America’s New Vision of Astronauts

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America’s New Vision of Astronauts

Last week, it was announced that three people had paid $55 million each for SpaceX to fly them to the International Space Station for an eight-day visit, accompanied by a former astronaut. Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’s space company, reportedly plans to charge $200,000 to $300,000 for trips to the edge of space, where passengers can experience a few minutes of weightlessness. Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson’s company, will charge $250,000 for flights on its fleet of rocket-powered planes. (Virgin Galactic has already flown a few of its employees high into the atmosphere and into weightlessness, and while they didn’t reach orbit, the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates space launches, considers them commercial astronauts.)

Read: The false hope of an American rocket launch

Isaacman won’t say how much he’s paying to charter his historic mission, but you can certainly bet it’s a lot. The billionaire has introduced another factor into the criteria for being an astronaut—luck. There are still some basic restrictions, such as passing a medical screening and meeting height requirements for the cramped Dragon capsule. (“If you can go on a roller-coaster ride, like an intense roller-coaster ride, you should be fine for flying on Dragon,” Musk said.) Isaacman’s company plans to run a commercial during this weekend’s Super Bowl to advertise the mission, a PR move NASA has never tried. In the case of one of Isaacman’s passengers, the decision makers will be “a panel of independent judges” choosing who did the best job in an online competition involving something called the “Shift4Shop eCommerce platform.”

The financial prerequisites for spaceflight threaten to again narrow the population of people who get to go to space—the three passengers who paid $55 million for their SpaceX rides are all white men—but Isaacman said that he’s aware the composition of his crew will send a message about who space is for. “This absolutely will be diverse,” Isaacman said of his mission’s crew.

Isaacman and the other passengers will receive formal training from SpaceX, including emergency simulations. The Dragon capsule operates with more autonomy than perhaps any other crewed spacecraft in history; when Hurley and Behnken launched from Cape Canaveral last year, SpaceX flight software piloted them to the ISS. The astronauts took over manual control and maneuvered the capsule for a bit, to see how it handled, but the Dragon didn’t need their assistance to gently dock to the station.

Read: Even astronauts binge-watch TV while in space

SpaceX has so far flown six professional astronauts, and more are scheduled to launch this spring. By the time Isaacson and his crew launch, the SpaceX astronaut program will be quite flight-tested and astronaut-approved. It will even be—and this is a remarkable thing to say about space travel—a little customizable. More than once on the recent call with reporters, Musk deferred to Isaacman on questions about mission specifics such as the duration of the journey. “The mission parameters are up to Jared,” Musk said, before addressing the soon-to-be mission commander: “If you decide later you want to do a different mission, you totally can.”


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America’s New Vision of Astronauts

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