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Private astronaut Chris Boshuizen, Emirati astronaut Hazzaa AlMansoori, and NASA astronaut Jessica Meir during a panel of astronauts at the International Astronautical Congress in Dubai October 29. (credit: J. Foust)

For private space travelers, questions of vistas and titles


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One of the selling points of commercial human spaceflight has been the ability to see the Earth from space, including the prospect of the Overview Effect: the shift in perspective that many astronauts have reported experiencing. But would a brief suborbital flight, spending only minutes in space, be long enough to trigger that effect in people?

Maybe so. After all, on the most recent New Shepard flight last month, actor William Shatner had something of a rapturous experience, raving immediately after landing about the blue Earth below and the black space above, comparing them to life and death (see “Black ugliness and the covering of blue: William Shatner’s suborbital flight to ‘death’”, The Space Review, October 18, 2021).

Another person on the same flight was also moved by the experience. Chris Boshuizen recalled that, on the flight, he decided to look out the window upside down, with the Earth at the top and blackness of space below. “This really strange thing happened, which is my brain malfunctioned, and I actually couldn’t see anything,” he said in a talk October 29 at the 72nd International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Dubai. “I’m looking out the window and I’m kind of confused. It’s this really strange feeling.”

“Potentially, it might be the case that short-term spaceflight is more impactful because you go up and get shocked, and you don’t recover,” Boshuizen said.

“There’s a lot going on there,” he said. Part of it, he speculated, was the disorientation his brain as experiencing, trying to make sense of something far outside of normal experiences. Another factor was the brightness of the view, as well as a range of colors. “The blackness of space is an impossible black,” he said. “It’s the most deep black uniform color you can imagine. That’s also very strange.” The atmosphere, by contrast, offered a “really bright, penetrating blue light, almost like a glowing sapphire.”

“If you take all of those strange things and put them together, my brain was overloaded,” he concluded. People who spend days or weeks in orbit may get used to it, but he only had minutes. “Potentially, it might be the case that short-term spaceflight is more impactful because you go up and get shocked, and you don’t recover. I’m still, to this day, quite shocked by what I saw and felt out there.”

Boshuizen was better prepared than most for the experience of seeing Earth from space. He was one of the co-founders of Planet, the company that operates a fleet of spacecraft that produce images of the entire planet updated daily. “As a space person who has been in this industry for 20 years, I was really worried that I would be desensitized,” he said.

“It is, in fact, more strange and weird and scary than I could ever imagine, and it’s brilliant and beautiful,” he said. “When you do go, I promise you that you won’t be disappointed.”

The views were also impressive on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, according to one of the people who flew on that vehicle in July. “I have really tried to think of another word besides ‘incredible’ to describe the view,” said company vice president Sirisha Bandla in a speech last week at the annual meeting of the American Society for Gravitational and Space Research in Baltimore. “I honestly cannot find a better word.”

She was on that flight, which included company founder Richard Branson, not to enjoy the views but to test how to conduct human-tended research on the vehicle. But it wasn’t possible to not enjoy the experience, she said. “I had a grin that never left my face during the flight.”

The company will take that experience into account when planning future flights of researchers conducting experiments. “Whenever we create timelines for researchers to conduct their work, we will definitely be working into that timeline a moment for you to go and take in the view,” she said. “I do understand the work you’re doing is really important, but I also truly believe that taking in that view is also very important.”

Astro-not?

Bandla and Boshuizen are just two people in a wave of private individuals who have flown to space this year, including those on another New Shepard flight, the Inspiration4 private orbital flight, and the Russian director and actress who flew to the International Space Station. Before the end of the year, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and his production assistant will fly to the station on another Soyuz, while Blue Origin makes another New Shepard flight, this time with six people on board for the first time.

“Whenever we create timelines for researchers to conduct their work, we will definitely be working into that timeline a moment for you to go and take in the view,” Bandla said.

After years, if not decades, of waiting, the dam has burst for private human spaceflight (see “The normalization of space tourism”, The Space Review, October 18, 2021). Boshuizen noted it as well in his IAC talk. “I think it’s here to stay this time,” he said. “My prediction is that, probably within the next five years, we will double the number of people who have been to space, and 50% of the people who have been to space will be citizen astronauts, non-professional astronauts.”

If anything, his prediction might be conservative. With about 600 people having been to space to date (the exact number depends on the definition of “space” one uses), doubling that means flying another 600 people in five years, or 120 people per year. That’s well within the predictions of what Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic will be able to do in suborbital spaceflight alone, barring any new setbacks or other complications.

But his comment stumbled upon another issue: what to call this growing number of private space travelers? In US law, they’re known as spaceflight participants, but that bureaucratic term has not caught on. Some bristle at the more widely used term of “space tourist.” Then there are terms like “private astronaut,” “citizen astronaut,” “non-professional astronaut,” or “civilian astronaut.”

All those alternatives use the term “astronaut,” a term some think should be reserved for professionals. After a luncheon talk at the American Astronautical Society’s von Braun Symposium last month, an audience member asked Bob Cabana, a former NASA astronaut and the agency’s current associate administrator, what he thought of using “astronaut” to describe private individuals going to space.

“After this last Blue Origin flight, I determined that everybody that flies on an airplane is now a pilot,” he said to laughter from the audience.

“They are certainly space travelers,” he said more seriously. “I think, personally, it depends on what you’re doing.” He cited the FAA’s rules for determining who gets astronaut wings from the agency, which is limited primarily to crew operating the vehicle versus spaceflight participants. (The FAA, though, does not define the term “astronaut,” merely who qualifies for ceremonial wings from the agency.)

The issue came up again in Dubai during a panel that featured several astronauts from NASA, Roscosmos, ESA, and the UAE’s Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre, as well as Boshuizen. Is the term “astronaut,” the moderator asked, valid for anyone who goes to space or reserved to just professionals?

The professional astronauts and cosmonauts on the panel weren’t particularly worked up by the issue. “It’s not a protected title. Anybody can call themselves ‘astronaut,’” said André Kuipers of ESA. “Spaceflight is changing,” he noted, predicting a wider range of titles being used over time to reflect different roles and responsibilities.

“I think sometimes people ask me this question—what do you think about more and more non-professional cosmonauts flying—and they expect that we professional cosmonauts would be upset,” said veteran Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev. He said he was not upset. “Newcomers don’t replace professionals, they add to the professional field another dimension.”

“I think sometimes people ask me this question—what do you think about more and more non-professional cosmonauts flying—and they expect that we professional cosmonauts would be upset,” Krikalev said. “Newcomers don’t replace professionals.”

NASA astronaut Jessica Meir did take issue with one term, “civilian astronaut,” that was most closely associated with the Inspiration4 mission, whose backers called it the first “all-civilian” orbital spaceflight because there were no professional astronauts. “I’m a civilian astronaut. NASA is a government agency, but we are not a military agency,” she said, highlighting the distinction between military and civilian. “Maybe professional and private is better.”

The tension, Boshuizen said, reflects the changes in space from an era when the resources of superpowers were needed to send people to space to the present day, when a sufficiently large pocketbook is simply large enough. “Space travel is now accessible enough,” he concluded, “that there’s enough people in this room that you could raise money to send one person from this room today.”

Even Cabana, in his luncheon comments, said he was not particularly concerned about who gets called an astronaut. “You know, I have no problem. The more people that we can get up and see our Earth from space, the absolute better. Our goal is to open space up to everyone.”


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