Jeff Bezos is sending Michael Strahan to space. But that’s not what makes this flight significant.

13th December, 2021.      //   Space Travel, Technology  // 

KK

In one of the most remarkable years for human spaceflight, 2021 has seen flights in numbers that rival 1985, when NASA flew the space shuttle nine times and held on to hope that it would usher in an era of private citizens joining professional astronauts in orbit.

 That vision all but disappeared in January 1986 when the Challenger blew up on launch with teacher Christa McAuliffe on board.

But this year, 35 years after that tragedy, a trio of private companies — SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic — and the space agencies of Russia and China have combined to make the dream of private space travel seem closer, at least for the well-to-do. Together, the flights took a diverse array of people outside the atmosphere, toppling a number of records and establishing some firsts, including the oldest and youngest people to go to space, the first Chinese woman to perform a spacewalk, the first space flight entirely comprising private citizens, and even the first feature film to be made in space, a feat undertaken by a Russian actress and film producer.

A Russian Soyuz rocket lifted off from the Baikonur launch center in Kazakhstan carrying a Russian cosmonaut, Alexander Misurkin, and a pair of civilian passengers, the Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and his assistant Yozo Hirano. Several hours later, their spacecraft docked with the International Space Station, where they are to stay for about 12 days. The mission is the eighth private-citizen trip to the space station arranged by Space Adventures, a Vienna, Va.-based company, which works with the Russian space agency.

And Saturday morning, Blue Origin, the space venture founded by Jeff Bezos, ferried six tourists to space from its West Texas launch site. That group included Michael Strahan, the former National Football League player turned morning TV personality. The trip, which was postponed from Thursday because of high winds, was a suborbital ride that lasted slightly more than 10 minutes, but it was Blue Origin’s third human spaceflight this year, with the company hoping next year to launch paying customers about once every other month.

 Saturday’s launch was the 13th human spaceflight of the year, two more than in 1985, when NASA carried out those nine shuttle flights, and the Russian Soyuz vehicle carried astronauts on two launches. All of those flights reached orbit, while several of the flights this year barely scratched the edge of space in relatively short suborbital jaunts.

Still, this year is “the busiest year in human spaceflight,” Jennifer Levasseur, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, said in an interview. “We’re entering a new phase of activity that we’ve never, frankly, seen before. And it creates a lot of excitement.”

 Saturday’s Blue Origin flight also carried Dylan Taylor, chairman and CEO of space exploration firm Voyager Space; Evan Dick, an investor; Lane and Cameron Bess, the first parent-child pair to fly to space; and Laura Shepard Churchley, a daughter of Alan Shepard, the first American to go to space.

Earlier this year, Blue Origin flew the youngest person to reach space, Oliver Daemen, an 18-year-old student from the Netherlands. That flight, in July, also carried Bezos and his brother, Mark, as well as Wally Funk, an aviation enthusiast, who, at 82, became the oldest person to fly to space.

Her record didn’t last long. Just three months later, William Shatner, the actor who portrayed Captain Kirk on the 1960s-era “Star Trek” TV series, flew in Blue Origin’s capsule at age 90.

Virgin Galactic also flew two human space flights this year, including one with its founder, Richard Branson. Dave Mackay served as a pilot on both flights, allowing him to reach space twice in one year.

In addition to launching two crews of professional astronauts from NASA and other countries’ space agencies, Elon Musk’s SpaceX in September launched four private citizens, who spent three days orbiting Earth in the Dragon spacecraft as part of a mission dubbed Inspiration4. China, which is building a space station in low Earth orbit, flew two crewed missions this year, and Russia has flown three, including the flight this week.

The flurry of activity is reminiscent of 1985, Levasseur said, a time when NASA was optimistic that it would fly dozens of times a year, carrying all sorts of people to space.

“NASA was still ambitious enough to try to get multiple flights a year and seek the frequency they had promised,” she said.

In 1985, Jake Garn, then a U.S. senator from Utah, flew on the shuttle. He was followed in 1986 by Bill Nelson, then a congressman from Florida and now the NASA administrator. NASA had plans to fly a teacher, then a journalist and possibly an artist next. But the Challenger explosion ended that idea.

It also provides a warning to the current providers of space travel — don’t take your current success for granted. By the time of the disaster, NASA had flown the shuttle more than two dozen times. And subsequent investigations found that the leadership had grown complacent and ignored warnings from engineers who tried to stop the flight fearing the freezing temperatures could degrade critical components — as ultimately was determined to have been the case.

“I think there’s definitely something to be learned from the past and that is the issue of complacency,” Levasseur said. “People were focused on scheduling and the overarching goals of the program and did not focus on the details.”

While NASA and the private space companies would like to get to a routine flight cadence, she said that is still a ways away.

“None of this is routine,” she warned. “So despite the fact that we can increase frequency, we shouldn’t interpret that as being anywhere close to being routine.”

On Twitter, Wayne Hale, a former NASA flight director and the space shuttle program manager, made a similar point, noting that while 1985 was a very busy year, “1986 was expected to be busier. But we pushed too hard and had disaster. Let’s hope 2022 stays safe no matter how busy it becomes.”

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