Feb 23, 2021

Axios Space

Thanks for reading Axios Space. At 1,390 words, this week's newsletter is about a 5-minute read.

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1 big thing: The new "Right Stuff"

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Space travel experts are advocating for people with disabilities to be eligible to fly to orbit and beyond.

Why it matters: Long-held beliefs about who is best suited for space travel have limited the industry and those it inspires. Widening the scope of who is considered fit for spaceflight could help invite more people to be invested in the future of humanity in space.

  • Space agencies and the industry appear to be on the verge of understanding that perhaps the people who have always gone to space aren't the only ones able to, says Sheri Wells-Jensen, a professor of linguistics at Bowling Green State University.
  • "So, the rules are different," Wells-Jensen tells me. "What even is disability in space? If nobody's walking, then who cares about walking?"

Driving the news: Last week, the European Space Agency announced its parastronaut feasibility project to recruit people with certain physical disabilities to research how they might one day go to space.

  • The space agency is looking for volunteers who have a lower limb deficiency, pronounced leg length difference or short stature.

The rise of commercial spaceflight is already changing the image of who can go to space.

  • Hayley Arceneaux, one of the crew members expected to fly to space with the Inspiration4 mission later this year, is a childhood cancer survivor with a prosthesis in her leg.
  • She will become the first person with a prosthesis to go to space.
  • Having a prosthesis "in this spaceflight scenario shouldn't limit you in any way, but it's just because we have all of these norms that come from particular social biases that make us think that disabled people should be able to do less," Ashley Shew, a professor at Virginia Tech, said.

Spacewalking in microgravity might be easier for a person who has relied on technology — like a wheelchair — for their mobility before, allowing them to work more easily in a spacesuit.

  • Using the bathroom in space is a challenge because of the lack of gravity, and toilet maintenance takes time that could be better spent on science or other tasks.
  • But a person who uses an ostomy bag in space, for example, wouldn't need to worry about the toilet at all.

Yes, but: While ESA's parastronaut feasibility project might be a step in the right direction, some experts are worried about the messaging around the project.

  • "These astronauts should be seen as helping the program become more inclusive" instead of framing it as a question of whether having disabled people in space is feasible, Shew said.

Flashback: In the 1950s, NASA recruited men from Gallaudet University who became deaf and sustained damage to their vestibular systems, making them effectively immune to motion sickness.

  • The 11 men were studied by scientists who wanted to learn more about how they handled environments in which many people get disorienting motion sickness, in order to help NASA astronauts going to space.
  • "They were never considered recruits, even though they were considered superior in terms of how they would fare in space," Shew tells me.

What to watch: Designing spacecraft for people with disabilities would make life easier for all astronauts, even those considered able-bodied, experts say.

  • While NASA and other agencies are expected to do everything possible to keep astronauts safe, accidents will happen as humanity pushes further into space, Wells-Jensen says, adding that "disability will happen."
  • "So we design our system so that everyone can use them," Wells-Jensen adds.
2. Perseverance's Mars landing

Perseverance on Mars. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

When NASA's Perseverance rover landed on Mars Thursday, a set of cameras captured the car-sized spacecraft's descent and landing on the Red Planet.

Why it matters: This is the first time this type of high-quality footage has been captured, giving an unprecedented view of Earth's neighbor.

What's happening: Perseverance landed on Mars in much the same way as Curiosity landed on the Red Planet.

  • NASA made use of a supersonic parachute and a small rocket that slowed the rover's descent and used cables to softly lower it to the ground.
  • The rover landed in a crater thought to be one of the best places on Mars to hunt for signs of past life.

Driving the news: The cameras tasked with capturing the landing sent back about 30 gigabytes of footage to scientists on Earth.

  • “This video of Perseverance’s descent is the closest you can get to landing on Mars without putting on a pressure suit,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, said in a statement.
  • Perseverance also recorded the first sounds — including wind and mechanical whirring from the rover itselffrom Mars not long after making it to the surface.
  • "I hope it [the microphone] does survive long enough so that we can hear those wheels crunch over the surface of the planet," Matt Wallace, Perseverance deputy project manager, said during a press conference Monday.

The big picture: The video and audio captured from Mars are more than awe-inspiring.

  • Engineers will be able to pore over the landing video from Perseverance to tease out exactly how the system worked on the Red Planet to build even more robust systems in the future.
  • Future rovers might carry other microphones to Mars that can be used as diagnostic tools, alerting scientists back on Earth to any strange sounds that might indicate an issue with the spacecraft, Justin Maki, Perseverance imaging scientist, said during the press conference Monday.

Watch the video.

3. An unlikely astronaut

Photo illustration: Axios Visuals. Photo: St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Inspiration4

Later this year, Hayley Arceneaux — a childhood cancer survivor and physician assistant at St. Jude — is expected to launch to orbit for the first all-civilian mission to space.

Why it matters: Arceneaux represents a new kind of astronaut, one who didn't train for years to live in space but instead is making the most of the opportunities afforded by the budding private spaceflight industry.

Catch up quick: The mission — named Inspiration4 — is being put together by businessman Jared Isaacman, in part, as a way to raise money for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

  • Arceneaux and Isaacman along with two other yet-to-be-chosen crew members are expected to launch to space using a SpaceX capsule and rocket in the fourth quarter of the year.
  • One passenger will be chosen via raffle, and the fourth will be the winner of a competition for entrepreneurs using Isaacman's Shift4 Payments platform.

Details: While Arceneaux didn't focus her life's work toward going to space, she has always been adventurous, according to her mom, Colleen Arceneaux.

  • Since her treatment as a kid at St. Jude, "she's always had a sense of live life now because there are no promises of the future," Colleen said.
  • Arceneaux is planning to speak with kids at St. Jude while she's in space and hopes to share her journey with them.
  • "You're so focused on your appointments that day, the medicines that you have to take that day, that sometimes it can be hard to look at the future, but I think it's really important," Arceneaux told me. "And I think it's going to be so meaningful for these kids."
    • "I think she's going to do a great job inspiring people for things that may have absolutely nothing to do with space and rockets but just overcoming adversity in life," Isaacman told me.

1 fun thing: Isaacman shared a list of space-themed movies and TV shows for Arceneaux to watch before heading to space, including Disney Plus' "The Right Stuff" and "Battlestar Galactica."

  • For her part, Colleen Arceneaux has been watching media suggested by her son — an aerospace engineer — including a documentary about astronaut Scott Kelly's year in space.

Go deeper: The story behind the first all-civilian space flight (Axios Re:Cap podcast)

4. Out of this world reading list

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Mars is coming into focus (Axios)

Why a garbage video went viral before NASA could release the real one (John Wenz, Inverse)

A politician who said politicians shouldn’t run NASA wants to run NASA (Eric Berger, Ars Technica)

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon performing "beautifully" on ISS (Joey Roulette, The Verge)

Rare cosmic neutrino traced to star-swallowing black hole (Daniel Clery, Science)

5. Your weekly dose of awe: The volatility of a baby star

Photo: ESA/Hubble & NASA, B. Nisini

Much like newborn babies, newborn stars are pretty temperamental.

  • The wisps of gas and dust seen in this image were created when matter was flung from a baby star at 93 miles per second, smacking into the gas around the object and creating these shockwaves — called Herbig-Haro objects, NASA said in a statement.
  • The objects are about 1,400 light-years away and were photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Big thanks to Alison Snyder, Eileen O'Reilly, Orion Rummler, Sam Baker and Sheryl Miller for editing this week’s edition. If this email was forwarded to you, subscribe here. 🚀