For most of spaceflight history, astronauts have been government employees. That will soon change.
Imagine if the view from your office window was the entire planet Earth. For entrepreneurs like Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon and founder of the spaceflight company Blue Origin, this is the future we should be working toward to reduce human pressures on our world, while opening up new habitats and employment opportunities for an off-Earth human community.
"The long-term vision is millions of people living and working in space," Bezos said in March at the Satellite 2017 conference in Washington DC. "We need a spacefaring civilization."
Such a large population of orbital commuters is not likely to be achieved for many decades, perhaps even centuries. But the groundwork is gradually being laid for this objective, and it's being led primarily by NewSpace, a catchall term for the private spaceflight community.
"It's a very inspirational point in the [private space] industry where you are seeing SpaceX, Blue Origin, and other commercial space companies drawing some of the top engineering talent in the world, because of the allure of being part of something much bigger than yourself," Barret Schlegelmilch, president of the MIT Sloan Astropreneurship and Space Industry Club and co-founder of the startup Lunar Station, told me over the phone.
"That's something that I think is going to continue to rapidly accelerate as you see more successes, and as you see the first commercial astronauts going to space," he added.
Much of the burden of crewed spaceflight is already being outsourced to companies like SpaceX and Boeing via NASA's Commercial Crew Program, and the startup Bigelow Aerospace has already road-tested an expandable habitat prototype on the International Space Station.
Moreover, astronaut training companies that specifically cater to commercial clients are beginning to crop up, heralding a shift in the demographics of human spaceflight. Only 554 astronauts have visited space as of October 2017, and the vast majority of them represent federal space agencies like NASA, Roscosmos, or the European Space Agency. They are selected based on their aptitude to complete the scientific and engineering objectives of those governmental organizations, and are also generally viewed as role models for their home countries.
Commercial astronauts may be graded on completely different criteria, and their lifestyles and duties in space could vary significantly from those of the crews on the International Space Station (ISS). Science fiction has already flirted with this distinction in films like Alien, which takes place on the commercial space freighter "Nostromo," or "Moon," set on a helium-3 mining base on the lunar surface owned by a company with unorthodox employee contract terms. Even the comedy Futurama, with its interplanetary delivery service Planet Express, is narratively centered on a commercial space enterprise.
The coming diversification of the astronaut population beyond governmental employees will no doubt alter the image and experience of the spacefaring profession. Once emerging commercial space industries like space tourism or interplanetary mining start to materialize, it might be more common to see people with backgrounds in hospitality or industrial labor take to the orbital lifestyle, though commercial astronauts will still need to master traditional spaceflight skillsets—such as basic emergency training—in order to safely carry out their work in space.
It's hard to predict how the impending influx of company astronauts will impact human spaceflight because every aerospace company has its own culture, just like every federal space agency.
Blue Origin and SpaceX, for instance, have become interesting foils for each other. Blue Origin's coat-of-arms displays two tortoises over the motto Gradatim Ferociter, Latin for "step by step, ferociously," to reflect the slow-but-steady pace of the company's progress, while SpaceX's workhorse rocket family is named for the falcon, the fastest animal on Earth, which mirrors the company's flashy and rapidly-iterating style.
"A lot of the major first successes in the private space industry—SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic—show that the respective leadership affects the company culture," Schlegelmilch said. "Different companies definitely have different tacks, approaches, and ways of inspiring their employees and other people about their mission."
Schlegelmilch did predict that regardless of their employer, future commercial space travelers would likely experience the Overview Effect, a term coined by space philosopher Frank White to describe the natural awe and humanist awakenings many astronauts report when seeing Earth from space. The phenomena is explored in White's book of the same name, which includes many interviews with astronauts.
I asked White if he thought the Overview Effect might impact commercial astronauts or space tourists differently than astronauts working for federal space agencies. Upon taking in how truly finite Earth is, will everyone be committed to a more sustainable and interconnected future, or would some opportunists be inspired to more aggressively square away resources for themselves?
White doubts commercial astronauts will be fundamentally different from governmental space travelers in this way. "In almost every case of the people I've interviewed, there was a common trend," he told me over the phone. "Rather than becoming more territorial and defensive, they had more of an openness, and a sense that we're all in this together."
"However, human beings are very diverse," he added. "I suppose there could be a different reaction. We really haven't heard about it, though."
Today, many companies try to recruit the best talent in their industries with beautiful office views or cushy employee benefits within their building complexes. Perhaps the space companies of the future will attract their staff with the perk of a lifetime—a dazzling new perspective on our planet.
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