Best of the West: Western states developing space technology; wildfires continue, but heatwave may be cooling; registered apprenticeships experiencing a resurgence

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting July 12, 2021. (Photos courtesy of NASA, Eye of Science/Science Photo Library, and Ed Leckert)

Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic team took a giant step towards normalizing space travel with the successful launch of VSS Unity into sub orbit from Spaceport America in New Mexico. Space travel may still seem like science fiction, but the technologies needed to make it more accessible are being developed in many western states. 

The Colorado Air and Spaceport has a partnership with Dawn Aerospace to create a reusable horizontal take-off and landing spaceplane capable of flying above the earth's atmosphere and back to an airport runway multiple times daily. PD Aerospace is working on a similar project for passenger flights that will take off from the Colorado Air and Spaceport, sit in zero gravity for 10 minutes and use the rotation of the Earth to land in Paris within 60 to 90 minutes. 

In hopes of making these kinds of trips more affordable, Relativity Space in California is developing 3D printing machines capable of building fully reusable rockets. With thousands of fewer parts, the company aims to fully assemble a rocket in less than 60 days. And NewSpace New Mexico announced plans to build the Unite and Ignite Space to serve as a co-innovation hub to bring together resources to support the space industry in the Land of Enchantment. 

Other aerospace researchers in the West are developing technology to eventually land on Mars. Scientists at Montana State University’s Center for Biofilm Engineering have partnered with NASA to explore material coatings and other strategies to prevent microbial buildup in spacecraft water systems that cause problems on long space flights. Tiny creatures from University of Wyoming laboratories, known as tardigrades, recently hitched a ride to the International Space Station for researchers to study and see how the microscopic animals survive in space. The research may help develop therapies to safeguard astronauts on long-term space missions. 

As part of NASA’s Artemis program, the agency finalized a contract with the Arizona-based company Northrop Grumman to develop the Habitation and Logistics Outpost for the Gateway, an outpost in the moon’s orbit that will act as a way station for future moon landings and eventually a trip to Mars. The Sierra Nevada Corporation in Nevada is hoping to drastically cut the duration of these long space flights by developing a nuclear propulsion system known as DRACO to enable fast transit times between Earth and the moon, and perhaps even deeper into space.

WESTERN WILDFIRES: According to the National Interagency Fire Center71 large fires are burning across 12 states in the West. Seven of those blazes have scorched 50,000 acres or more. The largest, known as the Bootleg Fire, has burned over 225 square miles near the California-Oregon border. So far, it’s destroyed at least seven homes and more than 40 other buildings and also threatens another 2,000 homes and critical transmission lines for California’s power supply. The number of fires has raised concerns regarding air quality. This interactive map shows where all of the fires are burning and any air quality warnings. The good news: The recent heatwave that exacerbated extreme drought conditions and increased fire danger in the West appears to have peaked in many areas.

JOB TRAINING: Registered apprenticeships can bridge the gap between job seekers looking for a living wage and employers who need skilled workers. As the nation faces a labor shortage coming out of the pandemic, the national Registered Apprenticeship Program, established during the Great Depression, is experiencing a renaissance – especially for those seeking higher-paying jobs, but who can’t afford to take time off to go back to school. Learn more about some of the work Western Governors have done to expand apprenticeship programs

REBUILDING THE PAST: Of the 80-some lookouts that once dotted the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, some of which inspired the likes of author Jack Kerouac, only five remain. Volunteers spent weeks this summer deconstructing a 90-year-old historic fire lookout overlooking Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens in Washington. Now it’s on the way to Oregon where it will be refurbished. In 2023, the material will be returned for reconstruction to return the lookout to its glory days.

GEOTHERMAL POWER: Researchers at the Utah-based FORGE lab are working on technology to create geothermal reservoirs almost anywhere in the world. They recently completed one of two major wells that they’ll use to develop the tools to build “enhanced geothermal systems” — human-made versions of natural geothermal reservoirs which pump water through cracks underground, heat it, and use the steam to power turbines or heat buildings.

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