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Fiction Science Club

Science fiction gets real in the billionaire space race

The state of commercial space travel is changing so quickly that even science-fiction authors are struggling to keep up.

That’s what Time magazine’s editor at large, Jeffrey Kluger, found out when he was finishing up his newly published novel, “Holdout,” half of which is set on the International Space Station.

Kluger’s plot depends on the Russians being the only ones capable of bringing an astronaut back from the space station — but that no longer holds true, now that SpaceX is flying crews to and from orbit.

“At the very end of the editing process, SpaceX started to fly … so I had to quickly account for that,” he explains in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, which focuses on the intersection of science and technology with fiction and popular culture.

Kluger filled that plot hole by writing in a quick reference to a couple of fictional companies — CelestiX and Arcadia — and saying they were both grounded, due to a launch-pad accident and a labor strike.

It’s been even harder to keep up in the past few weeks, due to the high-profile suborbital spaceflights that have been taken by billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson. Each of them flew aboard their own company’s rocket ship: Blue Origin’s New Shepard for Bezos, and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane for Branson.

Kluger told me those billionaire space trips are at the same time less significant and more significant than they might seem at first glance.

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GeekWire

‘Kidney on a chip’ gets another ride to space

SpaceX launched a Dragon cargo capsule to the International Space Station today with more than 7,300 pounds of supplies and science, including an experiment from the University of Washington that takes advantage of zero gravity to study how our kidneys work.

The resupply mission began at 1:29 p.m. ET (10:29 a.m. PT) with liftoff for SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Minutes after launch, the Falcon’s first-stage booster flew itself back to an at-sea touchdown in the Atlantic Ocean, while the Dragon continued its rise to orbit.

Rendezvous with the space station took place on June 5.

SpaceX’s 22nd cargo resupply mission is carrying a wide range of science experiments. One will use glow-in-the dark bobtail squid to study the impact of spaceflight on interactions between microbes and their hosts. Another will study how tardigrades are able to weather the rigors of space. And then there’s UW’s “kidney on a chip.”

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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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Cosmic Space

SpaceX and NASA make history with night splashdown

For the first time since Apollo 8 in 1968, NASA astronauts returning to Earth from orbit have splashed down at night. And for the first time ever, it was done with a commercial spaceship.

After spending 168 days in space, NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover and Shannon Walker, along with Japan’s Soichi Noguchi, descended safely from the International Space Station to the Gulf of Mexico in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Resilience. The Dragon hit the water off Florida’s Gulf Coast at 2:56 a.m. ET today (11:56 p.m. PT May 1).

A recovery team hauled the Dragon, with its crew inside, onto the deck of a ship called the Go Navigator. While he waited to be brought out from the capsule, Hopkins expressed his thanks to the SpaceX and NASA teams for a trouble-free return.

“It’s amazing what can be accomplished when people come together. … Quite frankly, y’all are changing the world. Congratulations,” Hopkins said. “It’s great to be back.”

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Cosmic Space

SpaceX sends astronauts to orbit with a light show

Four astronauts from three nations have arrived at the International Space Station in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, after a night launch that lit up the skies over Florida with UFO-like displays.

The light show came courtesy of the timing for liftoff from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, on April 23 at 5:49 a.m. ET — which was just right for the dawn’s early glare to illuminate clouds of fuel and exhaust left behind by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket as it ascended and went through stage separation.

In a tweet, NASA said the skies “lit up like a sunrise.” Other observers said the launch left an impression that was out of this world:

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GeekWire

Axiom raises $130 million for its space station

The longtime president of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, Rob Meyerson, will be joining the board of directors for another pioneering space company in connection with a $130 million funding round. Texas-based Axiom Space says the fresh funding will boost its effort to build the world’s first commercial space station, starting as early as 2024.

The Series B funding round was led by London-based C5 Capital, which focuses on cybersecurity and related sectors. Axiom Space said it will partner with other companies in C5’s portfolio to establish an orbital center for cloud computing and cybersecurity operations.

Meyerson, who left Blue Origin in 2018, is an operating partner at C5 Capital. “Axiom Space is a force in the space sector, and it will become a centerpiece of the C5 Capital portfolio,” he said in a news release. “The Axiom Station will be the infrastructure upon which we will build many new businesses in space, and it will serve as the foundation for future exploration missions to the moon, Mars and beyond.”

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GeekWire

Supercomputer will extend the cloud to orbit

The sky’s not the limit for the cloud: Microsoft is partnering with Hewlett Packard Enterprise to bring Azure cloud computing to the International Space Station.

HPE’s Spaceborne Computer-2, which is due for launch to the station as early as Feb. 20 aboard Northrop Grumman’s robotic Cygnus cargo ship, will deliver edge computing, artificial intelligence capabilities and a cloud connection to orbit on an integrated platform for what could be the first time.

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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.