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.
Your microbiome ages as you do—and that’s a problem
These ecosystems appear to change as we age—and these changes can potentially put us at increased risk of age-related diseases. So how can we best look after them as we get old? And could an A-grade ecosystem help fend off diseases and help us lead longer, healthier lives?
It’s a question I’ve been pondering this week, partly because I know a few people who have been put on antibiotics for winter infections. These drugs—lifesaving though they can be—can cause mass destruction of gut microbes, wiping out the good along with the bad. How might people who take them best restore a healthy ecosystem afterwards?
I also came across a recent study in which scientists looked at thousands of samples of people’s gut microbe populations to see how they change with age. The standard approach to working out what microbes are living in a person’s gut is to look at feces. The idea is that when we have a bowel movement, we shed plenty of gut bacteria. Scientists can find out which species and strains of bacteria are present to get an estimate of what’s in your intestines.
In this study, a team based at University College Cork in Ireland analyzed data that had already been collected from 21,000 samples of human feces. These had come from people all over the world, including Europe, North and South America, Asia, and Africa. Nineteen nationalities were represented. The samples were all from adults between 18 and 100.
The authors of this study wanted to get a better handle on what makes for a “good” microbiome, especially as we get older. It has been difficult for microbiologists to work this out. We do know that some bacteria can produce compounds that are good for our guts. Some seem to aid digestion, for example, while others lower inflammation.
But when it comes to the ecosystem as a whole, things get more complicated. At the moment, the accepted wisdom is that variety seems to be a good thing—the more microbial diversity, the better. Some scientists believe that unique microbiomes also have benefits, and that a collection of microbes that differs from the norm can keep you healthy.
The team looked at how the microbiomes of younger people compared with those of older people, and how they appeared to change with age. The scientists also looked at how the microbial ecosystems varied with signs of unhealthy aging, such as cognitive decline, frailty, and inflammation.
They found that the microbiome does seem to change with age, and that, on the whole, the ecosystems in our guts do tend to become more unique—it looks as though we lose aspects of a general “core” microbiome and stray toward a more individual one.
But this isn’t necessarily a good thing. In fact, this uniqueness seems to be linked to unhealthy aging and the development of those age-related symptoms listed above, which we’d all rather stave off for as long as possible. And measuring diversity alone doesn’t tell us much about whether the bugs in our guts are helpful or not in this regard.
The findings back up what these researchers and others have seen before, challenging the notion that uniqueness is a good thing. Another team has come up with a good analogy, which is known as the Anna Karenina principle of the microbiome: “All happy microbiomes look alike; each unhappy microbiome is unhappy in its own way.”
Of course, the big question is: What can we do to maintain a happy microbiome? And will it actually help us stave off age-related diseases?
There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that, on the whole, a diet with plenty of fruit, vegetables, and fiber is good for the gut. A couple of years ago, researchers found that after 12 months on a Mediterranean diet—one rich in olive oil, nuts, legumes, and fish, as well as fruit and veg—older people saw changes in their microbiomes that might benefit their health. These changes have been linked to a lowered risk of developing frailty and cognitive decline.
But at the individual level, we can’t really be sure of the impact that changes to our diets will have. Probiotics are a good example; you can chug down millions of microbes, but that doesn’t mean that they’ll survive the journey to your gut. Even if they do get there, we don’t know if they’ll be able to form niches in the existing ecosystem, or if they might cause some kind of unwelcome disruption. Some microbial ecosystems might respond really well to fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi, while others might not.
I personally love kimchi and sauerkraut. If they do turn out to support my microbiome in a way that protects me against age-related diseases, then that’s just the icing on the less-microbiome-friendly cake.
To read more, check out these stories from the Tech Review archive:
At-home microbiome tests can tell you which bugs are in your poo, but not much more than that, as Emily Mullin found.
Industrial-scale fermentation is one of the technologies transforming the way we produce and prepare our food, according to these experts.
Can restricting your calorie intake help you live longer? It seems to work for monkeys, as Katherine Bourzac wrote in 2009.
Adam Piore bravely tried caloric restriction himself to find out if it might help people, too. Teaser: even if you live longer on the diet, you will be miserable doing so.
From around the web:
Would you pay $15,000 to save your cat’s life? More people are turning to expensive surgery to extend the lives of their pets. (The Atlantic)
The World Health Organization will now start using the term “mpox” in place of “monkeypox,” which will be phased out over the next year. (WHO)
After three years in prison, He Jiankui—the scientist behind the infamous “CRISPR babies”—is attempting a comeback. (STAT)
Tech that allows scientists to listen in on the natural world is revealing some truly amazing discoveries. Who knew that Amazonian sea turtles make more than 200 distinct sounds? And that they start making sounds before they even hatch? (The Guardian)
These recordings provide plenty of inspiration for musicians. Whale song is particularly popular. (The New Yorker)
Scientists are using tiny worms to diagnose pancreatic cancer. The test, launched in Japan, could be available in the US next year. (Reuters)
The Download: circumventing China’s firewall, and using AI to invent new drugs
As protests against rigid covid control measures in China engulfed social media in the past week, one Twitter account has emerged as the central source of information: @李老师不是你老师 (“Teacher Li Is Not Your Teacher”).
People everywhere in China have sent protest footage and real-time updates to the account through private messages, and it has posted them, with the sender’s identity hidden, on their behalf.
The man behind the account, Li, is a Chinese painter based in Italy, who requested to be identified only by his last name in light of the security risks. He’s been tirelessly posting footage around the clock to help people within China get information, and also to inform the wider world.
The work has been taking its toll—he’s received death threats, and police have visited his family back in China. But it also comes with a sense of liberation, Li told Zeyi Yang, our China reporter. Read the full story.
Biotech labs are using AI inspired by DALL-E to invent new drugs
The news: Text-to-image AI models like OpenAI’s DALL-E 2—programs trained to generate pictures of almost anything you ask for—have sent ripples through the creative industries. Now, two biotech labs are using this type of generative AI, known as a diffusion model, to conjure up designs for new types of protein never seen in nature.
Why it matters: Proteins are the fundamental building blocks of living systems. These protein generators can be directed to produce designs for proteins with specific properties, such as shape or size or function. In effect, this makes it possible to come up with new proteins to do particular jobs on demand. Researchers hope that this will eventually lead to the development of new and more effective drugs. Read the full story.
The Blue Technology Barometer 2022/23
The overall rankings tab shows the performance of the examined
economies relative to each other and aggregates scores generated
across the following four pillars: ocean environment, marine activity,
technology innovation, and policy and regulation.
This pillar ranks each country according to its levels of
marine water contamination, its plastic recycling efforts, the
CO2 emissions of its marine activities (relative to the size
of its economy), and the recent change of total emissions.
This pillar ranks each country on the sustainability of its
marine activities, including shipping, fishing, and protected
This pillar ranks each country on its contribution to ocean
sustainable technology research and development, including
expenditure, patents, and startups.
This pillar ranks each country on its stance on ocean
sustainability-related policy and regulation, including
national-level policies, taxes, fees, and subsidies, and the
implementation of international marine law.
Get access to technology journalism that matters.
MIT Technology Review offers in-depth reporting on today’s most MIT
Technology Review offers in-depth reporting on today’s most
important technologies to prepare you for what’s coming next.
MIT Technology Review Insights would like to thank the following
individuals for their time, perspective, and insights:
- Valérie Amant, Director of Communications, The SeaCleaners
- Charlotte de Fontaubert, Global Lead for the Blue Economy, World Bank Group
- Ian Falconer, Founder, Fishy Filaments
- Ben Fitzgerald, Managing Director, CoreMarine
- Melissa Garvey, Global Director of Ocean Protection, The Nature Conservancy
Michael Hadfield, Emeritus Professor, Principal Investigator, Kewalo Marine Laboratory, University of Hawaii
- Takeshi Kawano, Executive Director, Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology
- Kathryn Matthews, Chief Scientist, Oceana
- Alex Rogers, Science Director, REV Ocean
- Ovais Sarmad, Deputy Executive Secretary, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
- Thierry Senechal, Managing Director, Finance for Impact
- Jyotika Virmani, Executive Director, Schmidt Ocean Institute
- Lucy Woodall, Associate Professor of Marine Biology, University of Oxford, and Principal Scientist at Nekton
Methodology: The Blue Technology Barometer 2022/23
Now in its second year, the Blue Technology Barometer assesses and ranks how each of the world’s largest
maritime economies promotes and develops blue (marine-centered) technologies that help reverse the impact of
climate change on ocean ecosystems, and how they leverage ocean-based resources to reduce greenhouse gases and
other effects of climate change.
To build the index, MIT Technology Review Insights compiled 20 quantitative and qualitative data indicators
for 66 countries and territories with coastlines and maritime economies. This included analysis of select
datasets and primary research interviews with global blue technology innovators, policymakers, and
international ocean sustainability organizations. Through trend analysis, research, and a consultative
peer-review process with several subject matter experts, weighting assumptions were assigned to determine the
relative importance of each indicator’s influence on a country’s blue technology leadership.
These indicators measure how each country or territory’s economic and maritime industries have affected its
marine environment and how quickly they have developed and deployed technologies that help improve ocean
health outcomes. Policy and regulatory adherence factors were considered, particularly the observance of
international treaties on fishing and marine protection laws.
The indicators are organized into four pillars, which evaluate metrics around a sustainability theme. Each
indicator is scored from 1 to 10 (10 being the best performance) and is weighted for its contribution to its
respective pillar. Each pillar is weighted to determine its importance in the overall score. As these research
efforts center on countries developing blue technology to promote ocean health, the technology pillar is
ranked highest, at 50% of the overall score.
The four pillars of the Blue Technology Barometer are:
Carbon emissions resulting from maritime activities and their relative growth. Metrics in this pillar also
assess each country’s efforts to mitigate ocean pollution and enhance ocean ecosystem health.
Efforts to promote sustainable fishing activities and increase and maintain marine protected areas.
Progress in fostering the development of sustainable ocean technologies across several relevant fields:
- Clean innovation scores from MIT Technology Review Insights’ Green Future Index 2022.
- A tally of maritime-relevant patents and technology startups.
- An assessment of each economy’s use of technologies and tech-enabled processes that facilitate ocean
Commitment to signing and enforcing international treaties to promote ocean sustainability and enforce
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