Dr. Anil Menon, M.D. of Minneapolis, Minnesota, has already had a distinguished career in the Air Force, including service as ground Flight Surgeon for the SpaceX Demo-2 mission. Now, he can add Astronaut Candidate to the list.
Among the other announced candidates this year, Dr. Andre Douglas, Ph. D. is also no stranger to the Midwest: In 2012, while serving in the US Coast Guard, he graduated from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor with a master’s degree in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering.
The role of astronaut has changed considerably since the heroic era of the 1960s, when the peak crop of the nation’s test pilot schools were raided for jack-of-all-trades. Though still versatile and trained for everything, in orbit, a particular astronaut will have Command, Pilot, or Mission Specialist duties. Some astronauts never fly into space, but that doesn’t mean they don’t work. The NASA Astronaut Corps, based at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, is a vast talent pool frequently tapped to play important roles as program managers and consultants for NASA and other important engineering efforts. All receive basic pilot training and frequently get loggable hours in a variety of aircraft.
NASA’s selection of just 10 astronauts shows the constraints on the position. With Crew Dragon fully operational, and other options like Starship and Starliner close to coming online, NASA’s agenda is now limited more by budget than rocket hardware for possibly the first time since Skylab.
With the continued bustle of activity in the private space sector, Menon’s participation in SpaceX flights is a reminder that the day may quickly come when NASA can select an astronaut candidate who has already flown to space.
Shenzhou 13 left Jiuquan aboard a LM2F on 15 October 2021 at 1623 UT, carrying Zhai Zhigang, Wang Yaping, and Ye Guangfu to the Tiangong space station. Shenzhou 13 is the first mission to Tiangong that will last 6 months, following Shenzhou 12 earlier this year, which lasted 3 months and inaugurated the new station.
Shenzhou 13 may be the last mission to “turn out the lights” and leave Tiangong crewless. Next year, after Shenzhou 14 bolts two new modules onto the Tianhe station core, Tiangong should be ready for continuous use.
Though far more modest in scale, the nascent space tourism industry officially entered the glitz-and-glamour age as Blue Origin rolled out the red carpet (well actually, the blue steps) for William “Bill” Shatner. Shatner blasted off alongside three others in RSS First Step from Blue Origin’s launch site in Culbertson County, Texas, leaving earth’s atmosphere behind for a few minutes after liftoff on 13 October 2021 1449 UTC.
Shatner, the 90 year old Canadian actor, has done everything from Shakespeare to spoken-word albums, but is most famous for the starring role of Starfleet officer James T. Kirk in 79 TV episodes, 21 animated installments, and 7 feature films in the Star Trek franchise between 1967 and 1994. On 13 Oct 2021, he harvested the space seed his performances planted in the hearts of generations of technologists and set his own toes in the cosmic ocean. Upon landing, he returned the favour by interpreting his experience with the full powers of a master wordsmith.
Landing in the dusty West Texas desert, the parachute ropes strewn around the capsule were wrangled in by pickup trucks and attendants like an oversize county fair ride. Each passenger lurching out of the capsule’s short hatch had high-fives and hugs awaiting as they stepped down the blue stepstool into a gaggle of well-wishers rushed in through the sagebrush.
The others took quickly to their kin, as it was plain what the film crew was waiting for – the words of William Shatner — whose words began to flow in his traditional stream-of-consciousness with dramatic pause and emphasis. After trading a few words with Blue Origin CEO Jeff Bezos, Shatner set into his observations.
“Not only is it different from what you thought, it happens so quickly.”
“You know, the impression I had, that I never expected to have, is you’re shooting up — in this blue sky –” Shatner paused as the crowd showered themselves with champagne.
“What you have done — everybody in the world needs to do — this. Everybody in the world needs to see, and think about it.”
“It was unbelievable. Unbelievable, I mean, the little things, the weightlessness — but to see the blue colour go WHIP BY YOU! And now you’re staring into blackness. That’s the thing…” Shatner’s fingers outstretched as his hands grasped upward.
“The covering of blue — this sheet, this blanket, this c– this comforter of blue that we have around us, we think ‘Oh, that’s a blue sky’ and then suddenly you shoot through it all, as though you whip off a sheet when you’re asleep, and you’re looking into blackness, into black ugliness, and you look down, there’s the blue down there, it’s the black up there that’s — it’s just — ” Shatner motioned upward, then downward toward the ground.
“There is Mother Earth, comfort, and there’s …” Shatner motioned upward again. “Is there death? I don’t know! Is that Death? Is that the way Death is?”
Shatner zinged his right hand upward. “WHOOP! And it’s gone… Jesus…”
“It was so moving…” Shatner said, his hands tented over his face in surprised wonder.
“This experience, it’s something unbelievable. You see, yeah, y’know, you’re weightless, my stomach went up, ‘this is so weird’ – but not as weird as the covering of blue, this is what I never expected.”
“Oh, It’s one thing to say, ‘Oh, the sky, and the thing, and the gradual,’ it’s all the truth, but what isn’t truth, what is unknown– until you do it, is– There’s this peril. There’s this soft blue. Look at the beauty of that colour, and it’s so THIN! And you’re through it in an instant!”
“It’s… what of… how thick is it? Is it a mile?” Shatner brought Jeff Bezos into the conversation to ponder the math.
“The atmosphere? Depends on how you measure it, maybe 50 miles,” Bezos replied.
“But you’re going 2000 miles an hour, so you’re through 50 miles, at whatever the mathematics says, you know–” Shatner turned his hands upward again.
“It’s like a beat and a beat and suddenly you’re through the blue! And you’re into black! And you’re into- y’know it’s rough, it’s mysterious, and galaxies — but what you see is BLACK. And what you see down there is light, and that’s the difference. And not to have this?” Shatner motioned to the ground.
Shatner turned to Bezos and clasped his shoulders. “You have done something. I mean, whatever those other guys are doing, what it — that isn’t — they don’t –“
“I don’t know about that. What you have given me, is the most profound experience I can imagine.” Shatner, reaching up again, was overwhelmed to the point of tears. Bezos removed his sunglasses.
“It’s odd, I’m so — filled with emotion about what just happened — I– I– just– It’s extraordinary. Extraordinary.” Shatner hugged Bezos.
“I hope I never recover from this. I hope I can– maintain what I feel now. I– I don’t want to lose it, it’s so…” Shatner sighed. “So much larger than– than me and life… It hasn’t got anything to do with the little green men and the moon and the auras, it has to do with the enormity and the quickness and the suddenness of the life and death, and the — oh my god…” Shatner and Bezos went into a brief exchange about beauty before Shatner retrieved his next thought.
“What I would love to do is communicate as much as possible, the jeopardy! The moment you see how vu– the vulnerability of everything, it’s so small! This air– which is keeping everyone alive– is thinner than your skin! It’s a- It’s a- It’s a sliver, it’s immeasurably small, when you think in terms of the universe. It’s ah, It’s n- It’s negligible, this air. Mars doesn’t have it!” Shatner grasped out for his next topic.
“And when you think of the way carbon dioxide changed to oxygen, what is it, 20% or so, that level that sustains our life- It’s so THIN! To- To- To dirty it– I mean, that’s another whole subject.”
In the early days of space tourism, when companies had only capsules on drawing boards and pockets filled mainly with hope, their marketing teams courted movie stars and musicians to buy tickets for cash and a PR boost. However, Bill Shatner was a notoriously hard ‘get’.
When asked to pay for a ticket on Virgin Galactic, Shatner famously turned it around on them, asking ‘how much will you pay ME?’ — well, by that standard, Blue Origin doing the job for free is an absolute bargain, and one that enriched humanity with the gravitas that Shatner can access as he explains what he felt to the rest of us.
Other people have travelled to space, made music, or written poetry in space. We have dispatched journalists and yes, other film actors were whizzing above his very head in a much classier orbital slot.
But Shatner is something else. In a way, we have all taken the trip with him. Or, at the very least, knowing even the first thing about the man, we will never hear the end of it.
VSS Unity flew its first non-crew passengers 11 July 2021. Virgin Galactic employee Sirisha Bandla strapped in for the ride alongside business mogul and adventurer Sir Richard Branson and four crew today. Branson’s personal faith in the machine marks a milestone of its own, and signals the imminent launch of Virgin Galactic’s long-promised space tourism service.
Bandla and Branson were joined on the flight by fellow Virgin Galactic crew Beth Moses (astronaut trainer) and Colin Bennett (operations engineer). Also aboard were pilots Dave Mackay and Michael “Sooch” Masucci.
The spaceflight kicked off when mothership WhiteKnightTwo released VSS Unity over Spaceport America in New Mexico. Unity then crossed the McDowell Line and reached an apogee of 86 km around 1528UT, just two minutes into flight. Unity‘s time in free flight was just 14 minutes from airdrop to landing, of which perhaps three minutes were usable zero-G for the passengers.
Today’s flight marks a stepping stone on the long journey that began when aeronautical engineer Burt Rutan first conceived of SpaceShipOne in 1994. Rutan’s team was the only viable competitor for the 10 M$ Ansari XPrize, winning it in 2004. Afterward, Sir Richard Branson stepped in, forming Virgin Galactic, a joint venture to develop the vessel into a viable space tourism platform, but the effort suffered a major setback when two test pilots were killed in VSS Enterprise on Halloween 2014 in a crash traced to the vessel’s wing locking system. The sister ship flown today, which was first named Voyager, did not reach space until late in 2018.
The spectacle around the event also was also marked by Sir Richard’s unique touch as a media mogul. Any crewed spaceflight has a telecast; it’s traditional to get a panel of engineers, astronauts, and press officers calling out flight events and colour commentary. It’s another thing entirely to get Stephen Colbert. There have been musical interludes at spaceflights, but these have often been pompous, operatic, set to the tune of a Sousa march. Few have been as memorable as Khalid serenading the crowd with a new R&B single, “New Normal”.
Khalid, an artist from nearby El Paso, plans to fly on Virgin Galactic on an upcoming flight, and got an early welcome to the astronaut club from Colonel Hadfield on the sunny tarmac while Unity was unloaded and its crew awaited its astronaut wings. Khalid is signed to RCA Records, rather than Virgin EMI, which is no longer affiliated with the Virgin Group.
American scientists are always keenly interested in space travel, and the 2021 AAAS Annual Meeting rounded out its coverage of the topic with an 11 February panel on group psychology for Mars missions. The roundtable, moderated by Leslie DeChurch, featured Suzanne Bell and Alexandra Whitmire of NASA, plus scientists Jack Stuster, Noshir Contractor, Dorothy Carter, and Nick Kanas, all of whom have worked with NASA on various projects.
One of the assumptions baked into any trip to the International Space Station, or even the Moon, is fast communications with Mission Control. Ground crew is available 24/7 with instant help for anything from tech support to mundane assistance like verbal confirmation of EVA checklists. But it can’t work like that on a trip to Mars. There could be a 45 minute delay to hear back from Earth. For anything urgent, the astronauts aboard can only turn to each other.
That’s why picking the right mix of people for the team is so critically important. Everyone will need to follow at times, lead other times, be prepared for an emergency, and they will need to be willing to do so all while staring at the same faces every day. For a well-adjusted team, it could be the ultimate road trip. But add a few setbacks, and there might be plenty about the voyage that never makes the history books.
As one panelist said, teams will not just need ‘The Right Stuff’, but will need to be ‘The Right Size’. NASA’s most recent plan to get to Mars anticipates a slow three-year round trip with 4 crew, acknowledged to be a bare minimum. With so much to do, a slowdown or lack of cooperation from anyone at any time could jeopardize the whole mission, and the length of the assignment only increases the chances for something to go wrong. A shorter trip (ideally two years or less) with more crew (perhaps 6) would be much more robust against failings in the human element.
Another way to head off the risk of human factors is by using the latest in social science. Researchers continue to collect data in from, dedicated space travel analog missions, isolated workspaces like Antarctic research stations, and careful review of data from past spaceflights, to glean insights on how people work best when stuck with the same small group. Backed up with the latest in social science and information techniques like lexical analysis and social graphing, group psychologists are their refining statistical models, moving from retrospective analysis of past missions, to future predictions of how well a particular social group will hold together over the long-term. Still, mathematical guesses are no substitute for helpful human personality traits, especially Self-Monitoring, the ability to recognize one’s own effectiveness and interact with the group in an appropriate way for the given situation.
US space agency director Jim Bridenstein and Human Spaceflight Director Kathy Leuders featured heavily in a 21 September 2020 session that turned mainly around bolstering public interest in NASA’s headline human lunar exploration program, even as they were unable to answer detailed mission design questions that have been delegated to contractors.
Details on just what the plan is for the Artemis lunar landing, however, remained scarce. Kathy Leuders, the main NASA officer in charge of getting astronauts to the Moon, deferred questions about certain mission details, such as whether or not Artemis III would rendezvous with the Lunar Gateway. This was characterized as an optional decision within the scope of the HLS final proposals, which NASA has not yet received, though Bridenstein suggests that part of the Lunar Gateway will be in place by that time.
Landing Artemis III on the Moon by 2024 is possible, according to Bridenstein, but it will take more funding than a continuing resolution or the approximately 600 M$ proposed for HLS by the House of Representatives. NASA’s proposed budget would spend 3.2 G$ on HLS, to support all three ongoing efforts from Blue Origin, Dynetics, and SpaceX. Leuders said that without a confirmed budget by February or March 2021, NASA won’t be able to keep its end of the deal with HLS contractors, and the Artemis III mission will miss any chance of a 2024 landing date.
The new LE-9 engine for Japan’s H3 rocket continues to have problems and requires another redesign. As such the first flight of the H3 will be delayed a year, as late as Q1 2022, and its second flight will follow about a year after that.
The additional delay means Japan may have problems meeting its logistical commitments to the International Space Station. The next JAXA cargo mission to the ISS on HTV-X1 had been slated for the third H3 launch, and scheduled for February 2022, a date that was already delayed due to earlier problems with development of the H3 rocket. As JAXA is now redesigning both its flagship rocket and signature human spaceflight support module at the same time, further delays are likely to pile up due to any issues with one or the other.
Though JAXA could theoretically pair the HTV-X with another rocket available commercially, or even, perhaps, replace the missed February 2022 cargo run with one or more commercial ISS resupply routes from the various space companies now offering such services, it would be a distinct shift in its space policy goals and also will cost more money than originally budgeted.