Dawn of the Corporate Scientist-Astronaut

14 05 2010

For those of you who have known me a while, who have had to endure my many rants during the last decade-and-a-half about the future and the promise of corporate space exploration, I have four words:

I told you so.

It’s with an almost electric sense of expectation that I am pleased to report a change in the tide of space exploration.  It’s a change that history has never seen before.  -With the advent of private spacecraft, (e.g., Virgin Galactic, SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, XCOR Aerospace, Armadillo Aerospace,) a critical mass must be near or already achieved, because suddenly the Corporate Scientist-Astronaut has taken shape.  Companies are stepping up to provide training, and pioneers are filling out the flight suits I hope to one day wear.  It’s thrilling.

FAA approved centrifuge training. Credit: NASTAR Center

For example, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation has recently awarded safety approval to a private firm to offer astronaut training – known as the National AeroSpace Training and Research (NASTAR) Center, it’s the first of its kind.  Their services include centrifuges, hyperbaric chambers, technical training, and custom flight simulators, and they’re state-of-the-art.

Then, there’s Starfighters, Inc. – the first company of its kind to get both the FAA and NASA’s approval to provide live suborbital training to corporate astronaut-hopefuls using a small fleet of F-104 Starfigher jet aircraft.

Suborbital flight training. Credit: Starfighters, Inc.

Meanwhile, the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), a non-profit applied research and development organization, has started taking advantage of these training opportunities for its own scientists to prepare for the new corporate space opportunities as they arise.  Dr. Daniel Durda, one of the first SwRI scientists to participate, says, “We’re finally arriving at the day when space scientists can conduct their research ‘in the field’ in the same way that botanists, geologists and oceanographers have been doing all along. We hope many of our fellow researchers and educators in the diverse disciplines that will benefit from frequent access to space will also get in line to fly.”

IS3 spacesuit. Credit: Orbital Outfitters

And, then there’s the Astronauts4Hire initiative – with a collection of young up-and-coming space scientists vying to get their training at the aforementioned facilities sponsored so that they too can “get in line to fly.”  They’re marketing themselves as burgeoning commercial suborbital payload specialists, the idea being that when companies/universities/etc. want to perform suborbital research using the new spacecraft around the corner, it’ll be cheaper to hire these guys than to train and certify their own staff for spaceflight.  -I think it’s a fantastic idea.  Heck, I’d be jazzed to sign up with them one day if the opportunity arose.

The market is so ripe that company Orbital Outfitters, a private spacesuit manufacturer, has formed to offer standardized “get me down” spacesuits to supply suborbital researchers.  Known as the Industrial Suborbital Spacesuit, or IS^3, the suit provides at least 30 minutes of emergency life support at at an altitude of 90 miles and offers imbedded communication equipment and biometric sensors, enhanced visibility, and can even be integrated into a parachute harness.

The future is now, and it looks like my dream of becoming a corporate astronaut is more realistic than ever.  All I have to do is find the right way to get my foot in the door…. er, airlock.





CSI: Extinction Event…

1 03 2010

Gravity / electromagnetic profile of the buried Chicxulub impact crater. Yucatan, Mexico.

Penn State geoscientists have just made the first true bio-geospatial analysis of extinction patterns caused by the Yucatan impact 65 million years ago.  What does this mean, exactly?  -They managed to make the first determinations about where, how badly, and for how long specific places on Earth were devastated by the impact. 

Let me tell you, it ain’t pretty.

Sure, we’ve known for quite some time now that the ~5-mile wide rock responsible for the Chicxulub crater caused or contributed to a mass extinction (end of the dinosaurs, etc.,) from which it took life eons to recover, but now we have a real picture:

  • For instance, the asteroid was found to have entered the atmosphere from the southeast and traveled northwest to its point of impact in the Northern Hemisphere.
  • Researchers also found that in addition to the surface devastation from pervasive fires and high temperature debris, nanoplankton (a major ocean food source) disappeared for 40,000 years afterward.
  • Near darkness persisted in the region for nearly six months as a result of the impact, and toxic metals distributed by the meteor prevented ocean life from recovering  for a full 270,000 years.

Ouch.  The sooner we venture off-world and develop strategies for both manipulating near-Earth asteroids as well as for developing extraterrestrial human settlements, the better.

Jupiter has been hit twice in the last 20 years by comets large enough to destroy Earth’s biosphere entirely.  We can’t say we haven’t been warned.

1994 comet impact (fragment G), Jupiter.

2009 comet impact scar, Jupiter.








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