Inside the First Commercial Astronaut Training Program
How Starfighters went from an aviation demo group to a permanent installation at NASA, and why they’re betting big on civilian spaceflight.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
John Rost was all smiles as he climbed down from the cockpit of an F-104 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center last week. Just 30 minutes before, I had watched Rost and his instructor, former Italian Air Force pilot Piercarlo Ciacchi, taxi down the same runway that hosted space shuttle landings less than a decade before. After idling for a moment, the blue-and-white checkered jet exploded down the runway and went screaming into the restricted airspace around Kennedy.
Rost is the first pilot in a fledgling commercial astronaut training program run by Starfighters Inc., and this was his fourth flight.
“That was fucking awesome,” Rost, an amateur pilot who is the CEO of Fiesta Auto Insurance when he’s not training to be an astronaut, said when we spoke after his flight. “It’s just like being on a spaceship. Driving into Kennedy Space Center, flying around and seeing all the launch pads, the Vehicle Assembly Building—you feel like you’re Neil Armstrong.”
Starfighters is attempting to create the first commercial astronaut training program for space tourists who hope to catch a ride on SpaceX or Blue Origin rockets in the future. For now, it offers a high performance training program that teaches pilots like Rost how to fly F-104 fighter jets. The company hopes to one day be part of a more comprehensive astronaut training program, and to play a central role in creating federal regulations for commercial astronaut training programs in the US.
Right now, at least three companies—SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin—have said they want to take tourists to space, but so far none of these companies has developed a real training program for their future clients beyond some rough outlines. NASA’s astronaut training program, on the other hand, takes years to complete and is limited to a handful of carefully selected astronaut candidates. Starfighters wants to make astronaut training available to any prospective space tourist who can pay.
“We don't think it's good for the industry if people don't go up without some knowledge of what they're going to encounter,” Rick Svetkoff, the CEO of Starfighters, told me. “The last thing you'd want to do is see yourself climb onto a rocket with the expectation it's going to be so cool to go to space, and then to be sick all the way.”
The F-104 co-piloted by Roth is one of only a handful that are still operational and was, in fact, the same type of jet used to train Neil Armstrong and other Apollo-era astronauts. With the exception of one owned by the Royal Norwegian Air Force, Starfighters has the only seven operational F-104s in the world.
Originally developed by the US Air Force in the 50s and used into the late 1990s, the F-104 was the first aircraft able to sustain Mach 2 flight (twice the speed of sound, or around 1,500 miles per hour). It is also able to pull off the runway straight into a 90-degree turn, and can fly to altitudes of around 100,000 feet—about one-third of the way to space proper—making it ideal to simulate launch conditions on a rocket.
Svetkoff is a former naval pilot who had just begun working his way through NASA’s astronaut training when the Challenger disaster occurred in 1986. This put an end to Svetkoff’s astronaut ambitions, so he began working as a captain on commercial airlines and founded Starfighters as a side job in 1995. The company originally operated as an F-104 aviation group, mostly doing military and public demonstrations.
In 2007, Svetkoff said NASA approached the company and asked if the company wanted to assist the agency in commercial spaceflight development. As part of the deal, Starfighters received a permanent installation at NASA and took over the old shuttle landing facility in 2009.
“Nobody else has a permanent status at Kennedy Space Center,” Svetkoff said. “It was part of the deal when they brought us in and it’s a big statement.”
NASA’s interest in Svetkoff’s fleet of F-104s makes sense. The agency used the same type of jets to train astronauts and perform high-speed experiments for decades before discontinuing use of the F-104 in 1994 due to the difficulty of maintaining the aircraft and sourcing parts. Svetkoff sourced his fleet from the Italian and Norwegian air forces, which were in the process of phasing out the planes.
Starfighters is looking to put its small commercial air force to two main uses: delivering payloads to orbit with onboard rockets, and training the first commercial astronauts. Svetkoff said the company is in talks with Orbital ATK and CubeCab about rockets that can be launched from the aircraft while it is going Mach 2 and used to deliver a payload to orbit.
In the meantime, it’s kicking off its commercial astronaut training program with Rost, who is Starfighters’ first customer.
For around $20,000 per flight, entrants into Starfighters’ program get a taste of what it will be like to ride on top of a SpaceX or Blue Origin rocket, such as the extreme G-forces and rapid acceleration of a rocket at takeoff, and even microgravity when the plane nose dives.
“There's no astronaut that has ever been to space that has not been in a high performance aircraft for NASA,” Svetkoff told me. “The people who have been left out of this program are the potential civilian astronauts that will eventually get the chance to go suborbital. There's no training program for that, and that’s what we're striving for.”
In the future, the flight-training received by Rost will be just one part Starfighters’ larger astronaut training program, which Svetkoff said will include elements such as G-force and neutral buoyancy training, just like for NASA astronauts. There are no federal laws for astronaut training and Svetkoff said Starfighters hopes to shape the development of federal standards and possibly use its own program as a model. (The most recent space tourist, Cirque du Soleil co-founder Guy Laliberté, went to space in 2009; he trained for his flight at the Russian cosmonaut training center in Star City.)
“We want to be able to give people the opportunity to actually go into space without being one of those very few people out of our astronaut corps,” Svetkoff said. “I think this is the first step. You need a training program and right now there is none.”
Before Starfighters’ pilot training program can be folded out into a full-fledged astronaut training program, however, Svetkoff needs to get Starfighters F-104 fleet certified as Space Support Vehicles. He said there is currently legislation on the books to grant Starfighters this designation, which will allow the company to expand its program beyond its current “pilot training program” into a full astronaut training program.
“We don’t think we have a high risk with what we do, but people who don’t fly in jet fighters think differently,” Svetkoff, who has flown 500 airshows without incident, told me. “It’s still Washington and their first intentions are to make sure people don’t get hurt.”
By the time they’ve cleared all the regulatory hurdles, Svetkoff said he hopes that commercial companies like SpaceX or Virgin Galactic will have the ability to carry Rost or other trainees to space. Each of these companies has been promising crewed commercial flights for years now, but there’s little indication that these programs will start any time soon. Still, Svetkoff is hopeful.
“We see suborbital [human] spaceflight happening in the next two years,” Svetkoff said. “There's no training program for that and we think we fit that element. That's what we're striving for.”