NASA Welcomes New Astronaut Candidates as Commercial Industry Readies for Liftoff

June 12, 2017
Kelsey Tollefson
Chad Anderson
June 12, 2017
Kelsey Tollefson
Chad Anderson
Executive Editor
John Lenker

Last week, NASA introduced the world to their latest class of astronaut candidates. These twelve individuals were selected from a record number of applicants to become the agency’s next ambassadors to space. As the lucky dozen prepare for astronaut boot camp, we are reminded that these elite trainees will be at the front lines during this exciting period of expansion in human spaceflight. NASA’s acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot suggests that the new recruits will not only work aboard the ISS, but also help the agency prepare for crewed missions into deep space.

NASA’s new astronauts-in-training aren’t the only would-be explorers preparing for an increased human presence off-planet. As with many other space-based activities, commercial ventures are keeping pace with government agencies as both sides work to drive the industry forward.

For the next two years, NASA’s new recruits will undergo rigorous training for future deep space missions.

Image credit: NASA

NASA’s latest batch of would-be astronauts will begin their training at Houston’s Johnson Space Center in August of this year. This will mark the beginning of two years of training––a period during which NASA astronaut Michael Barratt jokes the current corps “will not be making it easy” for the new recruits.

But what does NASA’s astronaut training regime really look like? Well, to put it simply, it’s a whirlwind of work. The astronaut candidates will be put through the wringer: a wide variety of hands-on space systems training, SCUBA certification, parabolic flights, Russian language instruction, and even on-site wilderness survival training. Upon successful completion of all requirements, the twelve new candidates will be eligible for promotion to the rank of Astronaut.

NASA had to sift through an incredible volume of applications in order narrow down their selections for 2017’s astronaut class. The 18,000+ submissions far outstripped the previous record number (which was about 8,000, a high note last struck in 1978). So why the massive swell in astronaut applications? According to TechCrunch’s Emily Calandrelli, it likely comes down to a combination of important factors. Firstly, there’s been an uptick in the number of STEM degrees awarded in recent years. This results in a larger number of qualified candidates. Perhaps more importantly, though, is the greater overall interest concerning developments within the space industry.

The unprecedented interconnectivity borne from the Internet Age has made it easier than ever to stay up-to-date on missions, progress, and exciting space discoveries. The fact that lofty agencies like NASA have fostered a thriving social media presence only adds to the feeling that space has never felt more accessible to a broader range of people. Take this newfound accessibility, combine it with the general feeling of excitement surrounding commercial launch companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin, and it’s little wonder that more people than ever before are applying to become astronauts. It’s important to note, however, that NASA’s Astronaut Corps is not the only avenue by which private citizens can now become space travelers.

Read more: This American Launch: Boeing, SpaceX, and NASA’s Commercial Crew

Commercial astronauts will represent a growing proportion of the spacefaring population.

Image credit: Final Frontier Design

 For decades, “going to space” has been little more than a pipe dream for the vast majority of people who’ve aspired to travel beyond our planet. Sure, you could go to space someday––but unless you’ve spent years working towards recruitment in NASA’s Astronaut Corps, it’s probably not going to happen. Or could it? A growing number of commercial space ventures are developing training programs, all designed to prepare a new generation of curious explorers for deep space travel.

 Many of these training programs make use of the National Aerospace Training and Research (NASTAR) center. The center, run by Pennsylvania-based Environmental Tectonics Corporation (ETC), is the only commercial spaceflight training facility in the world. The NASTAR center is (to date) the only private training facility to meet FAA safety regulations for both orbital and suborbital human spaceflight, which has made them a de facto partner for commercial space companies like Virgin Galacticand Astronauts 4 Hire.

Image credit: ETC / NASTAR Center - Phoenix centrifuge simulates the pressures of launch and re-entry.

 The NASTAR center also provides proprietary training programs, with separate curricula for commercial space pilots and their future passengers. NASTAR’s programs are less time-intensive than NASA’s two-year gauntlet, and are also customizable based on the client company’s mission-specific needs. Subjects covered range from g-force exposure training, to spatial disorientation training, to rapid decompression training and beyond. The NASTAR center’s Phoenix Centrifuge, Gyrolab Trainer, and other high-tech systems allow prospective private astronauts to receive a world-class experience to prepare them for future trips to space.

Commercial spacesuit developer Final Frontier Design (FFD) is providing would-be space cadets another way to experience the realities of life off-planet. The Brooklyn-based high-tech designer offers what they call their Space Suit Experience, where anyone can suit up and test out FFD’s cutting-edge commercial spacesuit.

Related reading: Zip Me Up, Scotty: Next-Gen Spacesuits and the Commercial Space Industry

Spaceflight training programs will be needed to prepare private citizens and tourists for off-planet travel.

Image credit: ETC / NASTAR Center

As the commercial space industry continues to evolve, it’s likely that a few different subsets of space travelers will emerge in the years ahead. While government-affiliated astronauts will continue to be an elite group of scientists and military personnel, there will also be a new workforce: one consisting of privately-employed spacecraft pilots and crewmembers (think something akin to today’s airline-specific pilots and flight crews). Beyond that, there will be those who regularly travel in space for other commercial purposes––the long-distance commuters of the future, if you will.

And then come the tourists. While space tourism and hotels in orbit are expected by many to generate significant revenue, the realities of space travel create something of a liability when trying to send paying customers to the moon. Safeguarding against the dangers inherent to spaceflight––and finding ways to prepare customers for all eventualities––is of critical importance for any company hoping to cater to a new class of thrill-seeker. Luckily, facilities like the NASTAR center are developing training programs with exactly such an audience in mind.

This is all to convey the magnitude––the sheer potential––of today’s space industry, and just how many people may be traveling off-Earth in the not-too-distant future. As commercial traffic increases, and as crewed launch becomes ubiquitous, an ever-broadening client base will necessitate comprehensive and comprehensible preparation for a wide range of audiences. Facilities like the NASTAR center serve an important role in developing the practical skills required to operate in space. However, perhaps even more important is instilling an excitement in space exploration from a young age. Startups with an educational focus, like Space Angels-funded Ardusat, are helping to show the youth of today that, yes––one day, they really will be learning, working, and traveling in outer space.

Related reading: Traffic Jams on Mars, Space Cops, and the Future of Deep Space Travel

The commercial space industry and the “normalization” of spaceflight will encourage future generations of explorers.

Image credit: Chad Anderson / Explorers Club - Young Explorers Program

The “space arena” is undeniably in a period of immense growth and change. Those who remember the excitement––the energy––of the early days of spaceflight may be feeling pangs of recognition, as a new generation of astronauts anticipates a return to crewed launch. These new astronauts––both agency-affiliated and commercial pilots alike––will be pioneers in a new age of deep space travel. The training programs and facilities of today will be the testing grounds for their practical education off-planet.

At the same time, the importance of fostering an interest in the space industry from an early age cannot be overstated. It is this societal insurance that will go further than almost anything else to assure a future in space for the generations to come. As you reflect on just how exciting everything “space” is right now, don’t forget–the future holds even greater promise, and private industry will be key to making it happen.

There’s never been a better time to get involved in commercial space. If you’re ready to start investing in private space companies, we invite you to apply for membership to Space Angels.

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