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You don’t have to be a professional astronaut to go to space



You don’t have to be a professional astronaut to go to space

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. 

New era

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. 

Today’s training 

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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. 
  3. 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. 
  4. 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.
  5. 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. 
  6. 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 hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush



The hunter-gatherer groups at the heart of a microbiome gold rush

The first step to finding out is to catalogue what microbes we might have lost. To get as close to ancient microbiomes as possible, microbiologists have begun studying multiple Indigenous groups. Two have received the most attention: the Yanomami of the Amazon rainforest and the Hadza, in northern Tanzania. 

Researchers have made some startling discoveries already. A study by Sonnenburg and his colleagues, published in July, found that the gut microbiomes of the Hadza appear to include bugs that aren’t seen elsewhere—around 20% of the microbe genomes identified had not been recorded in a global catalogue of over 200,000 such genomes. The researchers found 8.4 million protein families in the guts of the 167 Hadza people they studied. Over half of them had not previously been identified in the human gut.

Plenty of other studies published in the last decade or so have helped build a picture of how the diets and lifestyles of hunter-gatherer societies influence the microbiome, and scientists have speculated on what this means for those living in more industrialized societies. But these revelations have come at a price.

A changing way of life

The Hadza people hunt wild animals and forage for fruit and honey. “We still live the ancient way of life, with arrows and old knives,” says Mangola, who works with the Olanakwe Community Fund to support education and economic projects for the Hadza. Hunters seek out food in the bush, which might include baboons, vervet monkeys, guinea fowl, kudu, porcupines, or dik-dik. Gatherers collect fruits, vegetables, and honey.

Mangola, who has met with multiple scientists over the years and participated in many research projects, has witnessed firsthand the impact of such research on his community. Much of it has been positive. But not all researchers act thoughtfully and ethically, he says, and some have exploited or harmed the community.

One enduring problem, says Mangola, is that scientists have tended to come and study the Hadza without properly explaining their research or their results. They arrive from Europe or the US, accompanied by guides, and collect feces, blood, hair, and other biological samples. Often, the people giving up these samples don’t know what they will be used for, says Mangola. Scientists get their results and publish them without returning to share them. “You tell the world [what you’ve discovered]—why can’t you come back to Tanzania to tell the Hadza?” asks Mangola. “It would bring meaning and excitement to the community,” he says.

Some scientists have talked about the Hadza as if they were living fossils, says Alyssa Crittenden, a nutritional anthropologist and biologist at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, who has been studying and working with the Hadza for the last two decades.

The Hadza have been described as being “locked in time,” she adds, but characterizations like that don’t reflect reality. She has made many trips to Tanzania and seen for herself how life has changed. Tourists flock to the region. Roads have been built. Charities have helped the Hadza secure land rights. Mangola went abroad for his education: he has a law degree and a master’s from the Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy program at the University of Arizona.

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The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan



The Download: a microbiome gold rush, and Eric Schmidt’s election misinformation plan

Over the last couple of decades, scientists have come to realize just how important the microbes that crawl all over us are to our health. But some believe our microbiomes are in crisis—casualties of an increasingly sanitized way of life. Disturbances in the collections of microbes we host have been associated with a whole host of diseases, ranging from arthritis to Alzheimer’s.

Some might not be completely gone, though. Scientists believe many might still be hiding inside the intestines of people who don’t live in the polluted, processed environment that most of the rest of us share. They’ve been studying the feces of people like the Yanomami, an Indigenous group in the Amazon, who appear to still have some of the microbes that other people have lost. 

But there is a major catch: we don’t know whether those in hunter-gatherer societies really do have “healthier” microbiomes—and if they do, whether the benefits could be shared with others. At the same time, members of the communities being studied are concerned about the risk of what’s called biopiracy—taking natural resources from poorer countries for the benefit of wealthier ones. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

Eric Schmidt has a 6-point plan for fighting election misinformation

—by Eric Schmidt, formerly the CEO of Google, and current cofounder of philanthropic initiative Schmidt Futures

The coming year will be one of seismic political shifts. Over 4 billion people will head to the polls in countries including the United States, Taiwan, India, and Indonesia, making 2024 the biggest election year in history.

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Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI



Navigating a shifting customer-engagement landscape with generative AI

A strategic imperative

Generative AI’s ability to harness customer data in a highly sophisticated manner means enterprises are accelerating plans to invest in and leverage the technology’s capabilities. In a study titled “The Future of Enterprise Data & AI,” Corinium Intelligence and WNS Triange surveyed 100 global C-suite leaders and decision-makers specializing in AI, analytics, and data. Seventy-six percent of the respondents said that their organizations are already using or planning to use generative AI.

According to McKinsey, while generative AI will affect most business functions, “four of them will likely account for 75% of the total annual value it can deliver.” Among these are marketing and sales and customer operations. Yet, despite the technology’s benefits, many leaders are unsure about the right approach to take and mindful of the risks associated with large investments.

Mapping out a generative AI pathway

One of the first challenges organizations need to overcome is senior leadership alignment. “You need the necessary strategy; you need the ability to have the necessary buy-in of people,” says Ayer. “You need to make sure that you’ve got the right use case and business case for each one of them.” In other words, a clearly defined roadmap and precise business objectives are as crucial as understanding whether a process is amenable to the use of generative AI.

The implementation of a generative AI strategy can take time. According to Ayer, business leaders should maintain a realistic perspective on the duration required for formulating a strategy, conduct necessary training across various teams and functions, and identify the areas of value addition. And for any generative AI deployment to work seamlessly, the right data ecosystems must be in place.

Ayer cites WNS Triange’s collaboration with an insurer to create a claims process by leveraging generative AI. Thanks to the new technology, the insurer can immediately assess the severity of a vehicle’s damage from an accident and make a claims recommendation based on the unstructured data provided by the client. “Because this can be immediately assessed by a surveyor and they can reach a recommendation quickly, this instantly improves the insurer’s ability to satisfy their policyholders and reduce the claims processing time,” Ayer explains.

All that, however, would not be possible without data on past claims history, repair costs, transaction data, and other necessary data sets to extract clear value from generative AI analysis. “Be very clear about data sufficiency. Don’t jump into a program where eventually you realize you don’t have the necessary data,” Ayer says.

The benefits of third-party experience

Enterprises are increasingly aware that they must embrace generative AI, but knowing where to begin is another thing. “You start off wanting to make sure you don’t repeat mistakes other people have made,” says Ayer. An external provider can help organizations avoid those mistakes and leverage best practices and frameworks for testing and defining explainability and benchmarks for return on investment (ROI).

Using pre-built solutions by external partners can expedite time to market and increase a generative AI program’s value. These solutions can harness pre-built industry-specific generative AI platforms to accelerate deployment. “Generative AI programs can be extremely complicated,” Ayer points out. “There are a lot of infrastructure requirements, touch points with customers, and internal regulations. Organizations will also have to consider using pre-built solutions to accelerate speed to value. Third-party service providers bring the expertise of having an integrated approach to all these elements.”

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