America’s most veteran astronaut says her fully commercial visit to the International Space Station this week is a critical stepping stone on the path to space tourism, private sector orbital research and development of commercially operated space stations.
In a space-to-ground interview with CBS News, retired NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson, a veteran of three NASA flights with a US record of 665 days in orbit and 10 spacewalks to her credit, compared the early days – and high cost – from commercial spaceflight with the beginning of commercial aviation when only the wealthy could afford to fly.
“In the 1930s, 1940s, when commercial aviation evolved from something that initially started as (a) government initiative, it was a long process before it became something that became everyday for us,” she said. .
“But if we want to increase access to space for as many people as possible, it’s incredibly important that we get started somewhere. And this is a first step.”
Even short suborbital flights from Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, which launched a test flight on Wednesday, “provide some access to space, and I think that’s important for the development of our commercial platforms in orbit and beyond.”
As for the millions cost of a ticket to fly into orbit as a commercial astronaut or space tourist, Whitson said, “It will probably take a little longer” for prices to fall to less stratospheric levels, which non-millionaires can afford .
“But the potential options out there for governments around the world, and people, individuals to access space that have never had access before, whether they’re directing scientific research or sending astronauts, are really opening up,” he said. she. said.
And she envisions a future where “you could be the employee at a future station doing housework or maintaining the hardware that breaks down.”
“You could just be someone who gets paid to go as part of your job to be there,” she said. “And so I think ultimately that will all lead to ever-increasing access to space.”
With a PhD in biochemistry, Whitson joined NASA’s astronaut corps in 1996 and completed three long-duration flights aboard the International Space Station between 2002 and 2017, once aboard a space shuttle and twice aboard Russian Soyuz ferries launched and landed.
She logged a total of 665 days and 22 hours in space during those three flights — the most time in orbit for an American and the most for a female aviator. She also participated in 10 spacewalks totaling more than 60 hours, making her fifth in the world and No. 1 among female aviators.
Whitson joined Houston-based Axiom Space as director of human spaceflight after his retirement from NASA. Axiom launched its first “private astronaut mission” – Ax-1 – in April 2022, a flight led by retired astronaut Michel Lopez-Alegria.
Whitsonas commander of the Ax-2 mission, along with retired fiber optic entrepreneur and adventurer John Shoffner and two Saudi astronauts making their maiden flight – Ali Alqarni and Rayyanah Barnawi – aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule.
“They’re doing great!” Whitson said of her roo
kie crew members. “I’m so proud of them, they’ve worked really hard on their training program and they’re really doing a great job getting their science done and also (participating in) a lot of outreach and STEM events. So we”re very happy, very happy with the results.”
Axiom Space is using the private astronaut missions to gain the expertise needed to build and operate a self-contained commercial space station for use by government and private sector astronauts and researchers after the International Space Station comes to an end. of the decade has retired. .
In the short term, the missions also provide a way for serious, tech-savvy citizens and governments, who don’t have access to space, to visit the ISS for research and public outreach — goals encouraged by NASA.
“Our mission control works in Houston, full-time, three shifts, to change our plans and schedules based on activities that may or may not have been completed, and are working with NASA teams to integrate all of that along with the station crews here. So it is a pretty complex job,” Whitson said.
“Just learning the ropes and developing new techniques that we think will be more efficient for use on Axiom’s station is really important as a forerunner. When we have a module here, we’re operating from the same mission control that we are. building it out. And so I think it’s an extremely important step for us.”
The crew of the Ax-2 carries out 20 research projects in various fields, which require long working hours. But Whitson said she’s making sure the rookies make time to enjoy the experience, telling them “to spend at least 90 minutes once and go around the world and see it all.”
The arrival of the Ax-2 astronauts increased the crew of the space station from seven to eleven. to go around and back and up and down.”
“We haven’t had too many clashes yet, but there have been a few,” she said. “So there’s definitely more traffic and the station crew have been extremely welcoming to us.”
Whitson and her Ax-2 crewmates plan to conclude their eight-day station visit on Tuesday, undock and return to Earth with a splash off the coast of Florida.
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