It's a great time to be gadding about the galaxy. The big news around here is that the radio adaptation of the final three books of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is coming to BBC4 beginning in September. Those of us living on the 'wrong' side of the Atlantic are hoping that the Internet will allow us to listen as well without having to wait several years until an American station decides to pick up the series. The press release noted that the voice of Douglas Adams himself will be heard, as he recorded the part of Agrajag a few years ago. Bittersweet news, that is. Oh, heck: bawl. So find a comfortable seat and strap yourself in for a wild and crazy ride.
The Right Stuff
Those hopng to travel to other planets in person got some good news on 21 June when SpaceShipOne, a privately-owned and -developed rocket plane, successfully launched itself into sub-orbital space1 above the Mojave Desert in California and returned safely to earth. Test pilot Mike Melvill is the first person to earn his astronaut wings in a non-government sponsored vehicle and the first civilian to fly a spaceship out of the atmosphere. The flight was not without its problems — a critical flight control system failed, and Melvill admitted he'd been scared stiff — and there will be no further test flights until engineers can figure out what went wrong.
But still: civilians in space! This is so cool.
SpaceShipOne is owned and operated by Scaled Composites, whose Tier One Project aims to make space flight commercially viable. The Tier One team is just one of several competing for the Ansari X Prize. This $10 million prize will go to the first 3-person space craft2 to travel into sub-orbital space twice in a two-week period and land safely afterwards. Though SpaceShipOne appears to be leading the race right now, it's by no means assured of the prize. X Prize teams also have been formed in several other countries, including Canada, Israel, Russia and the UK.
There's been surprisingly little discussion about this in the mainstream US media. This is the country that put men on the moon back in the late 1960s, but right now the average person doesn't seem much interested in space exploration or travel. Of course, the world's a whole lot different nowadays, and we're up to our eyeballs in serious problems that need to be sorted out. They're also expensive problems. Up until now, all space exploration in the US has been funded by taxpayers' money, and the taxpayers don't have the money to throw around. So I have high hopes for commercial efforts, as they seem our best bet for getting ourselves off-planet. I'm also concerned. Business has a history of irresponsible use of natural resources, and there's no reason to think that anything has changed. So, as I said, I'm hopeful, but I also suspect I may be dancing to the devil's fiddle.
The Red Stuff
Meanwhile back on Mars, the two NASA rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, completed their scientific missions in April and are still operational, delighting scientists who are conducting further tests at new locations. Spirit has come across a rock, dubbed 'Pot of Gold', that has them baffled and excited. In addition to doing science, they are also working to keep the rovers operational as long as possible. Spirit is showing some signs of trouble: one of its wheels is drawing two to three times as much current as the others. Both rovers are also negotiating sloped terrain, which presents other challenges. And scientists need to contend with worsening weather, as the rovers' locations begin to slip toward Martian winter.
You can read all about the latest goings on at the Mars Exploration Rover Mission home page.
The Wrong Trousers
And now for some public service announcements.
Wallace & Gromit Children's Foundation has announced that Friday 2 July 2004 is Wrong Trousers Day. Here's your chance to abandon your fashion sense and feel good about it.
Folks in the US may need to wear new trousers if they slop melted ice cream on themselves. Yes, July means ice cream. We can thank the late President Ronald Reagan, who in 1984 declared July to be National Ice Cream Month and the third Sunday of the month to be National Ice Cream Day, for giving us a 'legitimate' excuse to indulge ourselves.
Those of you watching your carbohydrate intake can even find lower-carb versions of our favourite summer treat. In the interest of science (heh, heh) I sampled some of Ben & Jerry's lower-carb ice cream, and it's pretty good stuff. It tastes like their regular version, although the texture is a bit 'dry'. But this is not a low-carb food, at least not if you consider a pint to be one serving.
Here's some 'food for thought': see what your favourite flavour says about you. Not sure what this means for those of us who never met an ice cream they didn't like...
- First Commercial Space Flight
- Science and Nature: Space Exploration
- Wallace and Gromit - Animated Legends
- How to Make Cheesecake Ice Cream
- How to Make 'Bountyful'-flavoured Ice Cream