“There are people who make things happen, there are people who watch things happen, and there are people who wonder what happened. To be successful, you need to be a person who makes things happen.”
–James Lovell, Astronaut: Gemini 7, Gemini 12, Apollo 8, and Apollo 13
A few weeks ago you had your chance to ask a commercial astronaut anything, and you gave some great responses! We selected the five best questions to ask the first group of commercial astronauts, including my favorite: the question of whether they’d be willing to go on a trip to Mars, even if it were doomed to be one-way.
Well, the results are back from Astronauts4Hire, and they have generously provided both video and written answers for us! These answers are not just well-thought-out and professional — although they do come from the pros — but I’m impressed by how personal they are; they give me a real insight as to who these commercial astronauts are as people, as scientists, and as explorers. They were gracious enough to share not only their expertise, but also their motivations and their personal goals. So without further delay, let’s dive in and see what they’ve got to say! (Videos answers are directly above each question.)
1.) What’s a Commercial Astronaut, and how does the “commercial” Astronaut differ from other Astronauts, from Cosmonauts and Space Tourists?
There are three types of astronauts: civil astronauts, commercial astronauts, and spaceflight participants. Civil astronauts are government-employed and trained to fly on specific spacecraft like the Space Shuttle. Commercial astronauts are any professional astronauts trained to fly on privately owned space vehicles. Spaceflight participants, more commonly called space tourists, are people who pay for the spaceflight experience and do not provide a recurring service as career astronauts. In any case, astronauts become official when they reach an altitude of 100 km.
The first commercial astronaut to fly a private spacecraft was Mike Melville’s 2004 flight of SpaceShipOne. A commercial astronaut is a highly trained individual possessing both a great diversity of scientific, technical, and spaceflight operations skills to prepare them for the highly varied demands of spaceflight. As such, commercial astronauts have both similar backgrounds, and are trained in similar ways, as astronauts in civil service. Commercial astronauts, like civil astronauts, are professionals that have advanced degrees in science or engineering, and often both. Further, they have the background, prior experience, and training to be fully responsible to the successful operations of the spacecraft systems and the scientific payloads being flown aboard the spacecraft.
To date, there have been seven spaceflight participants, starting with Dennis Tito in 2001. When private suborbital spacecraft begin routine operations in this decade, business models project that there could hundreds of paying space passengers per year. Training of a spaceflight participant is condensed version of the training commercial or civil astronauts must undergo to become acclimated to the space environment prior to a mission and be prepared to deal with in-flight contingencies.
2.) Do A4H’s requirements and training differ from NASA’s? What types of background and training do you (as private astronauts) have?
A4H is defining the qualification standard to establish the requirements its members must meet in order to be certified for suborbital, and later orbital, spaceflight. The suborbital training includes academic modules pertaining to spacecraft systems and practical modules including hypobaric, centrifuge, microgravity, and unusual attitude training. The orbital training standards are more rigorous and extensive due to the longer duration of orbital missions. We are working with the commercial spaceflight industry to help establish these standards.
The ability be prepared for the unusual conditions of microgravity while being proficient with the particular spacecraft and tasks at hand are key elements of the commercial astronaut workforce. We model our membership requirements and training curriculum from existing models, notably NASA’s, though there are some differences. Whereas NASA astronauts generally train for flights on one or two vehicles, commercial astronauts need to consider the need to fly on a variety of spacecraft. Thus, our training is generalized to account for variations in potential spacecraft, their corresponding subsystems, and contingency procedures such as emergency egress, etc.
Many of the A4H commercial astronaut candidates have been competitive throughout previous civil astronaut selection processes. Our candidates have degrees in science or engineering and many have multiple advanced degrees or a doctoral degree. Further, many of our candidates are skilled in aviation, SCUBA diving, foreign languages, or have training in zero-G or simulated extravehicular activity. Our training program aims to round out our candidates with a broad skill base through contracting a number of individual training specialists or by cross-pollinating from within our own skill base.
3.) What are your primary motivations and personal goals for wanting to be an astronaut? Was this your childhood dream? Is there a special scientific/engineering/patriotic/personal aspiration that you hope to fulfill?
Many of the A4H members have different stories and backgrounds, but a common thread is a long-standing, deep fascination with space exploration and the desire to explore. For most of us, becoming an astronaut is an ambition that began in childhood. For Alli Taylor, it was the space shuttle program and “the legacy of Christa McAuliffe growing up in New Hampshire” that inspired her. For others, like Ben Corbin, “it was a combination of the legacy of the Apollo program and the accomplishments of explorers from the distant past”. Amon Govrin’s dreams began “as a kid growing up in Israel of the 1980s [when] going to space was an unattainable goal.”
Despite the odds and inspiration, however, we all chose a path where we followed our interests while keeping the dream in mind. Brian Shiro says he has been “grooming himself to be an astronaut since he was a boy.” Alli built on her natural skills in art and “worked really hard at math and science,” while Amnon emigrated to the United States where he has built upon his “first job after college as a test and experimentation engineer in the Israeli Defense Force.” For Jose Hurtado “the hope and possibility of it has always been a motivation for me… at times it has been deep in the background, and, at other times… it has been at the forefront.”
“These childhood dreams… inspired me to pursue an education in science and engineering,” says Jason Reimuller, “though my spaceflight motivations now are very different than my earlier childhood motivations… I am [now] also driven by a desire to foster international cooperation, help mature technologies that might lead to a more sustainable coexistence here on Earth, and contribute towards a foundation that will assure the eventual long-term survival of mankind.” All of the A4H members share a similar sentiment as well as the sense of being on the forefront of an important paradigm shift in asrtonautics. Ben summarizes it best: “We may not be the first people to go into suborbit or low Earth orbit, but we are creating something new, something sustainable, and the first stages of something that can be built upon for generations and millennia to come.”
Jose and Brian, both geoscientists, hope to make their mark on another world someday. “The expertise I bring to the table is mainly in the earth and planetary sciences, and I hope to someday do geophysical exploration on another world,” says Brian.
4.) Being commercial astronauts, what types of missions and tasks will you likely be performing? How much control will the private sector have over the types of missions conducted, and what are the other factors, if any?
The burgeoning private spacecraft industry will provide opportunities not only to spaceflight participants but will lead to a new generation of platforms for conducting research. Areas of study will include medicine, biology, chemistry, physics, atmospheric science, remote sensing, and technology development. Researchers wanting to fly experiments in space will need someone to monitor the payloads, take measurements, and ensure successful operation of the experiment during the flight. They will also need subjects to test engineering designs and systems. The private sector will have a great deal of influence over the types of missions conducted, but much of the research funding will likely come from government grants at first.
Although a few scientists may be able to spend the time and money to get trained to fly themselves, most probably will not. They will need to contract out the work to experienced, trained professionals who can efficiently work in the spacecraft environment, such as those at Astronauts4Hire. As more flights become
available and prices decrease, research opportunities will broaden allowing for more universities, research facilities, and corporations to participate. And we’re not limited just to research! If a company wants us to test a product, film a commercial, or otherwise do a job for them in microgravity, A4H members are available to fill the need.
In the near future, our efforts will concentrate on suborbital flights and training. However, in the longer term future, Astronauts4Hire will be training candidates for commercial orbital flights as well. Launch providers and commercial space corporations will need highly-trained individuals for a variety of missions, from space science to orbital tourism, and even further down the road, perhaps mining and other resource gathering. Astronauts4Hire will act as a facilitator in bringing companies and astronauts together and ensuring that people hired as astronauts are trained for the job on the specific commercial launch entity’s vehicle.
5.) As a commercial astronaut who might be hired independently for a Mars mission, would you go on any craft, even if it wasn’t your own country sponsoring the journey? Also, would you go if you knew it was a one-way trip?
Many A4H members encourage commercial spaceflight independent of ones nationality. Countries who have historically been leaders in spaceflight should continue to set the example by encouraging this development of the industry.
The question of “would you go” is a difficult one to answer. The general consensus is that any of us would jump at the chance to be a part of a Mars mission. “Yes, I want to go to Mars!” Brian Shiro says, and others agree. “It is my life goal to go to Mars!” says Ben Corbin, but some of us are more hesitant. Alli Taylor says, “I would most likely take the trip however it depends on my age and any children I may have at the time.” Others see themselves with responsibilities here on Earth. Amnon Govrin says, “Being a husband and a father of three, a choice to go for the currently imagined year-and-a-half mission… would have to be made with more considerations in mind than my own and involve everyone affected.” Indeed, even short journeys to Mars take up a significant portion of the crew members’ lives.
Given A4H members’ broad acceptance of international and commercial efforts in space, it’s no surprise that many would jump at the chance to go no matter what country’s flag was planted first. Jason Reimuller believes “there is a greater allure over the sense of internationalism of modern manned spaceflight and the current research endeavors of global import,” and “though I will proudly wear a US flag on my spacesuit, I realize that I am a member first of a global community.” Jose Hurtado agrees: “I would accept a spot on an international mission, regardless of the sponsor and without hestitation.” Brian Shiro adds, “it doesn’t matter who sponsors the journey: US, international, commercial. I’m up for the challenge.”
However, A4Hers also understand there are great risks involved, and we acknowledge that risk plays in making a decision such as accepting a mission like this. Alli hopes that “any vehicles able to perform a trip to Mars will be well tested and meet certain safety criteria”. Jason also would go “provided it has been properly designed and tested.” Others are willing to put even more on the line, Regarding risk, Ben thinks, “as long as there is at least a 50% chance of success,” he would go.
As for the idea of a one-way mission: “That’s a tough one,” Ben says before thinking about it. Not everyone was so quick to jump on the idea. Even Brian was introspective with his response, saying, “If it were a one-way trip, I probably wouldn’t go at this stage of my life. However, later on when my kids are grown up, or if families go to form a colony, I would consider it.” Alli says: “After thinking long and hard, I would probably not go to Mars on a one-way trip,” but for her it would depend greatly on the circumstances. Jason was skeptical of the question itself, saying “there is little to gain by designing a one-way mission, so I feel this question is hypothetical. A sustainable presence requires a round-trip architecture, and that would be the only mission that I would be willing to sign up for.” Jose agrees and believes his participation “would depend on the nature of the mission.”
This is an amazing time, and while some people are lobbying Congress to keep manned spaceflight as an arm of the US government, I think that commercial spaceflight is not only the wave of the future, but it’s ready to start now.
Thanks so much to all of the Astronauts4Hire who helped out, and for giving us a glimpse into their professional and personal lives! And a special thanks to A4H President Brian Shiro, who made this interview possible. Good luck to you all, and may you enjoy your journeys, wherever they may take you!