The new face of private commercial aerospace is becoming increasingly clear; for the first time, a 100% civilian crew will stay on board the ISS for more than a week.
It was only a matter of time. At a time when private aerospace is gaining more and more momentum and where space tourism seems to be on the way to democratization, SpaceX has once again made history with a great first; the firm will transport a 100% private crew of four civilian astronauts to the International Space Station.
As we had already seen when Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin took the first civilian crews to the gates of space, the prices were once again astronomical. Each passenger in the Crew Dragon capsule would apparently have had to pay around $55 million, although this amount has not been officially confirmed.
This rookie crew is made up of businessmen Larry Connor and Marth Pathy, and former Israeli Air Force pilot Eytan Stibbe. They will however be able to reassure themselves thanks to the presence of another much more experienced passenger; it is Michael López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut. A qualification that earned him the honor of being appointed commander of the mission.
A 100% civilian crew had never before joined the ISS
However, an important distinction must be made: this is the first time that a crew made up of 100% civilians will join the ISS. But that doesn’t mean that no space novice has set foot there. A Russian crew has already been there to shoot a film called “The Challenge”. A Japanese billionaire had also offered himself this privilege in the meantime. Tom Cruise has also already planned to shoot a film there.
But all were or will be systematically accompanied by seasoned and active professionals, which will not be the case for this mission. The other particularity of this mission is that those concerned refuse outright the qualification of “space tourists”. And it’s not just semantic frustration; there is a real difference in approach compared to “real” tourists, like those who took part in the Inspiration4 mission.
Indeed, this crew will stay on board the station for about a week. And there is no question of doing extras or twiddling your thumbs. They carry with them a total of 25 well-defined science experiments. They are also more serious than those practiced by the crew of Inspiration 4, which were more thematic activity than real science.
Civilians, but not tourists
They will participate in work related to subjects as varied as they are serious, such as physiology in microgravity or meteorology. To complete this program, they will stay on board the station for about a week. A significant delay which imposed a very demanding training on them.
“It’s important to differentiate private astronauts from space tourists”, explains Larry Connor. “We spent between 750 and 1000 hours training“, he assures to illustrate the difference with the 10 to 15 hours necessary in the first case.
A training that will have allowed them to learn the basics of life in space; this concerns critical maneuvers to be carried out in an emergency situation, but also everyday tasks such as hygiene in microgravity.
But this obviously remains incomparable to the program of professional astronauts. The latter spend whole years in training; they absolutely have to master all the logistics of the ISS at their fingertips and be able to take on missions outside the station, which our neophytes will not do under any circumstances.
In any case, it is a new symbolic step taken on the road to a whole new paradigm. Aerospace was originally the exclusive preserve of government agencies like NASA. But since the 2000s and in particular since 2014, this industry has started to pivot towards a new model.
A new step towards the private aerospace of tomorrow
Today, we have extremely powerful private companies, both in technological and economic terms. We can cite SpaceX, which is undoubtedly the best example, but they are not the only ones. And this new industry, in which the private sector now plays a decisive role, is paving the way for a second phase of transformation with the gradual opening to the general public.
At present, we are still far from being able to speak of democratization; after all, the wealthy customers who could afford a trip worth tens of millions do not roam the streets. But the more time passes, the closer this deadline seems to be.
The industry is overflowing with signs that clearly point in this direction; we can notably cite SpaceX and its reusable rockets or Blue Origin and its vast project of tourist space stations. And they are not alone; industry standards are beginning to evolve, slowly but surely, to favor this type of mission.
This is also the very first objective of Axiom, the company that has partnered with SpaceX as part of this mission. The firm has already planned three other missions of this type to prepare the creation of its own space station specially designed to accommodate civilians.
“This really represents the first step where a few individuals who want to do something meaningful in orbit, and who are not members of a government, can take advantage of this opportunity.”, explains Max Suffredini, former head of the ISS for NASA and now CEO of Axiom.
It is not tomorrow that Madame and Monsieur Everybody will be able to rent a night on board the ISS like in a hotel. But what is certain is that this deadline is fast approaching; if aerospace continues on its way, the next generation could well become the first to be able to order a round trip in a rocket like one buys a train ticket.
Takeoff is scheduled for 5:17 p.m. Paris time. You can follow it on the SpaceX site or on the NASA stream in the body of the article.