Sep 7, 2021

Axios Space

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1 big thing: What it takes to train for space

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The all-civilian Inspiration4 crew's training program to prepare them for their trip to orbit is a reality check on the space industry's goal to send many more ordinary people to space.

Why it matters: One day SpaceX, which is operating the upcoming mission, hopes to help establish a settlement on Mars and other companies like Blue Origin are working to build futures where millions of people live and work in space. In order to do that, more people need to fly to space — with far less preparation and more ease.

  • That starts with Inspiration4. The mission is a proof of concept for SpaceX as it begins to fly people who aren't professional astronauts.

How it works: The Inspiration4 crew — Jared Isaacman, Sian Proctor, Chris Sembroski and Hayley Arceneaux — have been training together for less than six months, since the full crew was announced at the end of March.

  • The crew has spent hours in simulators learning how to operate the Dragon capsule and used time away from SpaceX headquarters to study on their own, taking quizzes and ingesting binders of protocols and systems breakdowns.
  • Isaacman, the commander of the mission, planned extracurricular training activities for the crew, like a climb up Mount Rainier in Washington state and flying in fighter jets in Bozeman, Montana.

The details: The crew's training at SpaceX was also punctuated by a 30-hour test run inside a full-sized Dragon simulator at the company's headquarters.

  • They ate what they'll eat in space and even had to sit through a simulated launch delay caused by weather as rotating crews of mission controllers kept an eye on them from the "ground."
  • Throughout the simulated mission, SpaceX kept them and their flight controllers on their toes with problems they would need to solve to get the capsule running normally.

As the capsule came back from its simulated trip to space, everything started to go wrong in a cascading series of failures that almost made the trip end in failure.

  • "The last 45 minutes, there was awareness from us in the capsule and them on the ground ... There is like a chance that this might not be actually a survivable situation," Isaacman told me.
  • And yet, the crew and their mission managers got everyone back to Earth safely.

What's next: All of this training will culminate a three-day mission tailored to this crew's needs and desires.

  • They're planning to eat cold pizza and other fresh foods their first day in orbit.
  • The crew is also picking out movies they'll be able to watch while up in space.
  • And SpaceX has even installed a huge bubble window — called a cupola — at the top of their Dragon capsule to give the crew incredible 360-degree views of space and Earth.

Yes, but: This training has taken over their lives.

  • Multiple crewmembers have had to put their day jobs on pause in order to focus full-time on training to go to space.
  • Most people can't take on this kind of obligation, and by the time this crew finishes training, they'll have far more in common with professional astronauts than an average civilian off the street.
  • SpaceX did pare down its training for this crew, but much of what they learned is still in line with what professional astronaut training entails, like learning the ins and outs of Dragon's engineering and how to take over if something fails.

The bottom line: If the plan is — as SpaceX has said — to get spaceflight to the point where it's like airline operations are today, the company is going to need to find a way to streamline training, making it quicker and easier for civilians to fly.

2. Perseverance gets its rock

A rock inside of one of Perseverance's sampling tubes. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/MSSS

NASA's Perseverance rover collected its first sample of a rock on Mars.

Why it matters: This sample and others in the future are expected to help scientists figure out whether the Red Planet once played host to life in its habitable environments billions of years ago.

Driving the news: Perseverance successfully collected the rock sample last week, beaming images back to mission controllers on Earth showing its sample tube full of material.

  • The rover's first sampling attempt in early August ended in failure when the rock it was working with crumbled as Perseverance tried to collect its sample.
  • NASA then instituted new protocols like scraping away a bit of the rock to see how it stands up to make sure the rover didn't fail at another collection attempt.
  • "The team determined a location, and selected and cored a viable and scientifically valuable rock. We did what we came to do," Jennifer Trosper, project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, said in a statement.

What's next: Perseverance will now store the sealed tube holding the rock sample ahead of a future return to Earth with another mission.

  • By returning samples to scientists, researchers will be able to use high-powered tools on the planet that are far better than any analytical instruments they can send to space aboard a rover or lander.

Go deeper: The golden age of space-sample returns (Axios)

3. A new kind of supernova
Artist's illustration of the aftermath of the supernova. Credit: Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF

Scientists think they may have found a type of supernova never before seen.

Why it matters: Typically, massive stars explode as supernovas when they run out of fuel, but researchers have been on the lookout for other kinds of stellar explosions that might help them better understand the strangeness of our universe.

What they found: A new study in the journal Science used data from the Very Large Array Sky Survey to figure out that a massive star's explosion was likely triggered by a black hole or neutron star companion spiraling in and colliding with it.

  • This marks the first time such a supernova has been spotted.

The big picture: Scientists know these types of star systems exist because of previous observations.

  • These types of systems can usually involve the black hole or neutron star orbiting its companion star for millions or billions of years. (When they collide, they can create gravitational waves.)
  • But in this case, the star and black hole or neutron star collided very quickly, creating a huge blast of radio waves that was seen by the VLA Sky Survey.
  • "During this process you find yourself pulled in different directions by different explanations, and you simply let nature tell you what's out there," Dillon Dong, of Caltech, one of the authors of the new study, said in a statement.
4. Out of this world reading list

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Space at 2051 (Explore the full Deep Dive from Axios)

Russian space chief invites Elon Musk to his home (Kristin Fisher, CNN)

FAA grounding Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic (Jacob Knutson, Axios)

Firefly Alpha failure blamed on premature engine shutdown (Jeff Foust, Space News)

NASA administrator looks to future (Robert Pearlman, CollectSPACE)

5. Weekly dose of awe: We're the aliens

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

While humans haven't set foot on Mars, we've still left quite a mark.

  • That black little dot in the middle of that Martian rock is actually the drill hole Perseverance made during its sampling of it.

Big thanks to Alison Snyder and Bryan McBournie for editing this week's edition. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. 🍎🍯