation with later in the day with regards to her Pentax Spotmatic camera as seen on her hip. I have one of these too, but she actually uses hers. Anela is a shooter in LA. Her work can be seen here. Just a warning; definitely NSFW.

Soon the media hour was up and the cat herders kicked us off the launch site so Lasermotive could take their turn. Back at the hangar we could watch the team on a television they had set up above a couple tool chests with communications radio for audio. I, of course, chose to fry under my black umbrella cover out in the sun trying to at least get one decent picture with an anemic lens. The photo below shows the launch site with the climber hanging about mid-way up the photo. Click on the photo to see it full size. Still can't see the climber? Well, the right half of the photo shows the climber with a 100% crop. Yeah, this was what I was dealing with.

Lasermotive set their climber out on the steel tether, then they had to bring it back down. Jordin Kare's wife, Mary, and I were back in the hangar thinking "oh no, not us too." Mary starts to literally hyperventilate. I tell her, "how bad could it be." She replies, "you weren't here for the last competition," which evidently was less successful than the current state of affairs. Dave Bashford goes running out the climber (we see it on TV) and wiggles a few wires on the climber...etc...we have no clue what he's doing; Nervously waiting for radio communcations. Then they fly the climber up to the 100m start line again. This time the laser fires and the climber is off. They set the record time with 4:03. With time left in their window they do another climb of 4:01. That's 3.83m/s, or enough to put them in for the secondary prize of $900k.

Mary was jumping up and down all excited, so I took a picture of her in front of the TV. As a self-described "team mom" she was very proud of her boys.

After this excitement we were done for the day and the teams headed back to the hangar around 5pm (sundown). The local and national media blitzkrieg-ed Jordin and Tom. I'll admit it. I fired my camera flashes just to give them a little extra pazzaz to their interview. After all, they invaded the space I had preset for the team portrait.

After a climber weigh in we headed outside to take the team portrait. Perfect light to do it.

The team bested their time the following day to achieve 4m/s. The USST and Kansas City Space Pirates had technical difficulties and failed to make a climb.

Finally, I present the Mojave flight team (left to right, top to bottom): Carsten Erickson, Jordin Kare, William Boyde, Thomas Nugent, Nick Burrows, Steven Beland, Stephen Burrows, and David Bashford. Well done team.

News coverage can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and many other places with a google search for "space elevator lasermotive."

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