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Universe Today

Record-setting astronaut will lead private space mission

Astronaut Peggy Whitson already has her name in the history books, but now there’s a new entry to add: first woman named to head up a privately funded space mission.

Whitson was the first woman to command the International Space Station and the oldest woman to fly in space (57, in 2017). She holds the U.S. record for most cumulative time in space (665 days) as well as the world record for most spacewalks by a woman (10).

Her new claim to fame comes courtesy of Texas-based Axiom Space, which announced today that Whitson will be the commander of the company’s second orbital mission for private astronauts. The mission known as Ax-2 would follow up on Ax-1, due to visit the International Space Station as early as January.

Another spaceflier who retired from NASA, Michael Lopez-Alegria, is commanding Ax-1 — with three Axiom customers flying alongside him. Whitson is serving as the backup commander for Ax-1.

One of Whitson’s crewmates for Ax-2 will be mission pilot John Shoffner, who is an airplane pilot, a champion GT racer and a supporter of life science research who hails from Knoxville, Tenn.

Whitson and Shoffner will test techniques for single-cell genomics in zero-G on the space station, in collaboration with 10x Genomics.

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Cosmic Space

Discovery unveils reality TV contest for space trip

More than 20 years after TV executives first floated the idea of doing a “Survivor”-style series with a trip to space as the reward, it looks as if such a show might actually happen as early as next year.

The eight-part series’ working title is “Who Wants to Be an Astronaut?” It’s slated to air on the Discovery TV channel, with bonus content on the Science Channel and the discovery+ streaming service.

Discovery put out the casting call today, and you can sign up to vie for a spot on the show — that is, assuming that you’re a U.S. citizen who’s 18 or older and in good enough shape to endure the rigors of spaceflight. Applicants will have to answer a questionnaire and submit photos and a short video as part of the screening process. If you go on to the next stage, you’ll have to undergo a background check as well as psychological and physical exams.

Contestants will be put through astronaut-style training and a variety of extreme challenges. In the end, expert judges will select one candidate to take a ride on a SpaceX Crew Dragon and spend eight days on the International Space Station as part of an Axiom Space mission.

Houston-based Axiom Space recently sealed the deal with NASA for its first private astronaut mission, known as Ax-1, and Discovery says it expects the reality-TV trip to be part of Ax-2.

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Cosmic Space

Axiom Space plans for a string of orbital tours

Axiom Space has firmed up its plans with NASA for the first all-civilian mission to the International Space Station — and says it has three more such tours lined up for the next couple of years.

But those next tours are going to be more costly, thanks to the law of supply and demand.

“There’s still not much in the way of supply,” Axiom Space CEO Michael Suffredini told reporters today during a teleconference. “The spacecrafts are awesome, but there’s just not a lot of flights available yet, and the demand is still growing.”

In that regard, Axiom Space is a trailblazer. Last year, it struck a deal with NASA to have its own habitat attached to the ISS in the 2024 time frame, in preparation for building its own orbital outpost. This year, it announced plans to send three customers to the station under the command of former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria.

Today, Houston-based Axiom and NASA announced that they’ve signed an order clearing the way for the space station mission known as Ax-1 to take place by as early as next January.

“The first private crew to visit the International Space Station is a watershed moment in humanity’s expansion off the planet, and we are glad to partner with NASA in making it happen,” Suffredini said.

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GeekWire

Stand-in spacefliers rehearse Blue Origin roles

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture flew a mannequin into space today during the 15th test flight for its New Shepard reusable suborbital spaceship — but for the first time, living, breathing humans practiced all the steps leading up to launch and following landing.

“This is as real as it can get without … sending them on a trip to space,” launch commentator Ariane Cornell said during the countdown to liftoff from Blue Origin’s Launch Site One in West Texas.

Bezos was more succinct in an Instagram post from the scene. “It’s time,” the billionaire wrote. He followed up on that assessment with Blue Origin’s motto: “Gradatim Ferociter,” which is Latin for “Step by Step, Ferociously.”

In addition to testing the rocket and rehearsing the on-the-ground procedures for flying passengers, Blue Origin provided a sneak peek at its arrangements for future crewed spaceflights.

During the actual test flight, New Shepard went through its standard mission profile, rising to a height beyond 100 kilometers (62 miles), the “Karman Line” that serves as the international boundary of outer space. The capsule’s maximum altitude was 347,574 feet (105 kilometers).

At the end of the trip, New Shepard’s booster touched down autonomously on its landing pad, while the uncrewed crew capsule landed with the aid of its parachutes and retro rockets.

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Cosmic Space

Cancer survivor joins private space mission

The second member of a four-person crew for what’s likely to be the first privately funded orbital space tour has been identified: She’s Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old physician assistant who works at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. — and was successfully treated for bone cancer at St. Jude almost two decades ago.

Arceneaux was invited to be part of the Inspiration4 mission weeks ago by its commander and principal funder, Shift4 Payments CEO and founder Jared Isaacman — but her identity was kept secret until today.

“It’s an incredible honor to join the Inspiration4 crew. This seat represents the hope that St. Jude gave me — and continues to give families from around the world, who, like me, find hope when they walk through the doors of St. Jude,” Arceneaux said in a news release.

“When I was just 10 years old, St. Jude gave me the opportunity to grow up. Now I am fulfilling my dreams of working at the research hospital and traveling around the world,” she said.

Arceneaux told NBC News that she and Isaacman both tried on spacesuits last weekend. “That’s what really made it real,” she said.

If the project sticks to its schedule, Isaacman, Arceneaux and two more crewmates will be sent into orbit in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule late this year. Arceneaux would become the world’s youngest spaceflier — displacing Sally Ride, who was 32 when she became NASA’s first female astronaut in 1983. That’s assuming that one of the crew members yet to be named isn’t even younger.

One crew member is to be selected in a sweepstakes that will benefit St. Jude, while the fourth flier will be an entrepreneur who’ll be selected by a panel of judges on the basis of how he or she uses the Shift4Shop e-commerce platform. The deadline for both contests is Feb. 28. (Check the Inspiration4 website for the full set of rules.)

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GeekWire

Tech billionaire buys a SpaceX flight to orbit

A billionaire CEO who also happens to be a trained jet pilot is buying a days-long flight to orbit aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft — and he’s setting aside the three other seats for a health care worker, a sweepstakes prize winner and the top tech contestant in a “Shark Tank”-style competition.

That means you, too, could fly to space if you’re lucky, or a techie.

Jared Isaacman, the 37-year-old founder and CEO of Pennsylvania-based Shift4 Payments, will command the Inspiration4 mission, which is due for launch as early as this year and is currently due to last two to four days.

“If you want to stay up longer, that’s fine, too,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk told Isaacman during a teleconference laying out the details.

The detailed flight plan hasn’t yet been set, but Musk made clear that Isaacman will have the final say. “Wherever you want to go, we’ll take you there,” Musk said.

Today’s announcement marks the latest twist for the nascent private spaceflight industry — which also counts Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos as a pioneer, by virtue of his role in founding Blue Origin. Bezos’ space venture aims to start putting people on suborbital space rides later this year. Virgin Galactic, founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, is also working toward beginning commercial space operations.

Just last week, Texas-based Axiom Space announced it would be sending a crew on a privately funded mission to the International Space Station next year on a SpaceX Dragon craft. Inspiration4, in contrast, will be a free-flying mission with no space station stopover.

Musk said he expected flights like the one announced today to usher in an era of private-sector orbital spaceflight.

“This is an important milestone toward enabling access to space for everyone — because at first, things are very expensive, and it’s only through missions like this that we’re able to bring the cost down over time and make space accessible to all,” he said.

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Cosmic Space

Meet the crew for Axiom’s first space odyssey

Axiom Space’s first privately funded trip to the International Space Station will be as notable for who’s not on the crew as for who is.

Sorry, Tom Cruise: Your filmed-in-space movie will have to wait.

Since last May, Tom Cruise fans and space fans have been buzzing over reports that the star of “Top Gun” and the “Mission: Impossible” movies was working with NASA and SpaceX to fly to the space station and shoot scenes for a movie.

According to some accounts, Cruise and director Doug Liman were lining up a trip through Axiom Space, which forged a deal with NASA and SpaceX for private-sector space missions.

Today the full crew was revealed on ABC News’ “Good Morning America”: Former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria will command the Crew Dragon mission. Investors Larry Connor, Mark Pathy and Eytan Stibbe are paying $55 million fares to join Lopez-Alegria for what’s expected to be a 10-day station stayover in 2022. Axiom says it’s still working with NASA to iron out the details.

Even without Cruise, there could be some movie-worthy twists to the mission’s tale. Connor turned 71 years old this month, which sets him up to become the second septuagenarian to go into orbit. (The late astronaut-senator John Glenn, who flew on the shuttle Discovery in 1998 at the age of 77, was the first.)

“Somebody said to me, ‘You’ll be the second-oldest person ever to go into outer space.’ And my response, which they already knew, was ‘Well, I think age is overrated,” Connor, who heads an Ohio real-estate investment firm, told ABC News.

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GeekWire

The year in aerospace: Comebacks in the skies above

Boeing’s rebuilding year drew to a close today with a milestone capping a momentous year in aerospace: the first U.S. passenger flight for a 737 MAX jet since the worldwide fleet was grounded.

American Airlines Flight 718 carried 87 passengers from Miami to New York’s LaGuardia Airport, more than 21 months after two catastrophic crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia brought a halt to 737 MAX flights.

The incidents led to months of investigation, focusing on an automated flight control system that was found to be vulnerable to software glitches. Boeing had to revamp the system and rework pilot training routines in cooperation with airlines. The Federal Aviation Administration gave the go-ahead for the return to commercial operations just last month.

Brazil’s Gol Airlines and Aeromexico resumed flying 737 MAX jets earlier this month, but Flight 718 was the first time since the grounding that a MAX carried paying passengers on a regularly scheduled U.S. flight.

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GeekWire

NASA makes a $1 deal to buy material on the moon

NASA has selected four companies to collect material on the moon and store it up as the space agency’s property, for a total price of $25,001. And one deal stands out: a $1 purchase that may rely on Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture.

Although this sounds like the sort of deal Amazon might have offered on Cyber Monday, neither Seattle-based Amazon nor Kent, Wash.-based Blue Origin is directly involved in the purchase.

Instead, NASA accepted a $1 offer from Colorado-based Lunar Outpost, based on the expectation that the venture can set aside a sample for NASA when Blue Origin sends a robotic Blue Moon lander to the moon’s south polar region in 2023.

Lunar Outpost CEO Justin Cyrus said his company’s collection system could fly on any lander heading to the moon, and not necessarily on the Blue Moon lander. But in order to have the $1 deal accepted, Lunar Outpost had to give NASA adequate assurances that it could fly with Blue Origin.

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Cosmic Space

After 20 years, life on space station is due for a change

Twenty years ago today, the first crew moved into the International Space Station, kicking off what’s turned out to be the longest continuous stretch of habitation in any spacecraft. Now the space station is gearing up for another change of life.

The station’s first occupants — NASA astronaut Bill Shepherd and Russian cosmonauts Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko — may not be as well known as, say, Neil Armstrong or John Glenn. But they did blaze a trail for the nearly 240 spacefliers from 19 countries who followed them to the orbital outpost.

Leading up to Nov. 2, 2000, the space station was envisioned as a steppingstone to the moon, Mars and beyond. Although the station never reached its potential as a literal way station for journeys beyond Earth orbit, NASA still talks up its value as a proving ground for future moon missions.

More than 3,000 science experiments have been conducted on the space station over the past 20 years, focusing on topics ranging from zero-G microbiology and plant growth to the ways in which long-duration spaceflight affects the human body and psyche. Perhaps the best-known experiment is the study that compared NASA astronaut Scott Kelly’s in-flight health status with that of his earthbound twin brother, former astronaut (and current Senate candidate) Mark Kelly.

The study raised questions about the potential impact of weightlessness and space radiation on long-term spacefliers. Over the course of nearly a year in space, Scott Kelly was found to have developed a heightened immune response to his self-administered flu shot. His genes also recorded a higher level of DNA repair than his brother’s, and the patterns of gene expression changed (although he was still genetically identical to his twin brother, despite what you may have heard).

NASA ranks the experiment involving the Kelly twins among the top 20 breakthroughs in space station science and technology. But you could argue that the most significant space station experiments relate to commercialization on the final frontier.

Back in 2012, SpaceX’s robotic Dragon capsule became the first privately built, commercial spacecraft to rendezvous with and resupply the space station. This year, an upgraded SpaceX Dragon made history as the first private-sector spaceship to carry humans into orbit — with the space station as its destination.

So what’s next? Next year may well see the first filming of a big-budget Hollywood movie in orbit, starring Tom Cruise — courtesy of a startup called Axiom Space, acting in concert with NASA and SpaceX. Axiom aims to have its own habitation module affixed to the space station by as early as 2024, as a preparatory step for a standalone outpost in low Earth orbit.

Meanwhile, Texas-based Nanoracks is getting set to have its Bishop Airlock sent to the space station sometime in the next couple of  months, as part of a SpaceX Dragon shipment. Like Axiom’s habitation module, the commercial airlock is seen as an opening move that could eventually lead to free-flying orbital outposts.

Boeing, the prime commercial contractor for the space station, is part of the team for Axiom’s module as well as for Nanoracks’ airlock. (Seattle-based Olis Robotics and Stratolaunch have also been on Nanoracks’ outpost team.)

If commercial space ventures follow through on their ambitions, it may not be long before private-sector astronauts outnumber the space station’s government-supported crew, which has ranged between two and six over the past 20 years.

NASA’s current plan calls for commercial entities to take over management of the space station’s U.S. segment in the years ahead. Theoretically, that would free up government funding to focus on the next “steppingstone to the moon and Mars” — a moon-orbiting outpost known as the Gateway.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture may well play a part in building the Gateway, by virtue of its partnership with Maxar Technologies. Blue Origin has also floated its own proposal for an orbital outpost, and is leading a lunar lander consortium that includes Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. SpaceX and Boeing are sure to be in on the next steps in space exploration as well.

In the years ahead, will the International Space Station become a shopworn space arcade, replaying the latter days of Russia’s Mir space station? Will it be deorbited, following in Mir’s fiery footsteps? Or could the world’s first international outpost in space undergo the orbital equivalent of urban renewal, backed by private investment?

The space station’s status as a steppingstone to Mars may be fading fast. But its time as a steppingstone to commercial activities and a commercial workforce on the final frontier may be just starting.

Further reflections on 20 years of life on the space station: