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On June 29, 1965, U.S. Air Force pilot Joe Engle qualified as an astronaut, though he wouldn’t join NASA’s astronaut corps for another nine months. That Tuesday morning, Engle flew the X-15 rocket plane to a peak altitude of 280,600 feet or 53.1 miles, 3.1 miles beyond the threshold of where air ends and space begins. Last weekend he was inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame at the San Diego Air & Space Museum, and I got to sit down and chat with him about flying that tiny, awesome rocket plane.

The X-15 in flight.

A Little About the X-15

Conceived in the early 1950s when airplanes were barely breaking Mach 2 or twice the speed of sound, the X-15 was a research aircraft designed to gather data on instability at speed up to Mach 7 and altitudes up to 50 miles. The first production aircraft rolled out of North American Aviation’s hangar in Los Angeles on October 15, 1958, and it looked every bit at space-aged as its high speed and high altitude flight profile suggested.

The X-15 really looks more like a missile than an aircraft. And really, it is sort of a missile with room for a pilot. It was even air launched from under the wing of a B-52 bomber like a missile. Fifty feet long, 13 feet high, and a wingspan measuring just 22 feet across, the bulk of the X-15’s fuselage was dedicated to anhydrous ammonia and liquid oxygen tanks and the plumbing needed to force both liquids into the powerful rear mounted XLR-99 rocket engine (though earlier flights used smaller, ethyl alcohol fueled XLR-11 engines).

Only the slight bump behind the nose with a narrow window indicated that a pilot was meant to sit inside.

But there’s one other piece of the X-15 that makes it a fascinating vehicle. Because it was designed to fly where the atmosphere is too thin for traditional flight controls — ailerons, elevators, and rudders — to bite into, the X-15 also had reaction controls. After burning his rocket engine on a steep climb to reach peak altitudes, small hydrogen peroxide jets gave the pilot a way to control his orientation in the nearly atmosphere-less environment.

Riding a Thoroughbred Horse

Typical X-15 flight profiles.

Learning to fly the X-15 was an incremental process, Engle said. The parts of the flight that used traditional flight controls called for classic piloting skill, using reaction controls in the upper atmosphere took some getting used to, and learning to fly a flight profile that combined traditional controls with reaction controls was a challenge. On one short flight, he had to use both control systems seamlessly. Simulators helped by replicating the flight down to jets that produced equivalent thrust in a hangar at Edwards Air Force Base as the X-15’s would 50 miles above the Earth. And the simulators were constantly updated with the latest flight data meaning it was an increasingly realistic representation of what the real thing would feel like.

And the flights were incremental, too. Engle’s first flight, like every X-15 pilot’s first flight, was a checkout flight. He only went Mach 4 and reached a peak altitude of just 77,800 feet. Rather than records, the goal for this flight was for Engle to familiarize himself with the little aircraft and make the all-important unpowered landing on the dry lakebed at Edwards Air Force Base.

Engle went up in an X-15 nestled under the wing of a B-52 thirty-two times but only launched from the mothership 16 times. And not once was he rattled. Most of the aborted take offs were for innocuous things like communications or instrument problems.

And finding himself arcing over a flight path more than 250,000 feet in the air didn’t rattle Engle’s nerves either.

Altitude flights treated X-15 pilots to a view of the curvature of the Earth and a brief period of weightlessness before gravity pulled the airplane back down to begin the high-speed descent. And while the view might have been breathtaking, Engle said it was more than anything an important flight instrument. The X-15 didn’t have an inertial guidance system. It used mechanical gyros that tended to drift with acceleration, so being able to look out the window and visually orient himself was more data and less scenery. There was too much to do on these short flights to really stop and take it all in.

But the view did, however briefly, highlight the reality of the task at hand. As Engle described it, to fly the X-15 meant bringing your A-game to work. Alone on top of the world, his life was quite literally in his own hands; no one but he could pilot that airplane seamlessly from atmosphere-less space to the lakebed. In that moment, he said, you had to be convinced that you’ve got the best hands in the world.

Taking In the View

Me and Joe Engle.

Engle left the Air Force and joined NASA in March of 1966 as one of the Group 5 astronauts, and he was the first man to join the space program with astronaut wings. He trained to fly on Apollo 17 but was bumped from the crew when the last three lunar missions were cancelled. Suddenly, Apollo 17 was the last chance for a scientist to walk on the Moon and geologist Jack Schmitt was added to the crew. But Engle did make it into space. After returning to Edwards to fly approach and landing tests with the space shuttle Enterprise, he served as the commander of STS-2. On that flight, he told me, he finally had a chance to stop and take in the view of the Earth curving below him, a far better view than the brief glimpse at the top of an X-15 flight. On that mission, he manually flew the shuttle from Mach 25 to landing. From about Mach 6 on, he said, the shuttle handled more or less the same as the X-15, only it felt a lot bigger.

The X-15, Engle told me, was an exciting airplane to fly, akin to riding a high spirited thoroughbred horse. And it remains his favorite and most professionally rewarding of the 185 different types of planes he’s flown over the course of his career. And, I should point out, he couldn’t be nicer to sit down and talk to.

Sources: My conversation with Joe Engle; NASA; NASA; “At the Edge of Space” by Milt Thompson.

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A Helicopter Caught And Released A Rocket This Week

Late in the morning of May 3, a rocket blasted off into the heavens from a launchpad in New Zealand. Minutes later, as its second stage continued upwards towards orbit, the first stage of the rocket descended by parachute into the waiting hook from a recovery helicopter. The hook snagged the parachute line, where it was held—and then released. The launch, both a successful orbital delivery and useful feature test for rocket-maker Rocket Lab, highlights a future possible form of recoverable rocket launches.

At the heart of Tuesday’s launch was the novel recovery attempt. Getting to orbit is expensive work, and the ability to recover and reuse rocket components can lower the costs of each launch. Recovery in this instance was attempted by a Sikorsky helicopter.

“At 6,500 ft, Rocket Lab’s Sikorsky S-92 helicopter rendezvoused with the returning stage and used a hook on a long line to capture the parachute line,” Rocket Lab said in a release. “After the catch, the helicopter pilot detected different load characteristics than previously experienced in testing and offloaded the stage for a successful splashdown.”

For this specific launch, the catch ended up being more of a catch-and-release, but that attempt still went an important way to demonstrating the viability of the option. Knowing that the release worked—that the helicopter crew was able to snag the rocket and then determine they needed to jettison the booster—is a key part of proving viability. A method that involves helicopters but jeopardizes them pairs reusability with risk to the human crew.

Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck noted that it’s a tricky dynamic. “Once we receive confirmation that we’re under a good chute, we’ve got about 10 minutes to get on station and rendezvous with the stage,” he said, on a media call, “and not only rendezvous with the stage in a position in space but also in altitude and a descending altitude, a kind of three-dimensional problem if you will.” 

[Related: SpaceX’s first paying ISS passengers say they’re not ‘space tourists’]

This launch, said Rocket Lab in the release, “is the first time a helicopter catch attempt was introduced to recovery operations and today’s mission will inform future helicopter captures.”

In addition to the helicopter snag, the rocket booster was slowed by its initial drogue parachute, as well as by a large main parachute. The drogue parachute stabilized and slowed the booster as it fell, with the main parachute deployed much closer to impact, working as a harder brake. Both parachutes were deployed by the time of the helicopter intercept.

“Trailing behind the main chute is the little drogue chute with a 150-foot line and there’s a 150-line hanging off the helicopter with the capture mechanism,” said Beck. “It’s kind of like Ghostbusters in a way, you want those two streams to cross, those streams being the helicopter long line and the line between the main chute and the drogue chute—those cross and grapple and capture, and then the helicopter slowly decreases the velocity of its descent.”

In this instance, after recovery from the ocean, the rocket booster stage was collected and sent back to where the company produced it for future analysis. 

“It’s an incredible display of logistics and moving pieces. To even get something that’s entering from space at seven times the speed of sound on a ballistic arc to rendezvous with a helicopter was a huge achievement,” said Beck. “We got an image of it on a boat coming home. Little bit wetter than we hoped but incredibly successful.”

The company has a long history of adapting from imperfect initial results. When Rocket Lab sent its first Electron rocket up in 2023, the rocket did not quite make it into orbit as planned. 

Since then, Rocket Lab claims it has had 26 Electron rocket missions, deploying a total of 146 satellites. Of those, 34 were deployed with the latest launch, and those include satellites that Rocket Lab says are “designed to monitor light pollution, demonstrate space junk removal technologies, improve power restraints in small satellites, validate technology for sustainable satellite systems that can avoid collisions with untrackable space objects, enable internet from space, and build upon a maritime surveillance constellation.”

So why doesn’t Electron just do it the same way SpaceX does? According to CNN, “[t]he company has said Electron is not large enough to carry the fuel supply needed for an upright landing, and a saltwater ocean landing can cause corrosion and physical damage.”

[Related: Jeff Bezos is suing NASA. Here’s why.]

Reusing boosters saves on materials cost, and it also saves on manufacturing time. Provided the rocket is not too badly damaged from seawater, refurbishing is a faster turnaround to readiness than starting from scratch. 

If the helicopter hook technique can succeed in the future, a guided and slowed descent shortens that turnaround time even further, making it increasingly likely the company will be able to field as many launches as it schedules and population orbit with more and more satellites.

In the video of the capture attempt, filmed from a camera mounted on the helicopter, the hook can be seen dangling in the air below, a yellow tether suspended in air. The booster, parachute deployed, drifts into the frame. The sky below orbit is vast, full of room for trial and error. The successful snag is the story Rocket Lab is actively telling about the test, but the release of the cord to save the helicopter proves the concept can be attempted again, now with pilots who know what a catch and release feels like.

Watch the recovery attempt below:

A New Way To Get To Space

World View Experience says it will take passengers to the stratosphere by 2023. Illustration by World View Experience

When Alan Eustace lifted off into space from the New Mexico desert this past October, it was with a quiet whoosh, and a slight jostle of his harness. The 57-year-old computer scientist from Google—outfitted in a 260-pound pressurized space suit—dangled solo from a polyethylene balloon as thin as a dry-cleaning bag. As the balloon rose steadily into the air, the small bubble of helium inside began to expand, and with each mile the balloon changed shape. At first it undulated skyward, limp and oblong, like a jellyfish. Then it grew into a soft, bulbous teardrop. Finally, as Eustace neared his destination, 25 miles above the planet’s surface, it became perfectly firm and rounded, a shimmering object the size of a football stadium. Above him spanned the blackness of space. Beneath him lay what has long drawn humans to these heights: the soul-altering view of the curvature of Earth.

To most, Eustace’s flight seemed the antithesis of space travel, which since the dawn of the space age has been synonymous with the fiery roar of a rocket. The first private companies racing to take paying customers to the edge of space—Virgin Galactic, XCOR Aerospace, and Blue Origin—promise the kind of thrill ride experienced by astronauts. But there’s an alternate space race taking shape, one whose selling point is slow and serene. A handful of startups are rushing to pioneer tourist trips to the stratosphere beneath enormous balloons. “Balloons are a beautiful mechanism for taking off,” Eustace says. “You’re perfectly balanced; it’s perfectly quiet; there’s no vibration as you’re going up.” Once at altitude, passengers will drift with the winds as they peer from the comfort of a pressurized capsule. After a few hours, they will glide back to Earth beneath a wing-shaped parafoil.

“It’s going to be the ultimate Facebook status update: the entire family in space.”

For one company, Eustace’s­ StratEx mission was proof of principle—a “one-man version” of stratospheric balloon tourism, says Taber MacCallum. He and his partner, Jane Poynter, headed Paragon Space Development Corporation, which managed Eustace’s flight plan and built his life-support system. The couple then started World View Experience, a Tucson, Arizona, operation that intends to be the first to take customers to 100,000 feet, or 19 miles, for $75,000 a head. They project the maiden flight will take place by 2023.

Zero2Infinity in Barcelona and Chinese startup Space Vision also anticipate flying passengers in the next few years. They are selling tickets for about $125,000 and $80,000, respectively. The fees are steep, but not when compared with $250,000 for a seat on Virgin­ Galactic’s suborbital spaceplane, or the $50 million broker Space Adventures charges for a weeklong jaunt to the International Space Station.

Altogether, balloons could offer a more inclusive form of space tourism. “It’s a very slow, gentle ride up and a slow, gentle ride back, and you get to be up there for hours,” MacCallum says. Without the gravitational forces of takeoff and landing, the flight comes with minimal health restrictions. Motion sickness is unlikely to be an issue. Couples might get married in near-space, or celebrate a grandparent’s birthday. World View is already taking $7,500 deposits to secure seats on future flights. “We’ve had families sign up and buy the whole capsule,” MacCallum says. “You can take your parents and children. It’s going to be the ultimate Facebook status update: the entire family in space.”

A helium-filled balloon will carry Zero2Infinity’s tourist pod to 22 miles above Earth. Illustration by Abaco Digital/Ignacio Ferrando/Zero2Infinity

In 2002, two years before Scaled Composites claimed the $10 million Ansari XPRIZE for private spaceflight, Zero2Infinity’s founder, José Mariano López-Urdiales, wrote a paper for grad school entitled “The Role of Balloons in the Future Development of Space Tourism.” In it, he calculated stratospheric ballooning could be a $10 billion-a-year industry. Much of the technology required to send tourists to such altitudes—the balloons, the helium fuel, the pressurized capsules—had been well proved, López-Urdiales noted. It’s also relatively affordable and easy to procure.

Whereas Virgin Galactic plans to soar to nearly 330,000 feet—just past the 62-mile mark widely considered the threshold of space—balloons will top out at just over 100,000 feet. The difference is not as significant as it might seem. “At that altitude, you’ve got 99 percent of the atmosphere underneath you,” says former space-shuttle commander Mark Kelly, now the director of flight operations for World View. “You’re essentially in a vacuum. You’re in the blackness of space.” He agrees with López-Alegria that balloons pose less risk. “If you can take the complexity out of getting people to that vantage point,” he says, “at least theoretically you can do it a lot safer.”

Physicist Auguste Piccard prepares to make his second balloon trip to the stratosphere in 1932. SSPL/Getty Images

Like Kittinger and Baumgartner before him, Eustace floated briefly in the stratosphere, taking in a view he calls “marvelous.” As he remembers now, “It’s beautiful watching how the light diffuses through the different levels of the atmosphere.” And then Eustace released his balloon and fell back to Earth protected by only his space suit. His body reached 822 miles per hour, exceeding the speed of sound, before the atmosphere thickened and a parachute deployed to slow his descent. To succeed at ushering in ­a new form of balloon-based tourism, companies will have to figure out a way to get customers not only up, but also down.

A balloon ride to the stratosphere will be a three-part act: the launch, the pleasant cruise at altitude, and the trip back to Earth. The first part should be straightforward. For its commercial flights, World View plans to use a balloon that’s more than 400 feet in diameter—the same size as the one that carried Eustace. (Though it will be towing a 9,000-pound tourist capsule, the balloon doesn’t need to ascend as high.) Because of the StratEx mission, World View’s team has practice launching it.

Passengers in World View’s capsule (here, a mock-up) will have Internet access for uploading photos. Courtesy of World View Experience

Zero2Infinity has been launching unmanned balloons as a test for two different business ventures: stratospheric tourism and a commercial satellite delivery system. It’s also designed a doughnut-shaped craft that it plans to adapt for both applications. The version that will carry tourists, called a Bloon, will be big enough to hold two pilots and four passengers. The company has so far built a prototype half that size and used it to send a small humanoid robot to near-space. (“In the old days it would have been a dog or a monkey,” López-Urdiales says.) Equipped with cameras and sensors, the robot helped the engineers at Zero2­Infinity understand the passenger experience. When the robot looked through the windows, which ring the outside wall, reflections marred the view. As a result, the window’s position will likely change, López-Urdiales says.

World View envisions an oblong capsule with viewing ports on each side. About the size of a small Winnebago, it will have seats for six passengers, a pilot, and a crew member. Passengers will need to be buckled in for liftoff and landing, but most of the ride will be a casual sail, like a skiff gliding across the surface of a lake in a light breeze. Although winds at 100,000 feet can reach 130 miles per hour, the high speed won’t be perceptible. That’s because Earth, which provides the only reference point, will appear to barely move. The capsule will have a bar and a bathroom, MacCallum says, and the crew will double as bartenders and tour guides.

Both MacCallum and López-­Urdiales agree that balloon tourism should provide a shirtsleeve environment throughout the flight. “The goal is to have no training, no space suits,” MacCallum says. “This will be very similar to a commercial-airline flight, where you’re given a briefing and off you go.” But outside the pressurized capsule, the environ­ment is lethal. Exposure would mean near-instant death. For that reason, the companies will have to decide how to balance comfort with safety in the event of an emergency.

The capsule will have a bar and a bathroom, MacCallum says, and the crew will double as bartenders and tour guides.

“At the very least the pilot should be wearing a space suit,” says Art Thompson, whose aerospace company, Sage Cheshire, built the pressurized capsule that carried Baumgartner to the stratosphere. “If you have an issue with the craft, you want the pilot to be able to be in control.” The smartest strategy,­ Thompson says, might be to convince tourists to wear suits too. Of course, space suits require training, and looking like an astronaut might not have as much appeal as being able to easily sip a cocktail or hold your kid’s hand at 100,000 feet. At this point, the companies just seem to be banking on their ability to get the capsule down if a problem is detected—no awkward garments or free-fall skills required.

The third phase of the journey, the return, will be the most difficult. So World View is now heavily focused on refining the parafoils that will deliver the capsules to Earth. “We want to have enough cross-range to be able to fly to an airstrip and gently land in a predetermined place,” MacCallum says. “Doing that from 100,000 feet has never been done.” Because the air at that altitude is so thin, many doubted it was possible. But the company has now flown unmanned parafoils from 100,000 feet three times, each with a payload of about 100 pounds. This summer they plan to step it up by a factor of 10, testing the GPS-guided system with a 1,000-pound payload over the southwestern United States. “Assuming all that goes well, by the end of this year we’ll be at full-scale flight with a 9,000-pound capsule and commensurately large parafoil,” MacCallum says.

One focus of Zero2Infinity’s upcoming flights, also scheduled for this year, will be to test the high-speed telemetry link that will beam live video down from the capsule. Another arm of the company focuses on developing huge parafoils that could act as rescue systems for traditional aircraft. While they would be much larger than the ones eventually used for tourist capsules, having two applications for the technology accelerates the development while reducing the risk and cost, López-Urdiales says.

During tourist trips, the parafoils will be guided at least partially by pilots, and so both companies will need to conduct manned test flights. Some of those test pilots will likely be former NASA astronauts. Kelly says that people who have flown the space shuttle, like him, won’t be starting from scratch. The shuttle was also a glider that made an unpowered descent. Similar to a parafoil and a capsule, it encountered a lot of drag for the amount of lift it could create. To train, Kelly will spend time this summer jumping out of airplanes and learning to fly a small parafoil. Though he’s in charge of assembling a team of World View pilots, he expects that he’ll complete at least some of the early manned test flights himself, as well as serve as pilot on the first commercial trip to the stratosphere.

The simplicity of World View’s vision—at least compared with rocket flight—is what attracted Kelly to the project, he says. Potential tourists will likewise be drawn for the same reason, in hopes of experiencing the same payoff. Before he went to space for the first time, Kelly was sure the most remarkable thing would be floating in zero gravity. “That wasn’t the case,” he says now. “The biggest takeaway is looking at the planet with your own eyes—a round ball just floating there in the cosmos.”

The Ride of Your Life Stratospheric Balloon

Stratospheric Balloon

Cost: $75,000

You board the capsule a couple of hours before dawn. The monstrous polyethelyne balloon that will lift you into the stratosphere towers in the air above. You choose a seat, but it doesn’t really matter—they all swivel for a 360-degree view. After a five-minute briefing from the pilot, a former astronaut, the craft begins to rise. 

The ascent is slow and steady, averaging about 11 mph. You barely feel it. As the helium inside the balloon expands, the shape transforms from a long, thin teardrop into a taut, rounded object. After an hour and a half, the balloon reaches 100,000 feet. You’re free to walk around, use the restroom, or have a cocktail.

The craft drifts at this altitude. Its movement is gentle; the pilots refer to it as “sailing.” They point out constellations and planets. Soon, the sunrise begins, illuminating the winding scar of the Grand Canyon 19 miles below. Your pilot describes his own first experience with the so-called overview effect, the emotional shift in perspective that comes with gazing down at Earth. You pull out your phone and snap a picture, a selfie from the stratosphere.

After two hours, the pilot vents helium from the balloon to begin a descent. He then sets the balloon free, leaving the capsule hanging from a 100-foot-wide parasail. It begins a directed glide. The wind pushed the balloon several hundred miles, and the parafoil will make up most of that distance on the return. The pilot’s attention is focused on flying—this is the part of the trip he has trained for. The sensation is similar to being in a small, perfectly silent airplane. The swooping descent takes less than an hour, delivering you to an airfield four to five hours after you lifted off.

Rocket-Powered Plane

Rocket-Powered Plane

Carrier: XCOR Aerospace Cost: $100,000

This article was originally published in the August 2023 issue of Popular Science, under the title “Wish You Were Here.”

Turning A Personal Tragedy Into A Life

Turning a Personal Tragedy Into a Life-Saving Mission SED alum launches nonprofit to prevent dating violence

Malcolm Astley (SED’82) and Mary Dunne with their daughter, Lauren, at her high school graduation. She was murdered by an ex-boyfriend weeks later. Photo courtesy of Malcolm Astley

Malcolm Astley spent his childhood trying to understand what makes people tick. His parents were mental health practitioners, so dinnertime at the Astley house touched on such difficult questions as, “What makes people violent?” Astley (SED’82) continued to pursue these questions at the School of Education, where he earned a doctorate in counseling and human development. “My solution was to aim toward prevention, with the view that if educational institutions could be shaped appropriately, they could head off a lot of problems,” says Astley, a former Lexington, Mass., elementary school principal and a member of the Wayland School Committee. “It’s ironic that I’ve ended up in this position.”

Heartbreakingly ironic, because on the evening of July 3, 2011, Astley’s 18-year-old daughter Lauren paid a visit to her ex-boyfriend and never came home. Nathaniel Fujita, who Lauren’s friends said was struggling after the couple’s breakup, is serving a life sentence for murder, and Astley is left grappling with how his only child could be dead, why Fujita killed her, and how to prevent this kind of tragedy from happening to someone else.

In response to Lauren’s death, Astley and Mary Dunne—Lauren’s mother—established the Lauren Dunne Astley Memorial Fund shortly after her murder. The nonprofit works to promote educational programs and legislation that raise awareness about healthy teen relationships and that prevent dating violence. “It was an effort to put something in the place of something so dear that had been lost,” says Astley, his voice catching. “And that’s what humans rightly do—try to keep creating in the midst of destruction.”

The fund’s top priority is developing and passing legislation that requires K–12 education on healthy selves and healthy relationships in Massachusetts public schools. Such education can have a significant impact: research from the National Institute of Justice shows that classroom- and school-level interventions, including teaching about healthy relationships and encouraging students to report incidents to school officials, led to a 32–47 percent reduction in sexual violence victimization and perpetration in 30 New York City public schools. In Massachusetts, funding for healthy relationship education was cut following the recession in the early 2000s, Boston magazine reported. In cooperation with state legislators, Astley’s fund proposes incorporating safe relationships education into existing anti-bullying legislation. “The schools’ plates are so full,” Astley acknowledges. “But this ought to be number one, in my view.”

The fund’s second and related priority is to support awareness and prevention by training guidance counselors, helping boys and men find positive solutions to dating violence, and sponsoring related arts presentations in Massachusetts schools and venues. Two of these presentations are “You the Man,” a one-man show depicting various male characters’ responses to a partner violence situation, and “The Yellow Dress,” a one-woman show about a high school girl murdered by her boyfriend.

The fund also sponsored a performance of “You the Man” at Wayland High School. Assistant Principal Allyson Mizoguchi says the show hit the mark where previous performances and assemblies on the topic hadn’t. One male student told her, “I liked how the performer told the story; it was much better than being lectured to.”

Repeatedly talking about Lauren’s death isn’t easy, but Astley says it’s good for him. “It’s a way of grieving, and trying to heal and prevent agony for other young women and their families and communities. That in some way helps balance Lauren’s death and absence.” Looking back on all that people have achieved in human rights over the centuries, he told Rothman’s students, makes him hopeful about saving other young people from Lauren’s and Nathaniel’s fates. “I’m quite optimistic,” he told them, “despite the edge in my voice.”

Julie Rattey can be reached at [email protected].

A version of this story was originally published in the fall 2013/winter 2014 edition of @SED.

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Elonmarsrise: A Token That Fulfills Dream Of Making Humans Become A Space

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Elon Musk and SpaceX have achieved three historic milestones in the last 12 months: successfully testing a reusable spacecraft, taking humans to space, and launching satellites to create a global internet sharing network. These achievements have ushered in a new era and sparked plans for a mission to Mars in 2030.  ELONMARSRISE, a new platform, has been created to encourage and support his ambition of conquering Mars.

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Meet Nvidia Xavier: A New Brain For Self

Meet NVIDIA Xavier: A new brain for self-driving, AI, and AR cars

NVIDIA isn’t letting up on its goal of being at the heart of as many driverless cars as possible and it’s NVIDIA Xavier, its newest autonomous machine processor, it plans to do that with. Unveiled at CES 2023 today, Xavier is the world’s most powerful System-on-Chip (SoC), so NVIDIA claims, and comes at the tail-end of $2bn in R&D by the company.

It’s not, of course, NVIDIA’s first ride in this particular self-driving rodeo. The company has already been working with automakers and researchers on autonomous AI, most recently with the NVIDIA DRIVE PX2.

Xavier, though, will be fifteen times more energy efficient than the previous-generation SoC used in the DRIVE PX2 platform. With upward of nine billion transistors, NVIDIA is arguing it’s two years ahead of anything its competitors are doing in terms of performance. A next-gen chip gets a next-gen platform, too.

It’ll be the heart of the NVIDIA DRIVE Pegasus AI platform, announced three months ago at GTC Europe. Indeed, two Xavier SoCs will be found inside the new computer, along with two next-generation GPUs also of NVIDIA’s design. It’ll be capable of 320 trillion operations per second (TOPS) of processing performance. “This is basically the requirement that we’re seeing from our customers to process all the information that’s coming in,” Danny Shapiro, senior director of automotive at the chip-maker, says.

Over 25 different companies are already using NVIDIA’s chipsets to work on autonomous robo-taxis, the company claims, and they’re planning to transition to Pegasus. There are some clear reasons why: for a start there’s the size, which is roughly akin to that of a license plate.

The heart of Xavier is a custom, 8-core CPU, paired with a new 512-core Volta GPU. There’a also a new deep learning accelerator, new computer vision accelerators, and new 8K HDR video processors. It’s sampling to the first customers this quarter, but NVIDIA points out that any existing software or algorithms developed for previous DRIVE platforms will run with no modifications required.

That’s DRIVE AV, but NVIDIA has more in mind for Xavier than just autonomous vehicles. At CES 2023 today, it’s also announcing DRIVE IX and DRIVE AR, two more elements of its artificial intelligence for vehicles. They’ll be based on Xavier too.

DRIVE IX is NVIDIA’s vision of an intelligent vehicle experience, bringing AI into the user-experience (UX) of the car or robo-taxi, and using that as a smart assistant for the driver and passengers. It’ll be focused on pulling in as much data as possible from sensors inside and outside of the vehicle, understanding who is approaching it, who’s inside, what they’re doing, and how they’re trying to communicate with the AI and the overall driving experience.

For example, an AI powered by DRIVE IX could spot someone approaching with their arms full of groceries and automatically unlock the car and open the trunk. Inside, it could use gaze-tracking and head position to control the interface, or recognize if the driver is getting drowsy or distracted. NVIDIA even expects it to be able to read lips, helping voice interface systems to monitor who is talking even amid other conversations.

“Even if the car isn’t fully self driving, we’ll be able to create a much safer experience,” NVIDIA’s Shapiro suggests. “We’ll be able to understand the hazards around them.” By spotting an approaching bicycle in the blind-spot, for instance, a DRIVE IX powered car could temporarily prevent the door from opening and causing a collision.

DRIVE AR, meanwhile, is NVIDIA’s push for Augmented Reality in automotive settings. “It’s going to be expected from all future computer platforms,” Shapiro points out, “and the car is no different.”

Exactly how that might look inside a car will depend on the particular automaker, of course. However, NVIDIA is expecting anything from alerts and hazards being flagged, through to points-of-interest and infotainment interfaces. You could even have an AI co-pilot, shadowing your driving and offering insights and safety warnings though not actively operating the vehicle itself.

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