More Private Astronauts on the Way

More Private Astronauts on the Way

Blue Origin is getting ready to launch a new set of private citizens on a suborbital flight, adding six more people to the growing list of non-professional astronauts getting a chance to see the Earth from the vantage point of space. Competitor Virgin Galactic has delayed commercial launches until the end of 2022, but announced the winner of a free trip for two once they commence. Meanwhile, the first U.S. private astronaut flight to the International Space Station is coming up fast. Commercial space travel may not yet be routine, but it is not as unique as it was just a few months ago.

Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin plans to fly its third group of astronauts on December 9. The New Shepard capsule can accommodate six people and it will for the first time on this flight. The first two times it took only four.

The New Shepard-19 (NS-19) complement includes four paying passengers and two guests, Laura Shepard Churchley and Michael Strahan.

Churchley is the daughter of Alan Shepard, the first American in space, after whom New Shepard is named. She chairs the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation Board of Trustees. Her father’s first spaceflight was a 15-minute suborbital flight on May 5, 1961, three weeks after the Soviet Union’s Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. Shepard later walked on the Moon as part of the Apollo 12 crew. He died in 1998.

Gagarin orbited the Earth. The United States did not match that feat until John Glenn’s flight on February 20, 1962. Bezos now is building a rocket capable of orbital flight named New Glenn.

Churchley will be joined by ex-NFL Super Bowl champion and current ABC Good Morning America co-host Michael Strahan. Blue Origin said he is a guest, but also will be a “crew member” and they are paying him a stipend that will be donated to the Boys & Girls Club. They did not explain why, but it might qualify him to get astronaut wings not only from Blue Origin, but the FAA. One must be a member of the flight crew to be considered and other requirements apply such as demonstrating activities essential to public safety or human space flight safety. Strahan will be the second journalist in space. The first was Tokoyo Broadcasting System’s Toyohiro Akiyama who spent seven days on Russia’s Mir space station in 1990.

The other four are paying passengers. Blue Origin does not reveal how much it charges to fly on New Shepard and so far none of the passengers have either. The only data point is that someone paid $28 million to win an auction for the first commercial seat on New Shepard and then chose not to fly.

The four paying passengers include Dylan Taylor, Chairman and CEO of Voyager Space. He also is the founder of the non-profit Space for Humanity, which seeks to expand access to space for all humanity. Blue Origin disbursed the $28 million from the auction by giving $9 million to its own Club for Future and the rest in $1 million grants to 19 organizations, including Space for Humanity. Taylor also is a co-Founding Patron of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.

The other three are Evan Dick, an engineer, investor and Managing Member of Dick Holdings, and Lance Bess, principal and founder of Bess Ventures and Advisory, and his child, Cameron Bess, who “identifies as pansexual and is proud to represent marginalized communities.” The Besses are the first parent-child pair on a spaceflight.

Upper row, L-R: Lane Bess, Cameron Bess, Evan Dick.  Bottom row, L-R: Dylan Taylor, Laura Shepard Churchley, Michael Strahan. Credit: Blue Origin

Blue Origin’s competitor for suborbital space tourism is Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. While Branson upstaged Bezos by flying to space on his ShipShipTwo nine days before Bezos made a trip on New Shepard (which he had announced well in advance to coincide with the anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon), Branson’s Unity 22 mission was a test flight with only company employees on board. Although the flight initially appeared to go well, it ran afoul of the FAA. Although it was later cleared for flight, the company then announced it was postponing commercial flights until the fourth quarter of 2022 after it makes “enhancements” to the SpaceShipTwo spaceship Unity and carrier aircraft Eve. Unity 23, a research flight carrying two Italian Air Force officers and an engineer from Italy’s National Research Council, is next on the books. Virgin Galactic originally described Unity 23 as its “first commercial, human-tended research mission,” but now refers to it as a “research test flight” that will precede commercial flights. Once planned for late September/early October 2021, a new date was not announced.

All that notwithstanding, Branson got some headlines this week by announcing the winner of two free seats on a future commercial flight. Taylor’s Space For Humanity was involved in this as well. The sweepstakes conducted by Omaze collected donations from 164,338 people around the world over eight weeks, netting a projected $1.7 million in grants that will benefit Space for Humanity. Omaze is a charity fundraising platform that offers chances to win once-in-a-lifetime experiences and prizes. The winner in this case is a woman, Keisha S. (her last name was not revealed), from Antigua and Barbuda. She plans to bring her daughter, an astrophysics student, along on the ride.

L-R: Omaze CEO and co-founder Matt Pohlson, Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson, sweepstakes winner Keisha S., and Space For Humanity executive director Rachel Lyons. Credit: Virgin Galactic

The Blue Origin and Virigin Galactic rides offer just a few minutes in space. By contrast, private astronauts can go into orbit on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

The Russians have offered orbital trips to non-professional astronauts for decades, but it is new for the United States. The first was just two months ago when the Inspiration4 crew spent three days in orbit. That flight was sponsored by an individual, Jared Isaacman, and they did not go to the ISS.

Several Americans have spent a week or more on the ISS as tourists, but they all made the trip on Russian Soyuz spacecraft. If all goes as planned, that will change in February 2022 when a SpaceX Crew Dragon under the command of Axiom Space’s Michael López-Alegria docks there. He will be accompanied by another American, a Canadian, and an Israeli.

Axiom is building a module that will attach to the ISS for a few years and then detach and become a free-flying commercial space station, but is starting its business operations flying private astronauts to the ISS. López-Alegria is a retired NASA astronaut with four flights under his belt already, but now is a private astronaut working for Axiom. The company’s President and CEO, Mike Suffredini, is a former NASA ISS program manager and another former NASA astronaut, Peggy Whitson, also has joined the company.

The crew for this first Axiom mission, Ax-1, was announced several months ago, but Axiom has just released a list of experiments they will conduct while onboard.

Ax-1 crew, L-R: Pilot Larry Connor (customer, U.S.), Commander Michael López-Alegria (Axiom Space, U.S.), Mission Specialist Mark Pathy (customer, Canada), Mission Specialist Eytan Stibbe (customer, Israel). Photo credit: Axiom Space

Connor will do research on behalf of the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic; Pathy for The Montreal Children’s Hospital, Canadian Research Universities and the Royal Canadian Geographical Society; and Stibbe for the Ramon Foundation (named after Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut who perished in the 2003 space shuttle Columbia tragedy) and in collaboration with the Israeli Space Agency and the Israeli Ministry of Innovation, Science, and Technology.  They will conduct approximatley 25 experiments focused on science, education and outreach.

Suffredini said “We applaud the Ax-1 crew’s commitment to advancing scientific inquiry and kicking off this civilizational leap. We’re confident this mission will become not just a monumental moment in space travel, but the true beginning of making space’s potential for meaningful discovery available to private citizens and organizations for the first time.”

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