Today’s Tidbits: December 13, 2021

Today’s Tidbits: December 13, 2021

Here are’s tidbits for December 13, 2021: FAA ends commercial space astronaut wings program, Axiom gets second tourist flight to ISS, Starliner OFT-2 perhaps will fly in May 2022. Be sure to check our website for feature stories and follow us on Twitter (@SpcPlcyOnline) for more news and live tweeting of events.

FAA Ends Commercial Space Astronaut Wings Program

Blue Origin handed out its own astronaut wings to the six people who reached space on its third passenger flight on Saturday, but none of them will get the coveted “official” wings from the FAA. Just prior to that flight, the FAA decided to terminate its Commercial Space Astronaut Wings program saying it had fulfilled its purpose of bringing “attention to this exciting endeavor.”

Passengers on Blue Origin’s New Shepard-19 (NS-19) flight December 11, 2021 (L-R): Dylan Taylor (customer), Lane Bess and his child Cameron Bess (customers), Laura Shepard Churchly (Alan Shepard’s daughter, guest), Michael Strahan (guest), Evan Dick (customer). Credit: Blue Origin

The number of people flying on suborbital flights with Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, and to orbit with SpaceX, is growing so fast that the FAA now will recognize them only by listing them on its website.

The list closes with 24 individuals who flew above 50 miles (80 kilometers) on an FAA-licensed test or operational flight. Two made flights on Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne, eight on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, eight on Blue Origin’s New Shepard, and four on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. The other two, Peter Siebold and Michael Alsbury, received honorary wings for flying a Scaled Composites’ experimental SpaceShipTwo test flight in 2014 that crashed, killing Alsbury and injuring Siebold.

Axiom Gets A Second Tourist Flight to ISS

As a case in point, Axiom Space is getting ready to send four private astronauts to the International Space Station in February and today NASA selected the company for a second such flight in the fall of 2022 or spring of 2023. The crew of the February flight, Ax-1, is well into training. Those who will fly on this new mission, Ax-2, is still to be determined. Former NASA astronauts Michael López-Alegria and Peggy Whitson now work for Axiom. López-Alegria will command Ax-1. The other three on that flight are wealthy men paying a reported $55 million each to make the trip.

Ax-1 crew, L-R: Larry Connor (U.S.), Michael López-Alegria (U.S.), Mark Pathy (Canada), Eytan Stibbe (Israel). Credit: Axiom Space

NASA selected Axiom for Ax-1 in May 2021 and opened a solicitation for proposals for two more flights the next month. Today’s announcement was only for one more, however. The agency said it “will gather lessons” from Ax-1 and “announce a new flight opportunity in the future.”

Axiom announced in May that Whitson would command Ax-2 and race car driver John Shoffner would be the pilot if the company was chosen for a second flight. The other two customers are TBD.

Axiom astronaut (and former NASA astronaut) Peggy Whitson and race car driver John Shoffner. Credit: Axiom Space

NASA has a pricing policy through which Axiom, or other service providers in the future, must reimburse “the full value of costs to the agency that are above space station baseline capabilities.” All the ISS partners must agree on who comes aboard the facility.

Axiom uses SpaceX Crew Dragons for these flights. Four people flew to orbit on a Crew Dragon in September on the Inspiration4 mission, but they did not visit the ISS.

Starliner OFT-2 Perhaps Will Fly in May 2022

Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on the launch pad, July 29, 2021, readying for the OFT-2 mission. The launch was scrubbed on August 3, 2021. Photo credit: NASA, Kim Shiflett

Crew Dragon is the only U.S. spacecraft currently capable of sending humans to orbit. SpaceX’s commercial crew competitor, Boeing, has fallen far behind with its development of Starliner, most recently scrubbing a second uncrewed Orbital Flight Test, OFT-2, at the last minute.

OFT-2 is required because the first attempt at an uncrewed test in December 2019, OFT-1, did not go as planned. Neither did the first attempt at launching OFT-2 in August. Boeing is still troubleshooting what went wrong.

Crew Dragon and Starliner are the product of Public-Private Partnerships with NASA where the companies retain ownerhip of the systems and NASA purchases services after certifying them safe to fly NASA astronauts. Crew Dragon met the mark last year and the third operational flight is now docked at the ISS. Boeing still needs to demonstrate the uncrewed flight test, OFT-2, and then a crewed flight test, CFT, before its first operational mission, Starliner-1, can launch.

Boeing and NASA are working closely together on diagnosing and remedying the problem which appears to be related to an interaction between moisture and oxidizer in 13 valves on Starliner’s Service Module.

Today they said they will replace the Service Module assigned to OFT-2, Service Module 2 (SM2), with the one that was in line for CFT, Service Module 4 (SM4). The Service Module planned for use on Starliner-1 will be assigned to the CFT mission while they continue to do tests on SM2. The tests are ongoing at NASA’s White Sands Test Facility where the valves are being exposed to the same envionmental conditions they experienced in Florida while the spacecraft was being mated to its United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket and then on the launch pad. The launch was scrubbed just two hours before the scheduled liftoff.

Launch dates for OFT-2 and CFT depend not only on when the spacecraft are ready, but when Atlas V rockets and the U.S. Space Force’s Eastern Range are available and when there are open docking ports on the ISS. NASA said today Boeing is looking at May 2022 for OFT-2, while launch windows for CFT are under review.

“NASA, Boeing, United Launch Alliance and the Eastern Range continue to assess potential launch windows for OFT-2. As part of the standard process for requesting a launch slot on ULA’s manifest in the first half of 2022, Boeing has agreed to an open window in May, pending spacecraft readiness and space station availability. Potential launch windows for CFT are under review.”

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