Go boldly, but pack light
January 9, 2023 at 6:00 am EST
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The space right above our planet is booming. Out-of-world travel is increasing rapidly: 42 of the 51 commercial astronauts recognized by the Federal Aviation Administration have left Earth in the past two years.
The FAA predicts that its ranks will swell over the next decade, which may also bring new destinations, such as a rotating space hotel planned to begin construction in 2026, and some experts have expressed optimism that relatively affordable space travel could be possible. in the middle of this century.
For now, however, the costs remain enormous. A $450,000 ticket reserves a place on Virgin Galactic’s space plane, which flies 50 miles above Earth, six times the cruising altitude of an airliner. Expect to pay even more to go higher. Blue Origin’s 11-minute rocket ride, reportedly costing more than $1 million, rockets above the 62-mile-high Kármán line, the generally agreed boundary between Earth and space. Others spend days in space. In September 2021, four American civilians orbited for three days aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule. It is not known how much it cost them.
For $55 million, Axiom Space will send astronauts via a SpaceX rocket to the International Space Station, a laboratory that circles Earth once every 90 minutes. For two weeks last April, the first members of the ISS Axiom crew worked in the lab without showering properly.
Space “should be on everyone’s bucket list,” said former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría, vice president of Axiom Space who commanded the April mission. “We’d be the first to admit that it’s not quite democratic yet, because it’s still quite expensive, but we’ll get it done.” The Houston-based company has already begun building a segment of what will be a private space station.
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Training takes days to months. Axiom Space crew members spent at least 700 hours learning new tasks: how to conduct experiments, docking a transport vehicle to the ISS, and responding to fires.
They also practiced in a centrifuge, the fast-spinning machine that simulates the extreme acceleration of space travel. You don’t have to be in top shape — floating in microgravity is effortless, López-Alegría said — but you will have to endure an intense G-force as you exit and re-enter the atmosphere.
You must be mentally prepared for a unique psychological experience called the general effect, which occurs when people view their home planet from above. “When we got back to Earth, I couldn’t stop crying,” said aerospace doctoral student Sara Sabry, founder of the Deep Space Initiative, who went into space last August via Blue Origin (whose founder Jeff Bezos owns). from The Washington Post).
On board SpaceX, you’ll wear spacesuits: sleek white pressurized suits with black visored helmets. On Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin flights, the fit is more like that of a jet pilot, with gear not designed to lose pressure. Sabry said his suit was comfortable and tailored. Under Armor makes the clothing (underwear, jumpsuit and zip-up boots) for Virgin Galactic, worn by founder Richard Branson on his July 2021 trip to the edge of space.
Going boldly, packing lightly
Space may be the only place you can fly to without packing an ID or passport. “When we get into the vehicle, we are wearing our space suits and pretty much nothing else,” López-Alegría said.
Expect to leave the rest of your worldly possessions on Earth, with a few exceptions. Sabry packed three pounds of memorabilia into a bag, including photographs and a single dirty sock that belonged to his niece. On Inspiration4, the SpaceX mission in Earth orbit, an astronaut brought his ukulele to serenade his teammates in the capsule.
Don’t plan on filling your Instagram feed with your space travels to make your friends jealous. You won’t have your phone.
On Sabry’s Blue Origin flight, some people had a GoPro strapped to their wrists to capture video, especially of the three minutes of weightlessness.
The ISS provides cameras for your use. Astronauts can surf the internet on the space station, but posting requires help. Images taken in space are sent back to Earth, López-Alegría said, where someone on the ground uploads them to social media.
There were no snacks on the Blue Origin ship, Sabry said, and round trips leave no time for in-flight meals. Hot food isn’t always an option with other carriers, either. The first dish served on the orbiting Dragon capsule was cold pizza, though SpaceX founder Elon Musk apologized for the unheated cake and promised future astronauts would have a hotter meal.
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This is how the ISS crew heats dinner, which has a varied menu: some 200 options, mostly freeze-dried or heat-stabilized. Tortillas replace bread to avoid crumbs; what is just a tabletop clutter on Earth becomes a hazard when bits can float on electronics or eyeballs. No soda or beer because, according to NASA, carbonation bubbles would nastily pass through the digestive system without gravity to help an astronaut burp.
Space is like camping in the country. Both lack washing machines and require some hygienic compromises. When astronauts must shower, they squeeze packets of soap and water onto their skin and apply leave-in shampoo to their hair. The toilets on the ISS and Dragon Capsule collect waste through suction hoses and fans. On the space station, urine is recycled into drinking water. Toothbrushes and toothpaste are the same, but without sinks, you don’t spit.
You’ll deploy sleeping bags on the SpaceX spacecraft or as an Axiom crew member on the ISS. The temperature of the vehicles is regulated because the exterior of the ISS can range from minus -250 in the shadows to 250 degrees in the sun. Still, some modules, or sections, of the ISS can be colder than others: López-Alegría said he changed into long underwear to be more comfortable when he fell asleep in space.
Illustrations by Elizabeth von Oehsen. Edited by Amanda Finnegan.