Space station astronauts welcome civilian space travel as billionaires prepare to launch

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Space station astronauts welcome civilian space travel as billionaires prepare to launch

As two billionaires prepare for launch this month on milestone space flights, professional astronauts aboard the International Space Station said Friday they fully support commercialization and look forward to a rapidly expanding civilian presence on the high frontier.

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson plans to join five company crewmates for a short up-and-down flight to sub-orbital space on July 11. Nine days later, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos plans to blast off on his own sub-orbital flight aboard a New Shepard spacecraft built by Blue Origin, a company he founded in 2000.

Both companies plan commercial operations flying wealthy space tourists, government and private-sector researchers and experiments that can take advantage of the few minutes of weightlessness the flights will offer.

070121-virgin-unity.jpg Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spaceplane glides back to landing after a sub-orbital flight to space. Company founder Richard Branson plans to fly aboard the spacecraft later this month. Virgin Galactic

Virgin has flown company pilots and engineers on three earlier test flights above the 50-mile altitude that NASA, the Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration consider the lower boundary of space.

But Branson will be the first “passenger” to make such a flight and the first owner to reach space, scheduling his flight after Bezos announced his own launch date of July 20.

Branson said he’s not in a race with his commercial space rival, but when an interviewer asked astronaut Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency what he thought about that, he smiled and said, “Everybody says it’s not a race.”

“I think it’s good, I think you need some momentum, and being competitive is kind of part of the process,” he told ABC News. “We think overall, this is a positive process. Wssssse think space needs to open up to more of the general public, to private enterprise and to all these initiatives. We think it’s good. We think it’s going to have a very positive impact for everybody in the future. And so we’re glad to be part of it.”

ns-launch.jpg A Blue Origin New Shepard spacecraft blasts off from the company’s west Texas test facility. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, owner of Blue Origin, plans to blast off July 20 on the spacecraft’s first piloted flight. Blue Origin

Blue Origin has launched its New Shepard spacecraft on 15 unpiloted test flights, but the July 20 launch will be the first with people on board.

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Bezos will be joined by his brother Mark, the as-yet-unidentified winner of an on-line auction and by Wally Funk, an aviation pioneer who was one of 13 women barred from NASA’s initially all-male astronaut corps in the 1960s. At 82, she will be the oldest person to fly in space.

“That’s really fantastic,” astronaut Shane Kimbrough told CBS News in an interview aboard the space station. “I want to wish her well, of course, and what a perfect choice to go into space and kind of put a little cherry on top of her amazing career. That’s pretty awesome.”

070221-astros.jpg NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough, left, and European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet answer questions from reporters, saying they fully support the emerging civilian space travel market. NASA TV

Along with the two upcoming sub-orbital flights, the Russians are preparing to launch an actress and a producer to the space station for a 10-day commercial visit in October to shoot scenes for movie. The next Soyuz flight in December will feature a Japanese billionaire and his assistant.

Then in January, Houston-based Axiom Space plans to send a retired astronaut and three civilian crewmates to the space station aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft. NASA plans to accommodate up to two “private astronaut missions” to the station every year.

“We think it’s good that people invest in space,” Pesquet told CBS News. “We’re not doing it just to be members of an exclusive club, we’re doing it because we think it’s useful, we think there’s a lot of gains for society by going into space, whether it’d be for the research or for the economy that we could develop in low-Earth orbit and beyond.”

He drew a parallel between the early days of commercial space activity and the dawn of commercial aviation.

“If you look at aviation at the beginning, there was a lot of pioneering and then it was seen as a luxury only for a bunch of happy few and then it became what it is today (enabling) people to travel around the world and learn about other cultures,” he said. “It kind of makes the world a better place.

“So we’re hoping that spaceflight is going to have the same trajectory. We think we’re on that path. … So opening up to public-private partnership and to private enterprise in low-Earth orbit is definitely a part of that.”


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Space station astronauts welcome civilian space travel as billionaires prepare to launch

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