Elon Musk gets in the Thanksgiving spirit on TV

You wouldn’t think Elon Musk was a warm and fuzzy guy, based on this year’s biography of the hard-driving CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, but on this week’s episode of “The Big Bang Theory,” we learn that he loves to help the homeless.

The big reveal comes when engineer and one-time spaceflier Howard Wolowitz (played by Simon Helberg) reluctantly joins his wife as well as his pal Raj and his girlfriend to help with Thanksgiving dinner at a homeless shelter. Howard gets stuck washing the dishes, but loses control of his sink sprayer when he sees Musk walk in with a load of dirty plates.

“What are you doing here?!” Howard asks.

“I’m washing dishes … I was on the turkey line, but I got demoted for being too generous with the gravy,” Musk replies.

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Blue Origin’s next flight is coming ‘very soon’

New Shepard launch
Blue Origin’s New Shepard prototype spaceship lifts off for a test flight in April. (Blue Origin photo)

Even as Jeff Bezos celebrates past achievements in spaceflight, he’s looking forward to seeing his Blue Origin space venture make future achievements.

The next flight test of Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship should come “very soon,” Bezos said Thursday at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, after a ceremony marking the arrival of historic Saturn V rocket engine parts that his Bezos Expeditions team recovered from the Atlantic two years ago.

“We’re ready and excited to fly again,” Bezos said.

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Jeff Bezos helps unwrap Apollo engine artifacts

Unwrapping the injector plate
Billionare Jeff Bezos beams as Allison Loveland, a collection specialist at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, unwraps an Apollo F1 rocket engine injection plate. Geoff Nunn, the museum’s adjunct curator for space history, stands by to the left. (GeekWire photo by Alan Boyle)

Even Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos got misty-eyed at Seattle’s Museum of Flight during Thursday’s unveiling of rocket engine parts from the Apollo moonshots.

“I always do,” he told GeekWire afterward.

It’s not just the fact that Bezos has been a space fan since the age of 5. He funded the Bezos Expeditions voyage that recovered hundreds of parts from the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, 14,000 feet down – and he was aboard the ship when the mangled 40-year-old parts were brought up from the deep in 2013.

It was Bezos who asked NASA to let some of the artifacts go on exhibit in his hometown museum. This summer, the space agency gave its OK. So Bezos was all smiles when he showed off some of the shrink-wrapped remains from the Saturn V rockets that sent Apollo 12 and Apollo 16 to the moon.

Get the story, and the pictures, on GeekWire.


Ford CEO sees self-driving cars in four years

Autonomous Ford Focus
An autonomous Ford Focus is put through its paces at a Michigan test facility. (Credit: Ford)

Have you ridden a self-driving Ford lately? They’re not on the market yet, but Ford President and CEO Mark Fields has been quoted as saying fully autonomous cars could be available for use on U.S. streets in four years’ time – and Ford is already experimenting with them in Michigan.

According to a Re/code report, Fields told reporters in San Francisco that Ford should be able to offer vehicles on that time frame that can operate autonomously on roads where high-definition maps are available.

Regulatory and legal issues are likely to be the main sticking points. “Technology tends to lead all that,” Fields said.

Ford has been testing robo-vehicles for more than a decade, and last week the automaker announced that it’s putting an autonomous Ford Fusion through its paces in a simulated real-world urban environment at the University of Michigan’s 32-acre Mcity research facility. It’s one more sign that Ford won’t take a back seat to Google and Apple in the fast-developing driverless landscape.

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SpaceX leads in launch competition, by default

SpaceX Falcon 9 launch
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches the DSCOVR satellite in February. (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX is poised to win an Air Force national security launch contract by default because its archrival, United Launch Alliance, has dropped out of the competition.

ULA said this week that it decided not to bid on the Air Force contract for launching a GPS-3 satellite in 2018, leaving SpaceX as the sole bidder. The contract was the first of its kind to come up since the Air Force certified SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket to launch national security payloads.

Reuters quoted ULA’s chief executive officer, Tory Bruno, as saying that the Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture couldn’t submit a compliant bid because of a federally mandated ban on the use of Russian-built RD-180 engines for national security launches. ULA uses the RD-180s on the first stage of its Atlas 5 rocket, which has traditionally been used for such launches. A defense authorization bill currently under consideration in Congress includes a provision that would give ULA access to four more of the engines, but that bill has not yet been signed into law.

Bruno also told Reuters that the criteria for bid selection don’t give ULA enough credit for its record of reliability and schedule certainty, and that the accounting procedures for separating the funds for GPS-3 from other government contracts were too onerous.

Monday was the deadline for submitting a bid for the GPS-3 launch. SpaceX declined to comment on the prospects for the contract, which is thought to be worth in the neighborhood of $70 million to $80 million.

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Stratolaunch project’s fate is up in the air

Stratolaunch landing
An artist’s conception shows the Stratolaunch jet landing. (Credit: Vulcan Aerospace)

The world’s largest airplane is taking shape for Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Vulcan Aerospace venture, but it’s not yet clear what kind of rocket would be launched from the Stratolaunch super-jumbo jet.

The uncertainties reflect transitions taking place at Vulcan Aerospace as well as in the launch industry. Last month, the venture’s president, Chuck Beames, said he was still in the midst of defining where Stratolaunch fit in the context of Vulcan’s wider “NextSpace” vision. Meanwhile, there’s been a switch in the CEO spot for the Stratolaunch Systems subsidiary, from Gary Wentz to Jean Floyd.

The past few months also have been marked by rapid shifts in the satellite launch industry – particularly for small to medium-size satellites, which are supposed to be in the sweet spot for Stratolaunch’s air-launch system. The Wall Street Journal quotes unnamed aerospace industry officials as saying those shifts could threaten the project’s overall viability.

In a statement emailed to GeekWire, Vulcan Aerospace said the Journal’s report was “inaccurate” and “based on nothing more than rumors and speculation, not facts.” The statement went on to sketch out Vulcan’s vision of transforming space transportation to low Earth orbit by changing the current model for launching payloads into space.

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Will FAA let drones fly out of sight? Stay tuned

PrecisionHawk Lancaster drone
PrecisionHawk is using its Lancaster drone to investigate the options for letting unmanned air vehicles fly beyond the view of their operators. (Credit: PrecisionHawk)

Should commercial operators be able to fly their drones beyond their line of sight? The question is a big deal for Amazon as well as Walmart, Google and other companies that want to use robotic air vehicles to deliver goods to consumers – but the Federal Aviation Administration needs convincing.

Now the FAA is trying to nail down an answer, thanks to a series of field tests known as Project Pathfinder.

Project Pathfinder is actually a quartet of test programs, aimed at determining the safety of extended drone operations in four scenarios.

Find out about the programs on GeekWire.


Free e-book shares sci-fi’s ‘Future Visions’

"Future Visions"
“Machine Learning” by Nancy Kress is one of the tales in “Future Visions: Original Science Fiction Inspired by Microsoft.” (Credit: Joey Camacho / Raw & Rendered for Microsoft Research)

When you’re developing technologies that sound like science fiction, why not use science fiction stories to show what you’re up to? That’s the motivation behind“Future Visions,” a free e-book from Microsoft Research that highlights the gee-whiz ideas its researchers are working on.

“We have a group of people who are trying to turn science fiction into reality, and it seems fitting that we’d want to tell that story with science fiction stories written by science fiction authors,” Steve Clayton, Microsoft’s chief storyteller, told GeekWire. (And by the way, Steve, how did you get that job title?)

The authors are top-drawer: Eight short stories come from science-fiction luminaries Elizabeth Bear, Greg Bear, David Brin, Nancy Kress, Ann Leckie, Jack McDevitt, Seanan McGuire and Robert J. Sawyer. There’s also a graphic mini-novel by Blue Delliquanti and Michele Rosenthal.

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Inside the flying lab that’s probing rain clouds

Image: DC-8 view
The view out the window during NASA’s DC-8 flight on Saturday. (GeekWire photo by Alan Boyle)

JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. – I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now – from below, on the receiving end of an all-day rain; and from above, where NASA’s flying laboratory is dissecting those rain clouds.

For more than six hours on a rainy Saturday, I rode along as a DC-8 jet bristling with electronic gear took radar and microwave measurements of the clouds hanging over the Olympic Peninsula. The flight is part of a months-long campaign called the Olympic Mountain Experiment, or OLYMPEX, which is being conducted by NASA and the University of Washington.

OLYMPEX is aimed at fine-tuning the algorithms that scientists use to translate the data coming from on-the-ground weather installations and satellites like the recently launched Global Precipitation Measurement Mission Core Observatory into weather and climate projections.

In the process, they’re addressing a scientific problem we’ve known about since Judy Collins first sang about clouds in the ’60s: We really don’t know clouds at all.

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Scientists list brain’s common gene patterns

Image: Brain gene expression
An image from the Allen Brain Explorer shows gene expression across the human brain. (Credit: Allen Institute for Brain Science)

Researchers say they’ve traced 32 of the most common genetic patterns at work in the human brain, as part of a mapping project that could lead to new insights about Alzheimer’s and other diseases.

“We’re really trying to understand the genetic basis for the architecture of the human brain,” said Ed Lein, a researcher at the Allen Institute for Brain Science and one of the authors of a study published online on Monday by Nature Neuroscience.

Lein told GeekWire that the study, based on data from the Allen Human Brain Atlas, demonstrates “we’re really much more similar than we are dissimilar” when it comes to the genetic code for our brain’s wiring. The genes that are most consistently associated with specific regions of the brain include some associated with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease, as well as epilepsy and disorders associated with cocaine and nicotine use.

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