The Next Space Race

Article excerpt

Byline: Tony Dokoupil

As NASA's last shuttle takes flight, private companies are rushing to fill the astronaut gap. Training with the new breed of space cowboys.

An invisible hand smothers my face and crushes my chest. My vision gets fuzzy, the world goes gray, and my brain cries for oxygen. "Do me a favor," my flight instructor cuts in. "Try to keep your eyes open." I'm strapped in the world's most fearsome human centrifuge, a 25-foot steel gondola that simulates the experience of space flight. My instructor is hunched in a little room with a big red "medical stop" button, coaching me as I feel what it's like to go three times the speed of sound aboard SpaceShipTwo, a plump white missile with passenger seats and a curled wing. The simulator is a one-person pod in a warehouse off the Pennsylvania Turnpike. But the sensations are real: six times my body weight through the sternum, twice what NASA's space shuttle demands. After about a minute, the engine quits and you glide among the stars. That is, if your body doesn't quit on you first.

I'm at the National AeroSpace Training and Research Center, a private facility outside Philadelphia, to see if I have the "right stuff." Not "the uncritical willingness to face danger," chronicled by Tom Wolfe in his book about the first Mercury astronauts. I'm testing my mettle for what's coming next: the era of commercial space, a time when anyone, not just the newsreel heroes of NASA, can explore the galaxy and make a living up there. I'm training to be an astronaut.

With the end of the space-shuttle program (the final mission is slated for this month), NASA snaps its half-century streak as the sole purveyor for spacefaring Americans--and assumes an awkward new role as partner, patron, and competitor of the private sphere. More than a dozen companies (from stalwarts like Boeing to upstarts like SpaceX) are working on space-shuttle replacements, aided by hundreds of millions of dollars from the Obama administration, which hopes to have NASA use these vessels even as the agency develops a longer-range starship of its own.

But the more exciting shift is in the realm of research and tourism, a market worth an estimated $700 million a year by 2021. Hundreds of regular (albeit rich) people have already booked flights, paying between $95,000 and $200,000 each, and next year Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic is expected to send up its first passengers.

That's where the Philadelphia training comes in. Commercial space needs workers: gravity-free professionals to serve tourists, researchers, and the businesses around them. But they won't be Buzz Aldrin types. The demise of the shuttle program has shrunk the NASA astronaut corps by more than 50 percent in the last decade; Endeavour commander Mark Kelly is the latest veteran to resign. Before long, "you're definitely going to see a larger core of commercial astronauts than government astronauts," says Eric Anderson, president of Space Adventures, the only company thus far to put civilians into orbit. The result could be a relationship between NASA and private space-hands much like the Department of Defense has with private soldiers. "We may well head down a path like that," admits NASA spokeswoman Janet Kavandi, the agency's director of flight-crew operations.

But how's it going to work? To get a peek at how commercial space will prepare its people, I signed up for private astronaut training, a three-day NASTAR certificate course for suborbital researchers. Founded in 2006, NASTAR began as a showcase for its parent company, Environmental Tectonics Corp., a leading maker of flight simulators. In 2010 it won Federal Aviation Administration approval for private space training, the first company to do so. The course remains optional, but regulators may require it as part of a company's license. "We're basically leaving it up to the companies," says George Nield, associate administrator for the FAA's office of commercial space transportation. …