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What Hillary Clinton Says About Aliens Is Totally Misguided

A flying saucer hovers over downtown Ithaca*. Have we been visited by aliens? Hillary Clinton is going to find out. (N. Drake)
A flying saucer hovers over downtown Ithaca*. Have we been visited by aliens? Hillary Clinton is going to find out.
Photograph by Nadia Drake

In the spring of 1999, a UFO flew over downtown Ithaca, New York. I was standing on the roof of a house near the Cornell University campus and managed to snap a few characteristically crappy pictures of the alien object, which vaguely resembled a flying saucer wearing a top hat.

It hovered above the Ithaca Commons for a minute before turning east and soaring over the Cornell University clock tower. As it flew, the craft made a sound that resembled bacon sizzling in a frying pan. Then, just as quickly as it had appeared on that sunny Saturday afternoon, the UFO vanished. The whole encounter lasted maybe a few minutes.

I would later learn that it wasn’t the first time Ithaca had been visited by a UFO. In fact, sightings were pretty common in the area during the latter half of the 20th century—just as they are in some UFO hotspots around the world, like Area 51 in Nevada, the Welsh Triangle, and Wycliffe Well, Australia. Witnesses tend to use similar language when describing spacecraft shapes, sounds, and the aliens themselves, which ostensibly lends credibility to their testimony. After all, how could so many people be wrong?

Even Hillary Clinton appears reluctant to doubt the sightings.

“There’s enough stories out there that I don’t think everybody is just sitting in their kitchen making them up,” Clinton said during a recent interview.

Clinton, it seems, has at least one foot inside the UFO spacewagon, and in recent weeks has promised to get to the bottom of what’s really going on at Area 51. She says that if she’s elected in November, she’ll open up as many of those documents as she can (some are already available) and reveal the truth about possible extraterrestrial visits to Earth. Meanwhile, John Podesta, her campaign chair, appears to be piloting that spacewagon. A rabid X-Files fan (as am I, no shame), Podesta tweeted, “Finally, my biggest failure of 2014: Once again not securing the #disclosure of the U.F.O. files. #thetruthisstilloutthere,” when he left the Obama White House last year.

It’s disappointing that influential people are helping fan the flames of conspiracy theories that refuse to wilt beneath the weight of truth. One hopes it’s just a campaign stunt, meant to increase Clinton’s popularity among a group of people who might be inclined to vote somewhat more conservatively. Yet given Podesta’s and Clinton’s track records on the topic, it seems more likely the pair really believes there might be something to expose.

Perhaps those documents are tucked into a cardboard box stashed in an old railway car, waiting for Clinton and Podesta to arrive with their flashlights. But I’d wager much more than my house that there’s exactly zero credible evidence supporting alien encounters with this planet—and I’d love for warp drives and battlestars to exist as much as anyone would.

After a few minutes, the spacecraft turned east and flew over the Cornell campus*. (N. Drake)
After a few minutes, the spacecraft turned east and flew over the Cornell campus*.
Photograph by Nadia Drake

Wait. Didn’t I see a UFO over Ithaca?

Yes, I did see a UFO over Ithaca. I can even tell you exactly what it was made of: an upside-down frying pan with a saucepan lid on top, some fishing line, and a big stick. A classmate and I had manufactured the photos for a course we were taking on the search for life in the universe. Our goal was to win a classroom debate about whether aliens had visited Earth, and step one was proving just how easy it is to fabricate evidence.

Sorry to disappoint. (Not really.)

Step two involved addressing the volumes of eyewitness claims, and explaining why such testimony can be unreliable. If you’re skeptical, check out the decades of research that have been done on the reliability of witnesses testifying in court. In these situations, our brains often fill in or edit details based on preconceived biases or post-encounter information—and then we subconsciously convince ourselves that our memories are accurate when in fact, they’re not.

This is where Clinton’s reasoning about people sitting in their kitchens making stuff up falls apart. Beliefs are potent. The brain is a powerful tool, and it can lead us to some incredibly wrong recollections and conclusions. And in these situations, assuming there’s safety in numbers is foolish (for more on that topic, start with the Salem witch trials).

During high school, I spent a few summers working alongside my father at the SETI Institute. One of my jobs was to answer letters. This was back in the day when people stuffed paper into envelopes, so I’d start by sorting the letters into two piles. One pile was for correspondence that requested scientific information; the other was for claims of UFO sightings. I’d read these with interest, wondering what it was people thought they saw. Many were convinced that my family had aliens buried in our basement (I’m not saying we do, I’m not saying we don’t**). Often, the reports were incredibly detailed, with one particularly colorful account unfolding over 10 handwritten pages describing how beeping robotic space balls followed a family around.

There’s a familiar saying that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and that evidence—or any proof, really—was never there.

It never is.

So I’d respond with a standard letter explaining what SETI actually does, and include a brochure about the scientific search for extraterrestrial life, which I think is as interesting as the fantasy.

That search began in 1960, when my dad pointed a telescope in Green Bank, West Virginia at a pair of sunlike stars. He was listening for telltale signs of technology broadcasting itself across the cosmos. All he heard was silence. And all we’ve heard since then is silence. But in the intervening half-century, the search for life beyond Earth has moved beyond straining to hear distant cosmic murmurs to looking for evidence of microbial life much closer to home, in our own solar system. Eventually, we’ll take a close look at the atmospheres of faraway planets and keep an eye out for the signatures of living, breathing, biological ecosystems.

And that’s science, which is step three in evaluating alien encounters. It’s true that we don’t know everything there is to know about propulsive technologies, or how the universe works. But we do know that the distances between the stars are so vast, and the energetic requirements for space travel so monumental, that visiting an alien world is far from trivial. It’s not nearly enough to say that alien civilizations might be using technologies we’re completely unaware of. Science demands verifiable proof.

And “proof” of flying saucers and crashed alien spacecrafts amounts to little more than unverified anecdotes.

This is why it’s unhelpful and irresponsible for Clinton and Podesta to be teasing the public as they are. Go ahead and open up the Area 51 files (or at least the ones that don’t compromise national security), but do it in the name of true government transparency rather than uncovering aliens.

* Not really. Please don’t reuse this image without that important caveat.

** We don’t have aliens buried in our basement.

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SpaceX Rocket Makes Spectacular Landing on Drone Ship

GIF of SpaceX rocket landing on an autonomous barge.
The fifth try was a charm for SpaceX, with the first stage section of their Falcon 9 rocket successfully landing on a ship after propelling the Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station.

SpaceX launched a bouncy house to the International Space Station on Friday—and then successfully turned the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket around, flew it back to Earth, and parked it on a drone ship floating 185 miles (300 kilometers) off the U.S. East Coast. It’s the first time anyone has done this, and it signals a step forward in making spaceflight significantly cheaper.

“The rocket landed instead of putting a hole in the ship, or tipping over, so we’re really excited about that,” said SpaceX founder Elon Musk at a press conference after the landing.

After launching from Cape Canaveral, Florida, the SpaceX rocket boosted its payload-carrying Dragon capsule toward low Earth orbit, then turned around and headed for home about 4.5 minutes after launch. As it approached the drone ship, named “Of Course I Still Love You,” the Falcon 9 righted itself, slowed down, and landed perfectly.

“The 1st stage of the Falcon 9 just landed on our ‘Of Course I Still Love You’ droneship. Dragon in good orbit,” Space X tweeted, in what must be the most understated announcement of the successful landing to cross our feed.

To space and back, in less than nine minutes? Hello, future.

It’s the fifth time SpaceX has tried to park a rocket on a ship; in 2015, the company successfully set a rocket back down on the ground, but landing at sea is much trickier than landing on…land…because the ocean is a moving beast. Previous attempts failed when earlier rockets toppled over and experienced a “rapid unscheduled disassembly” (i.e., they exploded).

Musk said that before today’s launch, company members were placing the odds of success at 2:1. “We thought it was more likely than not that this mission would work, but still probably have a 1/3 chance of failure,” Musk said. “It’s still quite tricky to land on a ship…it’s quite a tiny target.”

The name of the game here is making spaceflight cheaper by developing reusable rockets that can ferry people and cargo into orbit, instead of spending millions of dollars building new launch rockets. Blue Origin, a company owned by Jeff Bezos, is also working on reusable rocket systems, and has successfully landed its New Shepard rocket on the ground multiple times.

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A Bouncy House Heads to the International Space Station

An artist's conception of the inflated BEAM module (balloon structure at top center) berthed to the Tranquility node of ISS. (NASA)
An artist’s conception of the inflated BEAM module (balloon structure at top center) berthed to the Tranquility node of ISS. (NASA)

Today, when SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket blasts off from Cape Canaveral, it will be boosting the rough equivalent of an inflatable bouncy house to space – a type of inhabitable module that could ultimately be used to construct a space hotel or habitat.

And really, what could be better than a bouncy house in space? It’s like the ultimate Airbnb.

Ok, fine. The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module isn’t exactly like the inflatable castles you can temporarily park in your yard, but it’s pretty darn close, conceptually. Designed to expand after unpacking, the module, when inflated, will resemble a hollow, crinkled marshmallow with rounded edges.

And inside, where someone could theoretically live, it’ll actually be rather spacious. The 3,000-pound prototype launching today is smaller than the envisioned double-decker version of the future, but it’s still bigger than some San Francisco living spaces. When packed, BEAM measures just 7 feet long by 7 feet wide – somewhat shorter than a Smart car, but a little bit taller – and after being pumped full of air from the International Space Station, it’ll be 13 feet long and 10.5 feet in diameter.

Ultimately, the idea is to string a bunch of these things together like Legos and create a habitat in space, on Mars, on the moon, wherever. After all, it’s much easier to collapse a tent and squish it into a backpack than it is to port the thing fully assembled.

It’s an appealingly practical idea, though having a thin layer of material as the only buffer between fragile biology and a hostile vacuum is somewhat unsettling (that flexible layer, however, is made of Kevlar-like materials and is strong enough to withstand an attack from rogue space debris, company president Robert Biglow told Florida Today).


“Would you go to an inflatable hotel in space?” I asked planetary scientist Paul Abell, one of my hosts on a recent tour of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, where I had a chance to see a training replica of the BEAM prototype.

“Oh yeah – without a doubt,” Abell said.

Me, too, I thought, while eyeing the module in the Space Vehicle Mockup Facility. This is where astronauts train for missions using replicas of the ISS, Soyuz capsule, Space Shuttle, and other spacecraft. I’m told that astronauts used the exact BEAM module I’m looking at to train for hatch interaction, deployment, and sensor retrieval.

The BEAM mockup at NASA's Johnson Space Center. (NASA)
The BEAM mockup at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. (NASA)

It’s actually not the first time something like this has hitched a ride into orbit. In 2006 and 2007, Bigelow’s expandable Genesis I and II modules blasted off from Russia. Genesis I carried, among other things, a cache of Mexican jumping beans. And tucked inside Genesis II were a variety of bugs – ants, Madagascar hissing cockroaches, and scorpions from South Africa. The bugs are probably long dead (if not, yikes), but both modules are still in good shape and are orbiting the Earth, destined to re-enter the atmosphere sometime in the next decade.

The module launched today will experience a similarly low-key fate, bugs not included. It won’t house any space tourists, and will only occasionally feel the presence of astronauts. After the crew on board the International Space Station inflates it sometime in May (most likely), it’ll hang out for two years, serving as a demonstration that such habitats are capable of handling long-duration exposures to space.

Someday, I would love to visit one of these inflatable modules in space. I imagine it’ll be way better than my already awesome first experience in a bounce house, which didn’t happen until disappointingly later in life, when I was 18 and about to take off for college. My parents decided the occasion merited a party, and I decided to go all unintentionally hipster and see if we could temporarily install a bounce house in the backyard.

“What kind of house do you want?” they asked, pointing out the variety of castles and other available designs.

“Ummm, the space station one,” I replied. Obviously.

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Damaged Japanese Spacecraft Likely ‘Beyond Saving’

This may be the largest remaining piece of the space telescope Hitomi.

New observations suggest that Hitomi, Japan’s flagship X-ray telescope, is tumbling through space in ten or more pieces—and is likely unrecoverable.

“The available data now seem to indicate a real break-up rather than just “some” debris shedding,” writes satellite tracker Marco Langbroek. “If true, then Hitomi is beyond saving.”

The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) lost consistent contact with Hitomi (also known as ASTRO-H) on March 26. Early reports showed the spacecraft’s orbit had rapidly changed—and that it had then shed at least five pieces of debris, size unknown. Video footage captured from the ground revealed an object tumbling through space, an ominous observation consistent with the intermittent radio signals JAXA was still receiving from the spacecraft. Altogether, the evidence suggested that some sudden event had disabled Hitomi, which would have peered into the hearts of galaxies and studied the maelstrom of matter swirling around black holes.

Whether that event was some kind of onboard explosion (more probable), or a collision with space debris (less probable) is still unclear.

Now, new radar observations from the U.S. Joint Space Operations Center indicate that Hitomi has broken up into at least ten pieces, and that two of these pieces are very large indeed. Even more worryingly, the spacecraft has gone quiet, with Japan no longer receiving the intermittent trickles of signals thought to come from a tumbling Hitomi.

“Sadly, I now believe that the radio signals were the dying sighs of a fatally wounded ASTRO-H,” tweeted Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “As far as I know, JAXA hasn’t officially given up though!”

Those ten pieces were likely all present on March 26, when the first reports of debris from Hitomi came in, but they weren’t separated enough in space to be reliably observed.

Now, orbital data show that some of those pieces are on quickly decaying trajectories and will burn up in Earth’s atmosphere within a week or so, writes astrophysicist Peter Coles of Sussex University. Those fragments are small, the kinds of things a spacecraft could plausibly shed and still function.

The two largest fragments, however, suggest that whatever happened to Hitomi is probably a terminal event. Video footage shows that these fragments, now called piece A and piece L, are roughly the same size and are tumbling through space, with one flying about 7 minutes in front of the other.

Japanese Spacecraft Tumbling in Orbit (L Piece)

The first of those pieces, now called piece L, was captured on video last week and mistakenly thought to be the main body of Hitomi. But it’s not. New observations suggest the tumbling fragment is a large, dense piece of Hitomi—perhaps its extendable optical bench, where the spacecraft’s hard X-ray detectors are. An April 2 video from satellite tracker Paul Maley, taken on the ground in Arizona, suggest fragment L is still tumbling through space, flashing about once every 10 seconds.

Fragment A, which is now thought to be the bulk of Hitomi, is trailing piece L by several minutes. Maley’s video shows that A is flashing about once every second.

“It is spinning quite fast with bright flashes,” Maley describes, noting that fragment A is also visible with the unaided eye. “The only question is, what are the real identities of the objects in orbit? Given the brightness of the two that I have seen, one is most likely the primary payload, the other is something sizable but what it is I do not know.”

Pieces A and L are trailed by a third large-ish fragment called K, which is about 26 minutes behind the pair.

The whole situation is unfolding into a heartbreaking disaster for Japan and for astronomers, who’d hoped this attempt to put an X-ray observatory in orbit would be successful (to really see the universe in X-rays, you need a satellite above the Earth’s atmosphere). Since 2000, Japan has tried twice to operate a space-based X-ray telescope; the first crashed during launch, and the second suffered from a leaky helium tank. So, hopes were high for Hitomi, which launched on February 17, and means pupil of the eye.

It could take years for the spacecraft’s two largest fragments to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, and it’s possible that bits of them could survive the plunge to our planet.

“They aren’t decaying fast, may be a few years before they reenter,” McDowell says. “But when they do we’ll be paying close attention.”

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Scott Kelly’s Year in Space Makes Me Want to Go, Too

The Soyuz space capsule carrying Scott Kelly, Mikhail Kornienko and Sergey Volkov drifts back to Earth on March 1. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)
The Soyuz space capsule carrying Scott Kelly, Mikhail Kornienko and Sergey Volkov drifts back to Earth on March 1. (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

As a kid, I flew on the space shuttle with astronaut Sally Ride many times. That’s because every night, my dad would pull out a book to read to my sister and me, and among our favorites was To Space and Back. In it, Sally describes her life aboard the space shuttle Challenger, and how living and working in microgravity is a bit trickier than you might expect.

Over and over and over again, we asked Dad to read us Sally’s book, and I would drift to sleep dreaming about riding a rocket into Earth orbit, visiting the moon and Mars, and living among the stars.

When Ride died in 2012, I revisited To Space and Back and found a poignant surprise: She had signed the first page. “Reach for the stars!” she told my sister and me.

Papa D reading to my sister and me.
Papa D reading to my sister and me.

Watching Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko return to Earth yesterday took me back to those years when the allure of space travel, of shedding the ties that bind us to Earth and hurtling toward the stars captured my imagination before I knew just how vast and captivating space really was.

I still want to go to space, and can only imagine what returning to Earth is like after being in orbit for nearly a year. Each Earthly sensation must slam into your consciousness: The smell of the grasses on the Kazakh steppe, the rush of that fresh, freezing air, the glare of the suddenly starless sky, and above all, the relentless tug of gravity that transforms your limbs into anchors and glues you to your chair.

It’s a not-so-subtle reminder that even if we manage to briefly slip those Earthly chains, we still belong to this planet. No matter how far we may go, or how long we may stay away, Earth is still home. At least for now.

“The air feels great out here—I have no idea why you guys are all bundled up,” Kelly said to the teams that met him in wintry Kazakhstan when he and Kornienko fell back to Earth after 340 days in space.

The pair’s sojourn isn’t the longest anyone has ever stayed in space; that record belongs to cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov, who logged nearly 438 days on the Russian space station Mir in the 1990s. But the feat does represent an important step in preparing for longer duration space missions—the kind that could one day make us an interplanetary species and put humans on Mars.

As Kelly and Kornienko swung around Earth 5,440 times, scientists were (and still are) tracking what happens when bodies that have evolved under the pull of gravity are suddenly freed from its prison. They’re looking at how eyesight, muscle mass, circulation, DNA, and mental acuity change in microgravity, and how the body then re-adapts to being on Earth. The observations will continue over the next several years, and Kelly’s data will be compared to measurements from his twin brother, Mark, who stayed on this planet. Sometime soon, we’ll have a better understanding of how being in space for a long time changes the human body in ways we can’t control—but which we could prepare remedies for.

At first, it seemed a bit odd for Kelly and Kornienko to willingly become the equivalents of pin-pricked, astronautical guinea pigs. But as I followed the mission and watched the pair return to Earth, I found myself wishing more than anything that I could be next. “Pick me!” I wanted to yell, while jumping up and down and frantically waving my hands over my head.

Three weeks ago, I submitted my application to NASA’s astronaut candidate program. I’m one of more than 18,000 applicants competing for very few spots—yes, my chances are slim, but it’s great to see how many of us share the dream.

Just as Ride, Kelly and Kornienko have done, I want to watch those thousands of sunrises and sunsets, experience the overwhelming sensations of returning home, and in some way, help humanity to reach for the stars—and then build a new home among them.

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Last Week, I Went to Space

XCOR gives you a front-row seat on your journey to space. Just don't push any of those buttons. (XCOR)
XCOR Aerospace offers passengers a front-row seat on their journey to space. Just don’t push any of those buttons. (XCOR)

Last week, I rode a rocket-powered plane into space. We thundered down a runway at the Mojave Air & Space Port, then pointed the nose nearly straight up and hurtled toward the stars. As we climbed, the sky started darkening—and out the window to my right, the horizon flipped 90 degrees to the left.

Up, and up, and up we went, the cockpit’s altimeter whirling in dizzying circles. We passed 50,000 feet, and then 60,000 feet, and then—

“We just cracked the sound barrier,” said Erik Anderson, who was sitting to my left and gracefully nudging the spaceplane upward. “We’re at Mach 1.3, accelerating…straight up through 80,000 feet now.”

“Are those the Channel Islands?” I asked, pointing to splotches of land just visible offshore.

“Yes,” Anderson said. “We’ll see them better once we get up there. OK. It’s going to build up to 2.8 g’s very briefly just as we finish off here, so you’ll really feel it.”

Weightlessness is a wonderful experience. It feels like magic. It really does.

We had been racing toward that darkening sky for about three minutes, the roar of four engines filling the cockpit. At 190,000 feet, the rocket burn stopped and the cockpit went quiet. But we still continued to climb, and by the time we had slipped through most of Earth’s atmosphere and reached our final altitude of 350,000 feet, we were quietly floating in suborbital space.

From there, I could see the Channel Islands and the full, clashing sprawl of southern California’s deserts and cities. It was magnificent.

“I apologize we can’t see the Bay Area because the database doesn’t go that far,” Anderson said. “But the view would be awesome.”

Suddenly, a head appeared outside the window to my right. “Yeah, we need an upgrade on the visuals,” said test pilot Brian Binnie, casually draping an elbow over the glass-less windowsill.

Obviously, we weren’t actually 66 miles above Earth and Binnie wasn’t superhumanly hovering outside my window. Instead, we were at XCOR Aerospace, in a flight simulator that demonstrates what the company’s second-generation Lynx spaceplane could eventually do.

“How curved would that horizon actually be?” I asked Binnie.

“You wouldn’t see the Earth as a pearl, but you do get a very distinct curvature,” he said.

After a 3.5-minute rocket burn, we had reached an altitude where—if we’d really been flying—we would not only see that gently curving horizon, but would experience about 3.5 minutes of weightlessness before gliding back down to Earth.

“Weightlessness is a wonderful experience. It feels like magic. It really does,” Binnie said, with a small smile. He was familiar with the sensation, having flown Virgin Galactic‘s SpaceShipOne to suborbital space.

Turns out, even the illusion of space travel, of watching Earth drop away and quietly floating a smidge closer to the stars, is pretty fantastic. I still dream of being an astronaut, orbiting Earth, and visiting the moon, yet have recently begun to consider whether hitching a ride with any number of commercial spaceflight companies might be a quicker ticket to a shadowed sky, curved horizon, and zero gravity.

The Lynx in flight. (XCOR)
The Lynx in flight. (XCOR)

Right now, XCOR is still working on its first Lynx spaceplane (the Lynx Mark I), which sits in a hangar here at the port.

“It’s an airplane, just with very strange propulsion,” Anderson says.

A two-seater, the Lynx offers a cozy, 15-minute ride to space and back for one tourist at a time. In addition to your own personal pilot, you get to wear a snazzy pressure suit that makes for great photos and has the added bonus of life-saving capabilities if something goes wrong. XCOR offers tickets to suborbit for $150,000 and has already sold more than 300 rides, although—like their competitors—the company won’t speculate on when commercial flights will actually begin.

Test firing a Lynx reusable rocket engine. (XCOR)
Test firing a Lynx reusable rocket engine. (XCOR)

For now, XCOR teams are working on refining the propulsion system and maximizing safety. “We’re still trying to do stuff that nobody has done before,” says lead propulsion engineer Jeremy Voigt, who test fires rockets across the runway near an old World War II ammo bunker. It’s a fun job, but it’s also incredibly serious.

“Space is hard. Engines are hard,” Voigt says. “But as long as we can get the vehicle down safely, we can fix it.”

As designed, the Lynx Mark I won’t fly as high as the simulation I’m currently in. And some of the Mark II flights might not make it all the way to 350,000 feet—apparently I’m a lighter-than-average payload, which gave us an extra 20,000 feet or so.

“Zero gravity fun time is over now,” Anderson says, as digital Earth starts growing larger in the cockpit’s canopy of windows. “We’re back at 1 g.”

Even though I haven’t really been weightless, and haven’t really seen California from 350,000 feet up, I’m still a bit bummed to be leaving “space.” I can only imagine how much more profound, and physically challenging, the actual experience of spaceflight must be. As we descend, the Lynx acts as a glider – similar to what the space shuttle did—and offers pilots a lot of flexibility in lining up landings.

Anderson, for fun, does an aileron roll to the left. Then, at my prompting, we roll to the right. “Yeah, you’re right,” he says. “Once we’ve done one, we gotta unwind. Otherwise you’ll wind up all twisted.”

Then, a little more than 15 minutes after we blasted off, we’re back on the runway at Mojave.

“Time for champagne and photos with your friends!” Binnie says.

I can’t tell if he’s joking or not, but I dearly hope a good bottle of bubbles is included with the ticket price. Going to space and back, then celebrating the adventure with bubbly? That would truly be out of this world.