Meanwhile, companies like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin plan to run much less expensive trips into suborbital space, allowing customers to experience microgravity and a view of Earth for a few minutes. Virgin Galactic eventually plans to run more than 400 flights a year—a mix of tourist trips and missions for scientists running experiments and research in microgravity.
All these new opportunities will make us rethink what astronaut training means. And it means almost anyone will be able to go to space, if you’re rich enough.
Once upon a time, getting a launch ready was a two-year process. The first astronauts selected for the Mercury program had to be military test pilots with college degrees and 1,500 hours of flying time under their belts. They also had to be younger than 40 and shorter than 5 feet 11 inches. The Gemini and Apollo programs were opened up to civilian applicants, raised the height barrier to 6 feet, took applicants no older than 35, and put a bigger emphasis on educational background.
As part of the training for these programs, recruits had to take classes on literal rocket science and spacecraft engineering. They had to learn medical procedures. They had to take public speaking courses and become media ready. Oh, and there was also a bunch of training in the air, on the ground, and underwater designed to physically and mentally prepare astronauts for the stresses and experiences they were about to face.
Even just a couple of decades ago, you needed an almost totally clean medical history to qualify for NASA training. “If you said ‘I get migraine headaches occasionally,’ something benign like that, it was an automatic disqualification—period,” says Glenn King, the director of spaceflight training at the National Aerospace Training and Research (NASTAR) Center, which has trained over 600 people for both orbital and suborbital missions operated by companies like Virgin Galactic.
Future generations of private astronauts won’t have to jump through half as many hoops. The “right stuff” has changed. The FAA has only light safety guidelines around training private astronauts. It’s really up to the companies to approach things as they see fit.
“What we’re looking at now is basically a paradigm shift in space training,” says King. “The private sector is looking at basically everybody in the general public that has a desire and the finances to fly into space to have the opportunity to go.”
“Even to be a NASA astronaut these days, you don’t have to be a finely tuned athletic specimen,” says Derek Hassmann, the director of operations and training for Axiom Space. The agency’s physical requirements are looser than they’ve ever been.
Private companies have taken cues from NASA. King says the NASTAR Center has already started training some private astronauts who have disabilities (something the European Space Agency wants to begin doing for its own astronaut corps). One of Inspiration 4’s confirmed crew members is Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old physician assistant at St. Jude’s hospital who survived bone cancer as a child. Her treatment included a dozen rounds of chemotherapy as well as the placement of a titanium rod in her left thigh bone. It won’t stop her from going into space this fall.
Inspiration 4’s other two travelers will be selected through a raffle and an entrepreneurial contest. People who signed up for the raffle had to attest to being less than six and a half feet tall and under 250 pounds. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has likened a trip into orbit to “an intense roller coaster ride,” and he says anyone who can handle that “should be fine for flying on Dragon.”
That’s definitely a bit glib. When a giant rocket propels you out of Earth’s atmosphere, you will experience elevated g-forces for several minutes that will cause your body to rattle nonstop, and you probably won’t be able to do anything but stay strapped in with your teeth clenched. But for the most part, what groups like NASA, Axiom, and others consider disqualifying health conditions are things like arrhythmia that could cause heart failure, or high blood pressure that puts you at elevated risk for a brain aneurysm.
These aren’t problems you can treat in space—which could mean severe complications or death. “If there’s any kind of medical conditions that could cause a crew member to get sick or incapacitated on orbit, we try to screen for those things,” Hassmann says. But if flight doctors feel those risks can be properly addressed before flight, they may not be disqualifying.
In June 2019, NASA and its partners announced that the ISS would be opened up to visits from private citizens. For Axiom, this was the opportunity for its astronauts to learn what it’s like to travel into space and live and work in an orbital space station. It plans to launch its own in 2024.
“These missions will allow us to practice all the things we’ll need for the Axiom station down the road,” says Hassmann. Ax-1 will be led by former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría. He’ll be joined by three businessmen: Eytan Stibbe from Israel, Larry Connor from the US, and Mark Pathy from Canada.
López-Alegría will be taking his fifth trip into space. He’s had years of professional astronaut training under NASA. The other three are total newbies to space, though Stibbe is a former fighter pilot and Connor (who’s 71) has training as a private pilot. They are paying $55 million each for the ticket.
These three will start training six to seven months before launch. NASA contractors will teach them how to live and work on the ISS, running drills on how to respond to emergencies like a loss of cabin pressure. Certain facilities at NASA and elsewhere can simulate what a decompressed chamber feels like for people in spacesuits. But much of this training is to make sure the astronauts are used to the look and feel of their new habitat. They’ll learn how to do normal day-to-day functions, like preparing meals, brushing their teeth, using the bathroom, and getting ready for bed. It will still take time to adjust to microgravity, but at least they’ll be armed with strategies to make the transition smoother.
“It’s all about the simple stuff that is very different when you’re in microgravity,” says Hassmann. “I’ve worked with a lot of NASA astronauts over the years, and all of them talk about this adaptation period, physically and emotionally, when they first arrive in space. Our crew is only on a 10-day mission. So it’s in everybody’s best interest to prepare them as much as we possibly can on the ground, so that they adapt quickly, and they get down to the things that are important to them.”
The Ax-1 crew will be trained for this environment at Johnson Space Center, where NASA has a full mockup of the ISS interior. They’ll also go on parabolic flights that simulate weightlessness. In the future, Axiom wants to move this type of training in house, and center it specifically on the company’s own space station environment. Other training centers, like NASTAR, run human centrifuge facilities that expose trainees to the elevated g-forces experienced during launch and reentry.
The second part of Ax-1 training will aim to familiarize the astronauts with the Crew Dragon spacecraft, which will take them to the ISS. They’ll get accustomed to what it’s like to sit inside, interact with the panels that control functionality and monitor data, and so forth. This is run by SpaceX primarily out of its facilities in Hawthorne, California. Crew Dragon mostly works autonomously, so the crew members should have to take only a few direct actions on their own. But if anything goes awry, they do need to be prepared to step in. On Ax-1, López-Alegría and Connor will act as the commander and pilot for the mission, respectively, and lead the flight to the ISS. They’ll need to be most familiar with how Crew Dragon works.
About a month before launch, training will move to Florida, closer to the launch pad. The crew will go through a series of dry runs for what launch day will be like, as well as what to expect when they take Crew Dragon back down to Earth and splash down in the ocean.
And finally, there’s mission-specific training, conducted by Axiom. Each member of the crew is looking to do a slew of things while on the ISS—science experiments, social media stunts, publicity activities, and more. “We’ve got a group here at Axiom that works with each of the crew members to design their own orbit plan,” says Hassmann. “A lot of times these individuals don’t know what they can do up there, much less what they’d want to do.”
This doesn’t differ too much from what NASA itself does—but it’s compressed into a much shorter time frame, without a wholesale education in spaceflight. And eventually, Axiom hopes to run most of this training on its own, without any assistance from NASA.
Changes on the horizon
The training regime the Axiom astronauts will be put through is less intense than that for NASA astronauts, but it’s still pretty full-on. But as private spaceflight becomes more common, astronaut training should become more relaxed. That’ll be thanks in large part to spacecraft that basically fly themselves—there are simply not as many systems crews have to interact with. “I would expect that training to continue to evolve and get more efficient,” says Hassmann.
That will also mean more time is devoted to training people for very specific activities and goals during the mission—such as running a certain science experiment or recording a choreographed video. “Training programs have evolved to cover the needs that were not historically present in astronaut training,” says Beth Moses, the chief astronaut instructor for Virgin Galactic. “Today people are buying time in space, selecting what they will do there, and they need bespoke training to enable that.”
These things should help encourage another important trend: shorter and shorter training. “Right now we’re starting to shift away from the old paradigm of gigantic NASA-style two years of training to qualify as an astronaut,” says King. “I think the commercial industry can get this down to days of training. I think that’s where the industry is going to start heading.” That will be practically a requirement if companies like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX are serious about conducting dozens or hundreds or crewed missions into space every year.
6 steps for private astronauts:
- Get a ticket to space: In all likelihood this will mean spending tens of millions of dollars on a seat for a mission, but you might get lucky and be selected for something like the SpaceX Inspiration 4 mission.
- Pass the health screening: Gone are the days of automatic disqualification for any medical condition, but every company will still test applicants for adequate physical and mental health. If you have something like a heart condition, you probably won’t pass.
- Get used to space: This can include riding on parabolic flights that simulate weightlessness, being exposed to g-forces through human centrifuge facilities, and understanding how to do simple day-to-day tasks in space, like sleeping, eating, and using the bathroom.
- Emergency drills: A lot of things can go wrong in space, like losing cabin pressure or being forced to abort the mission and head back to Earth on short notice. Everyone needs to learn what their roles are during these times of crisis.
- Learn what you’re doing in space: Training centers will work with customers to figure what kind of activities they may want to do, and provide instruction on how to fulfill those tasks. A scientist may want to learn how to run an experiment. A tourist may learn how to livestream video to followers on Earth.
- Preparing for the big day: Lastly, private astronauts need to rehearse what launch day is like, and make sure they are fully aware of what takes place and what they need to do should any plans change.
The quest to show that biological sex matters in the immune system
She ultimately found a postdoctoral position in the lab of one of her thesis committee members. And in the years since, as she has established a lab of her own at the university’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, she has painstakingly made the case that sex—defined by biological attributes such as our sex chromosomes, sex hormones, and reproductive tissues—really does influence immune responses.
Through research in animal models and humans, Klein and others have shown how and why male and female immune systems respond differently to the flu virus, HIV, and certain cancer therapies, and why most women receive greater protection from vaccines but are also more likely to get severe asthma and autoimmune disorders (something that had been known but not attributed specifically to immune differences). “Work from her laboratory has been instrumental in advancing our understanding of vaccine responses and immune function on males and females,” says immunologist Dawn Newcomb of the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee. (When referring to people in this article, “male” is used as a shorthand for people with XY chromosomes, a penis, and testicles, and who go through a testosterone-dominated puberty, and “female” is used as a shorthand for people with XX chromosomes and a vulva, and who go through an estrogen-dominated puberty.)
Through her research, as well as the unglamorous labor of arranging symposia and meetings, Klein has helped spearhead a shift in immunology, a field that long thought sex differences didn’t matter. Historically, most trials enrolled only males, resulting in uncounted—and likely uncountable—consequences for public health and medicine. The practice has, for example, caused women to be denied a potentially lifesaving HIV therapy and left them likely to endure worse side effects from drugs and vaccines when given the same dose as men.
Men and women don’t experience infectious or autoimmune diseases in the same way. Women are nine times more likely to get lupus than men, and they have been hospitalized at higher rates for some flu strains. Meanwhile, men are significantly more likely to get tuberculosis and to die of covid-19 than women.
In the 1990s, scientists often attributed such differences to gender rather than sex—to norms, roles, relationships, behaviors, and other sociocultural factors as opposed to biological differences in the immune system.
For example, even though three times as many women have multiple sclerosis as men, immunologists in the 1990s ignored the idea that this difference could have a biological basis, says Rhonda Voskuhl, a neuroimmunologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “People would say, ‘Oh, the women just complain more—they’re kind of hysterical,’” Voskuhl says. “You had to convince people that it wasn’t just all subjective or environmental, that it was basic biology. So it was an uphill battle.”
Despite a historical practice of “bikini medicine”—the notion that there are no major differences between the sexes outside the parts that fit under a bikini—we now know that whether you’re looking at your metabolism, heart, or immune system, both biological sex differences and sociocultural gender differences exist. And they both play a role in susceptibility to diseases. For instance, men’s greater propensity to tuberculosis—they are almost twice as likely to get it as women—may be attributed partly to differences in their immune responses and partly to the fact that men are more likely to smoke and to work in mining or construction jobs that expose them to toxic substances, which can impair the lungs’ immune defenses.
How to tease apart the effects of sex and gender? That’s where animal models come in. “Gender is a social construct that we associate with humans, so animals do not have a gender,” says Chyren Hunter, associate director for basic and translational research at the US National Institutes of Health Office of Research on Women’s Health. Seeing the same effect in both animal models and humans is a good starting point for finding out whether an immune response is modulated by sex.
Why can’t tech fix its gender problem?
Not competing in this Olympics, but still contributing to the industry’s success, were the thousands of women who worked in the Valley’s microchip fabrication plants and other manufacturing facilities from the 1960s to the early 1980s. Some were working-class Asian- and Mexican-Americans whose mothers and grandmothers had worked in the orchards and fruit canneries of the prewar Valley. Others were recent migrants from the East and Midwest, white and often college educated, needing income and interested in technical work.
With few other technical jobs available to them in the Valley, women would work for less. The preponderance of women on the lines helped keep the region’s factory wages among the lowest in the country. Women continue to dominate high-tech assembly lines, though now most of the factories are located thousands of miles away. In 1970, one early American-owned Mexican production line employed 600 workers, nearly 90% of whom were female. Half a century later the pattern continued: in 2019, women made up 90% of the workforce in one enormous iPhone assembly plant in India. Female production workers make up 80% of the entire tech workforce of Vietnam.
Venture: “The Boys Club”
Chipmaking’s fiercely competitive and unusually demanding managerial culture proved to be highly influential, filtering down through the millionaires of the first semiconductor generation as they deployed their wealth and managerial experience in other companies. But venture capital was where semiconductor culture cast its longest shadow.
The Valley’s original venture capitalists were a tight-knit bunch, mostly young men managing older, much richer men’s money. At first there were so few of them that they’d book a table at a San Francisco restaurant, summoning founders to pitch everyone at once. So many opportunities were flowing it didn’t much matter if a deal went to someone else. Charter members like Silicon Valley venture capitalist Reid Dennis called it “The Group.” Other observers, like journalist John W. Wilson, called it “The Boys Club.”
The venture business was expanding by the early 1970s, even though down markets made it a terrible time to raise money. But the firms founded and led by semiconductor veterans during this period became industry-defining ones. Gene Kleiner left Fairchild Semiconductor to cofound Kleiner Perkins, whose long list of hits included Genentech, Sun Microsystems, AOL, Google, and Amazon. Master intimidator Don Valentine founded Sequoia Capital, making early-stage investments in Atari and Apple, and later in Cisco, Google, Instagram, Airbnb, and many others.
Generations: “Pattern recognition”
Silicon Valley venture capitalists left their mark not only by choosing whom to invest in, but by advising and shaping the business sensibility of those they funded. They were more than bankers. They were mentors, professors, and father figures to young, inexperienced men who often knew a lot about technology and nothing about how to start and grow a business.
“This model of one generation succeeding and then turning around to offer the next generation of entrepreneurs financial support and managerial expertise,” Silicon Valley historian Leslie Berlin writes, “is one of the most important and under-recognized secrets to Silicon Valley’s ongoing success.” Tech leaders agree with Berlin’s assessment. Apple cofounder Steve Jobs—who learned most of what he knew about business from the men of the semiconductor industry—likened it to passing a baton in a relay race.
Predicting the climate bill’s effects is harder than you might think
Human decision-making can also cause models and reality to misalign. “People don’t necessarily always do what is, on paper, the most economic,” says Robbie Orvis, who leads the energy policy solutions program at Energy Innovation.
This is a common issue for consumer tax credits, like those for electric vehicles or home energy efficiency upgrades. Often people don’t have the information or funds needed to take advantage of tax credits.
Likewise, there are no assurances that credits in the power sectors will have the impact that modelers expect. Finding sites for new power projects and getting permits for them can be challenging, potentially derailing progress. Some of this friction is factored into the models, Orvis says. But there’s still potential for more challenges than modelers expect.
Putting too much stock in results from models can be problematic, says James Bushnell, an economist at the University of California, Davis. For one thing, models could overestimate how much behavior change is because of tax credits. Some of the projects that are claiming tax credits would probably have been built anyway, Bushnell says, especially solar and wind installations, which are already becoming more widespread and cheaper to build.
Still, whether or not the bill meets the expectations of the modelers, it’s a step forward in providing climate-friendly incentives, since it replaces solar- and wind-specific credits with broader clean-energy credits that will be more flexible for developers in choosing which technologies to deploy.
Another positive of the legislation is all its long-term investments, whose potential impacts aren’t fully captured in the economic models. The bill includes money for research and development of new technologies like direct air capture and clean hydrogen, which are still unproven but could have major impacts on emissions in the coming decades if they prove to be efficient and practical.
Whatever the effectiveness of the Inflation Reduction Act, however, it’s clear that more climate action is still needed to meet emissions goals in 2030 and beyond. Indeed, even if the predictions of the modelers are correct, the bill is still not sufficient for the US to meet its stated goals under the Paris agreement of cutting emissions to half of 2005 levels by 2030.
The path ahead for US climate action isn’t as certain as some might wish it were. But with the Inflation Reduction Act, the country has taken a big step. Exactly how big is still an open question.