Tomorrow’s astronauts may work for private firms, not space agencies4 min read

Just two days after Chris Hadfield assumed command of the International Space Station this week, a young student asked him how best to become an astronaut.

In a two-way video linkup with the space station, hosted Friday by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Hadfield told the youngster to focus on learning new things, maintaining good health, and practising good decision-making.

“With those three things … you will succeed no matter what you do in life,” Hadfield said. “Including, maybe have a chance to fly in space.”

Yet even as Hadfield inspires young Canadians to look to the stars, it’s not clear when Canada will again recruit astronauts.

Jean-Claude Piedboeuf, acting director general of space exploration for the Canadian Space Agency, said that although maintaining active astronauts is one of the key aims of the space agency, there are no recruitment campaigns planned. He could not say when the next one would take place.

“We will launch another campaign when we need to increase our astronauts,” Piedboeuf told Postmedia News.

Some experts feel the private sector is the only realistic future launch pad for potential Canadian space travellers seeking to slip the surly bonds of Earth’s atmosphere.

Since 1983, the space agency has hired just 12 astronauts. It currently has three qualified for space flight.

Like other federal departments, it also faces budget challenges. Government spending estimates for the CSA in 2013-2014 show a potential increase in funding of just under $125.5 million, but the bulk of that is allocated to the RADARSAT Constellation Mission – an unmanned space program that will do satellite surveillance. Meanwhile, the estimates show that funds specifically allocated for space exploration will likely be reduced.

Private ventures – and individuals – are already finding ways to get into space without going through traditional government space agencies.

XCOR Aerospace, based in Mojave, Calif.,  for example, is already offering sub-orbital space flights. These flights break the 100-kilometre altitude that is generally considered the boundary between sovereign airspace and outer space. The flights don’t complete a full orbit of earth –  and they also cost $95,000.

For those who want to make a living as an astronaut in the private sector, Tampa-based non-profit Astronauts 4 Hire has a mandate “to increase the competitiveness of commercial astronaut candidates by providing skills training …  engaging the space research community, and inspiring the next generation.”

Astronauts 4 Hire will graduate its first class in June, 2013.

“There is a growing infrastructure” that would support private manned space flight,” says Jason Reimuller, chief operating officer for Astronauts 4 Hire. “Right now it’s very new.”

The barriers to sending people into space are still in the tens of millions of dollars for private companies, and the profit motive hasn’t moved much past the level of government contracts.

Jeremy Laliberté, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Carleton University in Ottawa, says that as the private sector moves into manned space flight, government will still be the first customer.

For example, after retiring its space shuttle fleet in 2011, NASA contracted the Hawthorne, Calif. company Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) to continue development on its Dragon spacecraft.

SpaceX intends to use the craft to shuttle American astronauts to the International Space Station in 2015.

Christina Ra, director of communications at SpaceX, said that its Dragon spacecraft intends to carry crew and that manned space flights are part of its business plan.

Laliberté said he can’t predict if or when the Canadian Space Agency will recruit new astronauts, but that the upcoming federal budget will have a significant effect on the space agency’s ability to maintain manned flight operations.

He said that in spite of the many difficulties, the private sector is already showing it can conduct space missions less expensively than governments of the past.

But “There will be costs that they will not be able to reduce,” said Laliberté, referring to safety precautions and regulations that must be followed.

Alex Ellery, head of the Space Exploration Engineering Group, a Carleton University group that develops robotic applications for outer space, says that the main barrier to expansion for manned space flight in the private sector is the high initial investment, as well as the difficulty of turning a profit in the short term.

But Ellery said that although profit is a concern, the private sector is driving affordable access to space in a way government never could.

“If I was a young man” trying to get into the space game, he said, “I would probably pick [the corporate] route.”


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Source: Vancouver Sun

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Sebastien Clarke
Sebastien Clarke

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