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Engineer and teacher join billionaire’s space crew

The crew is set for a philanthropic space flight that’s being funded by a tech billionaire — and Chris Sembroski, a Lockheed Martin engineer from Everett, Wash., can thank a college buddy for being part of it.

Sembroski will take part in the Inspiration4 space adventure organized by Shift4 Payments CEO Jared Isaacman, by virtue of an online sweepstakes that attracted nearly 72,000 entries and raised millions of dollars for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn. Sembroski, Isaacman and two crewmates are due to ride into orbit later this year in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule.

Although Sembroski bought tickets for the raffle, he didn’t actually win it: Instead, a friend from his college days at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University was chosen, according to The New York Times. The friend, who is remaining anonymous, decided not to go to space — and donated the ticket to Sembroski, a dedicated space fan.

Sembroski said he was stunned to learn he’d be taking his friend’s place. “It was this moment of, ‘Oh, I’m going to space? You picked me? Wow. Cool.’ I mean, it was a moment of shock,” he said today during a news briefing at SpaceX’s Florida facility.

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Cosmic Space

Japanese tycoon reboots contest for moon trip

Will the third time be the charm for Yusaku Maezawa, the Japanese entrepreneur who’s looking for company on a trip around the moon?

Two and a half years ago, Maezawa announced that he would buy a ride on SpaceX’s Starship super-rocket — and select half a dozen artists on a par with Pablo Picasso or Michael Jackson to accompany him on a flight around the moon and back (without making a lunar landing).

A year ago, Maezawa took a different tack: He set up a reality-TV contest to choose a soulmate to be by his side, and invited women from around the world to apply. A couple of weeks later, he canceled the project and apologized to the 27,722 women who signed up.

Today marks the third try: Maezawa is opening up a fresh opportunity for folks to apply for a spot on his Starship, via his dearMoon website.

“I’m inviting you to join me on this mission,” he said in a video. “Eight of you from all around the world. It will be 10 to 12 people in all, but I will be inviting eight people to come along on the ridc.”

The current plan calls for the Starship launch to take place in 2023. A Super Heavy booster would lift the Starship to Earth orbit. Then the spaceship and its crew would loop around the moon and return to Earth. The round trip would last about six days in all.

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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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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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Blue Origin aces rehearsal for crewed space trips

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture put the New Shepard spaceship that’s destined to fly people on suborbital trips through its first uncrewed test flight today — and by all appearances, the practice run was a success.

The reusable booster and its attached crew capsule lifted off from Blue Origin’s Launch Site 1 in West Texas at about 11:19 a.m. CT (9:19 a.m. PT), after a countdown that was delayed 20 minutes due to concerns about midlevel winds.

“Look at her go!” launch commentator Ariane Cornell said.

This was the first outing for this particular spaceship. The capsule has been dubbed RSS First Step, with RSS standing for “reusable spaceship.” During a string of 13 previous test flights going back to 2015, Blue Origin has flown two other reusable capsules — but First Step is the first one that’s fully configured to take up to six people to the edge of space and back.

If the program goes as hoped, Blue Origin could start flying people later this year.

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Cosmic Space

Virgin Galactic preps for next suborbital steps

Virgin Galactic is gearing up for its first spaceflight from its new home base at New Mexico’s Spaceport America this fall — and says planetary scientist Alan Stern will be among the first commercial spacefliers.

“This is the first selection of a private-sector researcher to fly with NASA funding on commercial vehicles,” Stern said in a news release.

Stern has never flown in space, but he has a lot of space experience: He’s best-known as the principal investigator for NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt — which is hurtling outward on the edge of the solar system, ready for its next assignment.

He also has played roles in more than two dozen other space missions, and served as an associate administrator for science at NASA as well as the Commercial Spaceflight Federation’s board chairman and founder of the Suborbital Applications Researchers Group.

During his upcoming spaceflight, which is yet to be scheduled, Stern will practice astronomical observations using a low-light-level camera that was previously employed during space shuttle flights. He’ll also be fitted with sensors that will monitor his vital signs from just before the two-hour flight until after its landing.

Alan Stern
Alan Stern is associate vice president of the Space Science and Engineering Division at Southwest Research Institute. (SwRI / Purdue Photo)

Stern’s home institution, the Southwest Research Institute, bought tickets to fly on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane almost a decade ago — and his personal interest in taking a trip to space goes back even further in time. Back in 2009, Stern told me that scientific research was likely to become the killer app for suborbital spaceflight.

“You spark this industry with tourists, but I predict in the next decade the research market is going to be bigger than the tourist market,” Stern said at the time.

A decade later, the unexpected twist turned out to be that suborbital research flights preceded tourism trips as money-makers for Virgin Galactic and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture. Just this week, Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship flew a dozen experiments for paying customers on an uncrewed test flight to the edge of space and back.  Scientific payloads have become a standard add-on for Virgin Galactic’s crewed test flights as well.

SpaceShipTwo’s last trip past its 50-mile-high space boundary took place back in February 2019. Since then, Virgin Galactic has moved the focus of flight operations from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port to New Mexico’s Spaceport America. Meanwhile, NASA has been working out the procedures to fund suborbital flights for researchers.

Now the stars seem to be aligning for commercial operations: Today, Virgin Galactic laid out the roadmap that it says should lead to SpaceShipTwo Unity’s first test flight to space and back from Spaceport America this fall.

The company said it’s conducting a series of rehearsals on the ground — and the pilots are using SpaceShipTwo’s carrier airplane, known as WhiteKnightTwo or VMS Eve, as an “in-flight simulator” for the approach and landing.

Chief pilot Dave Mackay explained that “the crew can practice the identical approach and landing pattern to the one they will fly in Unity – with much of the same information displays, and the same view out the window.”

Three scientific payloads will ride on SpaceShipTwo during the powered test flight, thanks to funding from NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. There’ll just be the two pilots on board — Stern and other would-be passengers will have to wait a while longer.

In an application filed with the Federal Communications Commission, Virgin Galactic says it has a “crewed, powered test flight” scheduled for Oct. 22, to be preceded by practice flights by VMS Eve. But that date isn’t written in stone (or even carbon composite).

“Although preparations are going well, we are not quite at the stage where we can confirm specific planned flight dates for either our VSS Unity or VMS Eve test flights,” Virgin Galactic said in today’s update.

All of which means Alan Stern – and hundreds of other potential spacefliers who have signed up for trips on SpaceShipTwo – will probably be watching their e-mailbox (and Virgin Galactic’s Twitter account) very closely in the weeks to come.

Update for 5:49 p.m. PT: I’ve revised this report to make clear that Stern won’t be aboard SpaceShipTwo during its next test flight to space in New Mexico – though I’m betting he’d like to be. 

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Orbite plans to build a space camp for grown-ups

If the 2010s were the decade when small satellites revolutionized the space industry, the 2020s will be when commercial space odysseys finally go mainstream.

At least that’s the gamble that Jason Andrews, the co-founder and former CEO of Seattle-based Spaceflight Industries, is taking with French-born tech entrepreneur Nicolas Gaume.

Today Andrews and Gaume are taking the wraps off Orbite, a Seattle startup that will focus on getting would-be spacefliers ready for those future odysseys. “You’re going to go to a space camp for the next generation,” Gaume said.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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Russians give their OK for selling a spacewalk

BELLEVUE, Wash. — Russian space officials say that they’ve signed off on a commercial deal with Virginia-based Space Adventures to fly two customers to the International Space Station in 2023 — and that one of those customers would be allowed to do a spacewalk.

Space Adventures’ co-founder and chairman, Eric Anderson, told GeekWire that the company is now checking to see who’s interested.

“There is no specific client who’s been contracted for this one,” said Anderson, who has his office in Bellevue even though Space Adventures is headquartered in Virginia. “We’re looking for clients.”

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Virgin Galactic, NASA team up for orbital space trips

Charles Simonyi
Seattle billionaire Charles Simonyi took two privately funded trips to the International Space Station, in 2007 and 2009. (NASA Photo via Space Adventures)

Virgin Galactic says it has signed an agreement with NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas to develop a new readiness program for private-sector astronauts heading to the International Space Station.

Theoretically, such astronauts could include the likes of Tom Cruise, who is looking into making a movie at the space station, according to NASA. “I’m all for that,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said last month. “We’re going to do what we can to make that happen.”

Virgin Galactic declined to comment on which customers or companies it might be partnering with, but the company said the newly established program would identify candidates interested in purchasing a ride to the space station, procure their transportation to orbit, and arrange for on-orbit resources as well as resources on the ground.

Some elements of the orbital training program would make use of Spaceport America in New Mexico, Virgin Galactic’s base for commercial space operations.

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