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Universe Today

Axiom Space aims to fly first Saudi female astronaut

Axiom Space says it’s working with the Saudi Space Commission to send two spacefliers from the Arab kingdom, including the first Saudi woman to go into orbit, to the International Space Station as early as next year.

The inclusion of a female astronaut is particularly notable for Saudi Arabia — where women were forbidden to drive motor vehicles until 2018, and where the status of women is still a controversial subject.

Houston-based Axiom Space and the Saudi Space Commission announced their partnership today at the International Astronautical Congress in Paris. In a news release, the Saudi commission said its participation in Axiom’s Ax-2 mission is part of the nation’s effort “to conduct scientific experiments and research for the betterment of humanity in priority areas such as health, sustainability and space technology.” It acknowledged that including a woman astronaut “will represent a historical first for the Kingdom.”

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Husband and wife score a first on Blue Origin space trip

Say hello to the final frontier’s latest power couple: Marc and Sharon Hagle, who became the first husband-and-wife team to fly on a commercial spaceship today during a suborbital trip provided by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture.

The Hagles and four other spacefliers blasted off from Launch Site One in Texas aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket ship at 8:58 a.m. CT (6:58 a.m. PT) after a series of holds. There was no immediate word about the reason for the holds.

The flight profile for today’s mission — which is known as NS-20 because it was the 20th flight for the company’s reusable New Shepard launch system — followed the precedent set by three previous crewed flights: The hydrogen-fueled booster lofted the crew capsule to an unofficial altitude of 66.5 miles (107 kilometers), giving the sextet a few minutes of weightlessness and an astronaut’s-eye view of a curving Earth beneath the black sky of space.

After stage separation, the autonomously controlled booster touched down on a landing pad, not far from the launch pad, while the crew capsule floated down to make a parachute-aided landing amid the West Texas rangeland. The flight took a little more than 10 minutes from the booster’s launch to the capsule’s landing.

Cries of “Woo-Hoo” could be heard from the crew over the capsule’s communication channel just after touchdown. Sharon Hagle gave a fist pump — and gave a hug and a kiss to her husband — as the couple emerged from the capsule.

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Are space trips trending toward becoming routine?

When Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture sends its next crew on a suborbital ride to space, as early as March 31, there won’t be any TV celebrities on board. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

“I’m personally seeing more and more people I know flying on each flight … and that’s more exciting to me than celebrity fliers,” Laura Seward Forczyk, the owner of the Atlanta-based space consulting firm Astralytical, told GeekWire in an email. “People in my network flying makes it feel much closer and more accessible.”

Folks who aren’t space consultants, or space geeks, might be hard-pressed to name a single member of the sextet — although they’d probably remember that “Saturday Night Live” comedian Pete Davidson gave up his seat due to a scheduling conflict.

To fill that seat, Blue Origin chose its own Gary Lai. He’s the chief architect for the New Shepard suborbital spaceship that’s due to take off from the company’s Launch Site One amid the rangeland of West Texas. Assuming all systems are go, launch coverage via Blue Origin’s website and YouTube is set to begin at 7:20 a.m. CT (5:20 a.m. PT), with liftoff expected around 8:30 a.m. CT (6:30 a.m. PT).

This mission, known as NS-20, marks the 20th outing for Blue Origin’s reusable New Shepard launch system and the fourth crewed flight.

Headliners for the three previous trips included Jeff Bezos and aviation pioneer Wally Funk for last July’s debut; Star Trek captain William Shatner for October’s sequel; and Laura Shepard Churchley, the eldest daughter of pioneer NASA astronaut Alan Shepard, plus morning-show anchor Michael Strahan for December’s three-peat.

On the NS-20 mission, Lai will be joined by Marc and Sharon Hagle, the first married couple to fly in space together since 1992; George Nield, a former Federal Aviation Administration official who was involved in regulating commercial spaceflight; Jim Kitchen, a teacher and entrepreneur from North Carolina; and Marty Allen, an angel investor and former CEO of Party America.

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Blue Origin’s next space crew waits out the weather

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture has rescheduled its next crewed suborbital space mission for March 31, due to concerns about the weather.

In a mission update, Blue Origin said “forecasted high winds during launch and recovery” forced a postponement of the liftoff from the company’s Launch Site One in West Texas. The National Weather Service said winds could reach sustained levels of 35 to 45 mph on March 29, with gusts up to 60 mph.

Six spacefliers — including the first married couple to go into space together in 30 years — have signed on for Blue Origin’s fourth crewed suborbital flight.

“The team has completed Flight Readiness Review and confirmed the vehicle has met all the mission requirement for flight,” Blue Origin said. “Astronauts are completing their training, and weather remains as the only gating factor.”

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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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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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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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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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‘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.