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GeekWire

Year in Space 2021: Commercial spaceflight era dawns

For 25 years, I’ve been recapping the top stories about space and looking forward to next year’s trends on the final frontier — and for most of that time, the dawn of the era of commercial spaceflight has been one of the things I’ve been looking forward to the most.

2021 was the year when that era truly dawned.

Sure, you could make a case for seeing the dawn in 2000, when a company called MirCorp basically leased Russia’s Mir space station for a commercial venture that fizzled out. Or in 2001, when customers began buying seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft heading to the International Space Station. You could also point to SpaceShipOne’s rocket trips in 2004, which won a $10 million prize for a team backed by Seattle billionaire Paul Allen.

But it wasn’t until this July that the first paying customer took a suborbital ride to space on a privately owned spaceship. That was Dutch teenager Oliver Daemen, who flew in Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule alongside the company’s billionaire founder, Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark and aviation pioneer Wally Funk.

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GeekWire

Blue Origin leads team for ‘Orbital Reef’ space outpost

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is joining forces with Colorado-based Sierra Space and a host of other partners, including Boeing, to propose building a space-based “mixed-use business park” called Orbital Reef.

The plan, announced today at the International Astronautical Congress in Dubai, is among about a dozen proposals being submitted to NASA for a share of development funds under a program aimed at preparing the way for replacing the International Space Station.

If Blue Origin and its partners follow through on the plan, the basic version of Orbital Reef would be in low Earth orbit sometime during the latter half of the 2020s — in time for an orderly transition from ISS operations. That version would include power-generating capability, a core module with picture windows looking down on Earth, a habitat provided by Sierra Space and a Boeing-built science lab.

Blue Origin’s senior vice president of advanced development programs, Brent Sherwood, told me that Orbital Reef would cost “at least an order of magnitude less” than the International Space Station. The development cost for the International Space Station is typically estimated at $100 billion, which would imply a cost in the range of $10 billion for Orbital Reef.

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GeekWire

Citizen spacefliers splash down, ending charity mission

The first non-governmental flight to orbit ended with a splash — and with the safe return of the Inspiration4 mission’s billionaire commander and his three crewmates.

Shift4 Payment’s 38-year-old founder and CEO, Jared Isaacman, paid what’s thought to be a price of more than $100 million for the three-day flight. The mission began on Sept. 15 with a SpaceX Falcon 9 launch and ended at 7:06 p.m. ET (4:06 p.m. PT) today with the splashdown of SpaceX’s reusable Crew Dragon capsule in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida.

Inspiration4’s main goal is to raise $200 million for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. In addition to paying for the flight, Isaacman committed to donating $100 million. Another $60 million was raised by the time the Crew Dragon came back to Earth — and soon after the splashdown, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk pushed the total past $210 million. “Count me in for $50M,” Musk wrote in a tweet.

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GeekWire

Citizen spacefliers begin an orbital mission like no other

A tech billionaire and three other non-professional spacefliers blasted off today to begin the first non-governmental, philanthropic mission carrying a crew to orbit.

The founder and CEO of Shift4 Payments, Jared Isaacman, is paying what’s thought to be in excess of $100 million for what’s expected to be a three-day flight in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule.

Isaacman organized the Inspiration4 mission with SpaceX’s help as a benefit for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. The 38-year-old billionaire kicked off the $200 million campaign with a commitment to donate $100 million himself.

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 8:02 p.m. ET (5:02 p.m. PT). “Punch it, SpaceX!” Isaacman told mission control.

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GeekWire

‘All-civilian’ orbital flight ushers in a new space age

Are they space tourists? Citizen spacefliers? All-civilian astronauts? Whatever you call them, the four teammates who are due to go into orbit today in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule require creating a new category.

“I know there’s controversy over what you should be called,” retired NASA astronaut Scott Kelly told the foursome today in a tweet. “But when you strap into a rocket and launch into orbit, you can call yourself anything you want: astronot, astronut, astronaut — whatever.”

There’s Jared Isaacman, the billiionaire CEO of Shift4 Payments, who’s paying for the launch and is the mission commander … Hayley Arceneaux, the 29-year-old cancer survivor who’s due to become the youngest American to go into space … Sian Proctor, the professor and artist who’ll back up Isaacman as America’s first Black space pilot.

And then there’s Chris Sembroski, a former Air Force missile technician and Lockheed Martin engineer from Everett, Wash. Sembroski got his chance to train for the mission and climb onboard the Dragon when an old college buddy of his won a charity sweepstakes — and then gave the reservation to him.

“I think that just really puts me in a very special spot, where not only do I feel very lucky to be here, but I have a huge responsibility to pay that forward,” Sembroski said during a pre-launch briefing.

Liftoff atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is set for 8:05 p.m. ET (5:05 p.m. PT) from the historic Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. But although the three-day Inspiration4 mission starts out from a NASA-owned facility, the space agency has minimal involvement.

This will be the first non-governmental crewed flight to orbit, and the first crewed SpaceX flight to pass up going to the International Space Station. Instead, the foursome will go into an orbit higher than the space station — higher than humans have flown since the space shuttle missions to the Hubble Space Telescope.

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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.)