Science

More people are going to space, but diversity is still grounded

Billionaire Jared Isaacman will command SpaceX’s Inspiration4 mission

PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

Space isn’t just for the professionals any more, as several high-profile rocket-makers are gearing up to send civilians above the atmosphere. But with price tags in the millions, we are still far from the long-awaited democratisation of space flight.

Many of these civilian space flight opportunities are being run as contests, auctions or raffles. Blue Origin is auctioning off a seat aboard its very first crewed flight on the New Shepard suborbital rocket – at time of writing, the price had reached $2.8 million.

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SpaceX’s Inspiration4 mission, planned to launch into orbit on 15 September, has an all-civilian crew, with one crew member selected by raffle and another by a competition with a panel of judges.

Meanwhile, the TV channel Discovery recently announced a programme called Who Wants to be an Astronaut? in which the winning contestant will get to go to the International Space Station (ISS), and two films are planning to shoot scenes there this September, one starring Tom Cruise and another titled Challenge with Russian actress Yulia Peresild.

Then, in December, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa plans to take a Russian Soyuz rocket to the ISS for 12 days, along with his production assistant. He has already announced plans to fly around the moon on one of SpaceX’s next-generation rockets in a flight currently set for 2023 and is running a contest for eight artists to join him.

This kind of space tourism isn’t a new phenomenon – in the early 2000s, seven individuals who weren’t professional astronauts flew to the ISS aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft. This ceased when the US Space Shuttle programme ended in 2011 because at that point Soyuz became the only way to get to the ISS, so all the seats were reserved for government astronauts.

Now though, SpaceX also has a craft that can bring humans to the ISS, and Boeing is working on another one. With more ways to get to space comes the possibility to launch a larger variety of people – but who exactly will be heading to orbit?

While the cost for most of these flights haven’t been released publicly, the going rate is around $50 million, so those of us without tens of millions of dollars to play with will still only be able to experience space flight through a screen, unless we get very lucky in a competition.

And money isn’t the only barrier to orbit. When the Russian space agency was looking for an actress to be in Challenge, it specifically sought someone between the ages of 25 and 40, weighing 50 to 70 kilograms and physically fit. She will have to undergo some of the testing and training that government-employed astronauts go through, including centrifuge testing and training on parabolic flights.

The same is true of all the other non-government folks heading to space, even if they aren’t going all the way into orbit – the Blue Origin sub-orbital flight carries requirements for height, weight, physical fitness and dexterity. And the winner must be able to speak and listen to instructions in English in order to fly.

There are programmes looking to broaden the range of people who can go to space. For example, the European Space Agency is running a “parastronaut feasibility project” studying what adaptations are necessary to send individuals with physical disabilities to space. The project website says: “Right now we are at step zero. The door is closed to persons living with disabilities.” Getting to a point where any member of the public can go to space will take work – and it remains to be seen whether private space flight companies are willing to put in the effort.

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