TakeFlight revs up simulator-based flight training

TakeFlight CEO Brandon Seltz
TakeFlight CEO Brandon Seltz takes the controls at a workstation equipped with software that guides users through the flight training process. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

The makers of software such as Microsoft Flight Simulator usually say their programs are meant for entertainment, not actual flight training — but there’s a venture called TakeFlight Interactive that’s using enhanced simulations to get future pilots up to speed more quickly.

Part of the enhancement is adding a virtual instructor to the mix.

“There’s so much latent power in a desktop simulation,” Brandon Seltz, founder and CEO of the Redmond, Wash.-based venture, told GeekWire. “But the instructional element of flight training has never been simulated.”

TakeFlight is taking on that challenge: The company’s developers have created an assortment of software modules for general, commercial and military flight training that includes a voice assistant to let you know when you should pull back on the controls or give the throttle a push.

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NASA issues fast-track plan for lunar landers

Lunar lander takeoff
An artist’s conception shows a lunar lander’s ascent module blasting off from the moon. (NASA Illustration)

After two preliminary rounds, NASA today published its final call for industry proposals to have the first two landers capable of putting astronauts on the moon ready for 2024 and 2025.

NASA’s broad agency announcement, known as NextSTEP-2 Appendix H, makes clear that two different companies would be chosen to build human-capable landers. One of them would be used for the Artemis 3 mission, which aims to send two astronauts to and from the lunar surface in 2024. The other would be used for a demonstration mission in 2025.

Those two missions would set the stage for putting an upgraded lander on the moon in 2026 to demonstrate a “sustainable” approach to lunar exploration. That follow-up demonstration mission would serve as a “precursor to procuring lunar landing services as commercial services beginning in 2028,” NASA said.

And here’s the kicker: The proposals for the first two landers are due in a month.

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Microsoft Flight Simulator is back … for real!

RENTON, Wash. — Thanks to Microsoft’s hyper-realistic new version of Flight Simulator, I now know what it’s like to fly a Cessna 72SP Skyhawk airplane over my neighborhood … then crash it into the next street over.

And in connection with a daylong preview of the pre-alpha version of the simulation software, I got to fly a real Cessna almost as close to my real neighborhood. Thankfully, without crashing.

Both adventures were eye-openers for a guy like me — a guy who had never taken a flight lesson before, and whose only previous experience with flight simulation programs has been to crash (or nearly crash) virtual spaceships.

But even a newbie like me can appreciate the effort that went into the first full refresh for Microsoft’s classic Flight Simulator in 13 years.

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Elon Musk lays out fast and furious plan for Starship

Starship and Falcon 1
SpaceX’s Starship Mk1 prototype stands alongside a first stage of SpaceX’s Falcon 1 rocket, which had its first successful orbital launch in 2008. If you look closely at this picture from SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility, you can see people to the left of the Starship rocket. (SpaceX via Twitter)

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk set a revved-up timeline tonight for testing and building a fleet of Starship rocket ships that he says would eventually take people on trips to the moon, Mars and other deep-space destinations.

Standing in front of SpaceX’s newly constructed Starship Mk1 prototype at the company’s South Texas facility, Musk said he expected the first 12-mile-high test flight to take place in a month or two.

His timeline called for building up to four more versions of the super-rocket and conducting the first orbital launch within six months. The next version, dubbed Starship Mk2, is already taking shape at SpaceX’s Florida facilities.

The first crewed orbital mission could take place as early as next year, Musk said.

In the past, even Musk has acknowledged that his timelines tend to be overly optimistic, but tonight he suggested that’s a feature, not a bug.

“If the schedule’s long, it’s wrong,” he told a crowd of journalists, employees and fans. “If it’s tight, it’s right.”

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Blue Origin wins $10M for space fuel storage tech

Blue Moon lunar lander
An artist’s conception shows Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lander on the lunar surface. (Blue Origin Illustration)

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is on the top of the funding list for a newly announced round of “Tipping Point” funding from NASA for technologies that could be applied to exploration and settlement of the moon and Mars.

Headquartered in Kent, Wash., Blue Origin will be awarded $10 million to conduct a ground-based demonstration of hydrogen and oxygen liquefaction and storage.

“The demonstration could help inform a large-scale propellant production plant suitable for the lunar surface,” NASA said today in a news release.

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Voom helicopter service expands to Bay Area

Voom helicopter service
Voom works with third-party helicopter operators and helipads to deliver on-demand service. (Voom Photo)

Voom has officially extended its app-based, on-demand helicopter service to the San Francisco Bay Area, confirming that the Airbus subsidiary is now active in the United States as well as in Brazil and Mexico.

Today’s announcement comes months after initial reports that the San Francisco-based venture was beta-testing its service in the Bay Area.

Customers can now use Voom’s app or website to book trips with connections to five Bay Area airports: Napa, Oakland, Palo Alto, San Francisco and San Jose. Prices start at $215, and a quick check of the website shows that the per-seat fare for a trip from San Francisco to San Jose is $285.

That’s significantly more than an Uber or taxi fare, but Voom is counting on customers to put a higher value on their time.

“Our service will make it easy and affordable for business travelers to travel quickly from locations such as the San Francisco airport to San Jose in only 20 minutes, rather than sitting in traffic for hours trying to get to a meeting,” Voom CEO Clement Monnet said in a news release.

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Stratolaunch rebuilds team for monster airplane

Stratolaunch plane in the air
Stratolaunch’s six-engine, twin-fuselage airplane makes its first flight in April. (Stratolaunch Photo)

Stratolaunch is hiring — nearly a year after the death of its billionaire backer, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, and five months after the company’s monster plane took its first and only test flight.

Allen founded the venture in 2011, with the goal of using what is now the world’s largest airplane as a flying launch pad for orbital-class rockets and space planes. But after his death at the age of 65, Stratolaunch trimmed its staff dramatically. Some saw April’s test flight at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port as primarily a tribute to Allen, and as the prelude to either a sale or a shutdown.

Representatives of the Allen family’s Vulcan holding company have insisted that Stratolaunch remains operational. LinkedIn listings indicate that Jean Floyd is still president and CEO, although three company vice presidents left in July.

Now Stratolaunch is posting 11 job openings, including listings for two test pilots. “As a test pilot on the history-making Stratolaunch Carrier Aircraft, the world’s largest-wingspan aircraft, you will have the opportunity to accomplish new milestones in aviation,” the company says.

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Space station crew grows to 9, including Emirati

Space station crew
Nine crew members face the camera on the space station during a video conference. (NASA via YouTube)

Three more spacefliers arrived at the International Space Station today in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, increasing the orbital outpost’s population from its usual six to a crowded nine.

One of the new arrivals is Hazzaa Ali Almansoori, the first citizen of the United Arab Emirates to fly in space.

The 35-year-old fighter jet pilot was sent to the final frontier under the terms of a contract with the Russian Space Agency, and will be returning to Earth on a different Soyuz in just eight days. The cost to the UAE hasn’t been reported, but for what it’s worth, NASA has been paying the Russians more than $80 million for a ride.

The other two spacefliers are NASA astronaut Jessica Meir, another first-time flier, and veteran Russian cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka.

Their Soyuz craft docked with the station just six hours after today’s launch from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

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Blue Origin might delay flying people until 2020

Blue Origin capsule
A mockup of the crew capsule for Blue Origin’s New Shepard spaceship is laid out at the Aria Resort Hotel in Las Vegas for the re:MARS conference in June. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is laying plans for two more uncrewed tests of its New Shepard suborbital spaceship, but may have to delay its plans to put people on board until next year, CNBC reported.

The potential for shifting the start of test flights with people came up on Sept. 24 when Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith met with reporters in Washington, D.C.

Blue Origin, which is headquartered in Kent, Wash., has filed plans with the Federal Communications Commission for at least two more New Shepard test flights from its test and launch facility in West Texas. These would be the 12th and 13th flights of the New Shepard test program.

On Sept. 24, Blue Origin sought reauthorization of the next test flight for a six-month period running from Nov. 1 to next May. The existing authorization is set to expire on Dec. 1, which suggests that the company wants to reserve more time to prepare for the test.

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Weapons lab likes D-Wave’s next quantum system

D-Wave computer
A team member at D-Wave Systems, based in Burnaby, B.C.,, works on the dilution refrigerator system that cools the processors in the company’s quantum computer. (D-Wave Systems Photo)

D-Wave Systems says its next-generation, 5,000-qubit quantum computing system will be called Advantage, to recognize the business advantage it hopes its customers will derive from the company’s products and services.

The Burnaby, B.C.-based company also announced that Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico has signed a contract to upgrade to Advantage on its premises once it’s ready to go. Advantage-based computing is due to become available via D-Wave’s Leap quantum cloud service in mid-2020.

“This is the third time we will have upgraded our D-Wave system,” Irene Qualters, associate lab director for simulation and computation at Los Alamos, said today in a news release. “Each upgrade has enabled new research into developing quantum algorithms and new tools in support of Los Alamos’ national security mission.”

The lab’s national security mission includes keeping the nation’s nuclear weapons up to date — and checking their safety and potency using methods that include computer simulations.

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