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Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, said on Tuesday his company is working on a plan for manned flights to Mars, with the aim of establishing a permanent colony there. Speaking before a crowd at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, he set out a number of parameters and goals for the project, noting that each trip should cost no more than $200,000 — about the average cost of a house in the U.S. “We want to make Mars seem possible,” he said. Musk’s strategy includes sending spaceships into orbit, where they could be “parked” while the booster rocket makes multiple trips to supply it with fuel, cargo and passengers. Every two years, when the planets are closest together, the spaceships could launch en masse, each one carrying about 450 tons of cargo and 100 to 200 passengers. The system could be up and running in about 10 years, he said.

“It would be quite fun to be on Mars,” Musk said, thanks to low gravity that would let humans bounce around and lift heavy weights. “The key is making this affordable to almost anyone who wants to go.” It’s not just a dream, he said, but something that can be made real. “It’s going to be a challenge to fund this whole endeavor,” he added. “Ultimately this is going to be a huge public-private partnership.” The goal should be to relocate at least a million people and create a sustainable population on Mars. Humanity has just two options, he added — to stay on Earth and eventually go extinct, or to become a multi-planet species. The transport system could also be expanded to provide access to the entire solar system, he said.

SpaceX, founded in 2002, has succeeded in developing reusable booster rockets, but also has had its share of setbacks, including a recent explosion on the launchpad. So far the company has not launched any manned vehicles.

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Bell Helicopter recently unveiled its new design for an autonomous tiltrotor, the V-247 Vigilant, which will have a 65-foot wingspan and will be capable of carrying a payload of up to 6.5 tons of fuel, armament and sensors. The aircraft, designed for military use, will be able to operate from land or sea, and will be ready to deploy as soon as 2023, according to Bell. The Vigilant will travel at speeds up to 300 knots and can operate within a 250-nm radius. The unmanned, single-engine craft also can hover on station for up to 11 hours, and can be refueled air-to-air. Mitch Snyder, CEO at Bell, called it “the next leap in innovation.” Bell executives showed a model, renderings and video last week at the National Press Club, in Washington, D.C.

The Vigilant could serve as an escort for manned Marine aircraft, as well as carry sensors and fly supply missions, according to Bell. It will have folding wings so it can fit inside a standard hangar, and two can be loaded on a C-17 aircraft. “By its nature, the technology provides a performance envelope unachievable with just a rotorcraft or just a fixed-wing aircraft,” said Bell Vice President Vince Tobin at the Press Club. “A shipboard Bell V-247 UAS will offer superior loiter times coupled with ranges that are achievable with only fixed-wing efficiencies."

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Uber is taking a serious look at autonomous VTOL aircraft for urban transport, and could have a fleet flying within a decade, chief products officer Jeff Holden said at a Nantucket conference on Sunday. In an interview with Kara Swisher of Re/code, Holden said the technology “could change cities and how we work and live.” Holden said he has been researching the possibilities "so we can someday offer our customers as many options as possible to move around … doing it in a three-dimensional way is an obvious thing to look at." Holden has been involved in helping Uber to roll out self-driving cars, now being tested on the streets of Pittsburgh.

Holden said the self-flying vehicles could land on the tops of buildings, reducing commuting time and congestion on city streets. The service also could be pooled for multiple users. Uber is not the only company looking into the possibilities of urban VTOL transport — Airbus also has a project in the works. NASA researcher Mark Moore also has been exploring ways to integrate small VTOL aircraft into urban transportation networks.

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A study conducted by NBAA has found that 15 percent of flights in business jets begin without a complete flight-control check, the association reported last week. The NTSB suggested a need for the study after its investigation of a fatal 2014 accident involving a Gulfstream G-IV at Hanscom Field, in Bedford, Mass. The safety board found the crew had not performed a flight-control check before takeoff, and as a result, they had no way of knowing the aircraft’s gust lock was engaged. The jet ran off the runway and caught fire, killing all seven on board. The NTSB recommended that NBAA lead an industry-wide, collaborative study to measure the extent of non-compliance with before-takeoff flight checks.

The NBAA study analyzes data from 143,756 business aviation flights between Jan. 1, 2013, and Dec. 31, 2015. The analysis found that an average of 15 percent of those flights began with a partial flight control check, and 2 percent began with no check at all. The report defined a valid flight check as the stop-to-stop deflection of all flight controls specified by a manufacturer’s aircraft flight manual. “As perplexing as it is that a highly experienced crew could attempt a takeoff with the gust lock engaged, the data also reveals similar challenges across a variety of aircraft and operators,” said NBAA President Ed Bolen. “This report should further raise awareness within the business aviation community that complacency and lack of procedural discipline have no place in our profession.”

Among the report’s recommendations, NBAA urged operators to establish flight-data monitoring programs (only 1 percent of operators currently have such programs), and to participate in a formal data-sharing program similar to the Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing System, which focuses on the root causes of accidents in an effort to prevent their recurrence. The study also urges manufacturers to provide clearer requirements for pre-departure flight-control checks. The complete report is posted on the NBAA website.

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Heard anything funny, unusual, or downright shocking on the radio lately? If you've been flying any length of time, you're sure to have eavesdropped on a few memorable exchanges. The ones that gave you a chuckle may do the same for your fellow AVweb readers. Share your radio funny with us, and, if we use it in a future "Short Final," we'll send you a sharp-looking AVweb hat to sport around your local airport. No joke.

Click here to submit your original, true, and previously unpublished story.

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Last week, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk promised that his plan to colonize Mars would be, if nothing else, entertaining. The man has a flair for understatement.

As our news story reports today, Musk unveiled his Mars ambitions at the Astronautical Congress meeting in Guadalajara, Mexico. Ambitious hardly does it justice for if anyone other than Musk had announced this plan, they would likely have been removed in a straightjacket.

Musk thinks earthlings need to be a multi-planetary species because sooner or later, we’ll trash the home world beyond redemption or some natural calamity will do it for us. If you’ve read Jared Diamond’s Collapse, you’ll get the picture. What’s startling about Musk’s proposal is that he’s not thinking about, oh, say, a century from now, but closer to next week. He wants to start sending humans to Mars in about 10 years.

Ultimately, he envisions massive booster systems—reusable, of course—carrying 100 to 200 people on Martian journeys for a cost of about $200,000 or about what Virgin Galactic proposes to charge passengers for a short sub-orbital lob. If that doesn’t send your eyes into gimbal lock, this will: He imagines an entire Martian economy composed of millions of inhabitants, sustained by a regular shuttle service from Earth.

The urge to lampoon this as a dingbat project is almost irresistible, but I’ll restrain myself. Rare is the visionary who hasn’t been seen as a crackpot at some point. I do have one overarching question: What propels it? The great explorations of the past have generally been animated for three reasons, or a combination: attempts to expand commercial markets beyond the horizon, political and military expansionism and, occasionally, pure science. The Apollo program put bootprints in the moon’s regolith as a version of political expansionism. It was a PR race with the Soviets. When the race was won, Apollo dried up like a plum in the desert. The U.S. space program never really recovered.

SpaceX’s remarkable success as an upstart launch provider has been driven by commercial imperatives, mainly the commercial satellite market and ISS contract business from NASA. At its peak in 1966, NASA’s budget was 4.4 percent of the total federal budget. Now it struggles to remain at 0.5 percent, the point being there’s not much money there and certainly not enough to fund a Mars program that envisions colonization.

Musk said as much in Guadalajara and was vague about where the money will come from. If Mars has commercially viable resources to exploit, it’s not clear to me they would return on the staggering investment it would take to just get there, much less establish vibrant, sustainable industry. Or are we talking about an interplanetary Club Med here? Remember Elton John’s Rocket Man? “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kid. In fact, it’s cold as hell.”

If a Mars project is pitched as a sort of celestial lifeboat, a place to run when the Earth is totally spent, well good luck with that. The Earth’s current population can’t even make meaningful agreements about the real environmental threats it faces. Planning far enough ahead and spending vast resources for a contingency is not our forte.

So, maybe Musk will figure this out. But the more interesting question is this: If that $200,000 flight to Mars were available, would you buy a seat? I put up a rare midweek poll so you can tell us what you think.   

The foregoing is opinion and commentary based on disclosed facts. AVweb welcomes other points of view, including guest blogs.

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Triton AeroMarine is on the brink of getting FAA approval for its Chinese-built SkyTrek light sport airplane. The company’s president and chief engineer, Thomas Hsueh, hopes the aircraft will not only help GA grow in China, but become an affordable training and personal aircraft in the U.S. He told AVweb at AirVenture 2016 that he’ll want U.S. dealers who will offer strong product support for the SkyTrek, which features a patented nosewheel assembly and an extra-strong composite airframe that can withstand 7.5 Gs.

 

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Picture of the Week

Michael Kussatz, of Olathe, KS, captures the essence of grass roots aviation with this image of a Luscombe just waiting to go flying at a grass strip in Kansas. Click through to see our other submissions.

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