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Two Space Veterans and a Rookie French Astronaut Join International Space Station for a Five-month Mission

The current record is 534 days held by astronaut Jeff Williams

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International Space Station crew members, from left, American Peggy Whitson, Russian Oleg Novitskiy and Frenchman Thomas Pesquet are seen before the launch of the Soyuz spacecraft at the Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, Nov. 17, 2016. VOA

Nov 18, 2016: Two space veterans and a rookie French astronaut are on their way to the International Space Station for a five-month mission.

American astronaut Peggy Whitson, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy and France’s Thomas Pesquet of the European Space Agency blasted off aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft Friday morning from Kazakhstan.

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This will be a record-breaking mission for Whitson. At 56, she is the oldest woman to fly in space, and by the time the mission is over, she will set a new record for the most hours accumulated in space by an American.

The current record is 534 days held by astronaut Jeff Williams.

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“The most important thing about the station is the friendships and the work we accomplish there,” Whitson said before the launch.

Novitskiy is making his second trip to the space station, and this will be the first for Pesquet. They will join the three-man crew currently aboard the station. (VOA)

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NASA to Open Parts of ISS to More Commercial Opportunities Including Private Astronaut Missions

NASA pays about $80 million per seat, a price that it is working to trim to $50 million per seat, to send its astronauts

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NASA plans to build a space outpost in lunar orbit that can relay astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024. VOA

NASA will open parts of the International Space Station to more commercial opportunities, it announced Friday, allowing companies to use the space station’s facilities in a number of ways, including private astronaut missions.

The space agency has balked at commercial ventures in the past, but the cost of operating the space station, which is one of the agency’s greatest expenses, currently runs $3 billion to $4 billion a year, or more than $8 million a day. NASA leadership has made it clear that the agency wants to eventually transition control of the space station and its region of space, low Earth orbit, to the private sector.

NASA, private astronaut mission
FILE – A photo provided by NASA TV shows a cargo ship as it arrives at the International Space Station, Dec. 13, 2016. VOA

“What this is, is an investment in the future for demand for low-Earth platforms” said Mike Read, the manager of Commercial Space Utilization at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, told VOA News. “What we want to do is leverage the station and try to enable others to turn a business model … while we have the infrastructure of the space station.”

By handing control of the space station over to commercial ventures, NASA could have more money to pursue more ambitious missions, such as building a new space station around the moon and sending humans back to the lunar surface.

In late 2018, the agency selected 12 companies to study the potential growth of a low-Earth orbit economy and how to best stimulate demand for human space flight. (Low-Earth orbit means altitudes below 2,000 km or 1,240 miles.) This group brainstormed ways companies could turn a profit at the space station, and the members decided that allowing corporations to build and market their products using space station resources would help ignite the economy NASA is seeking to build on.

But getting to space is not cheap.

Private astronaut missions will be limited to two flights per year, or about 12 astronauts per year, and come at a significant cost. The cost of travel and accommodations will have to be picked up by the private sector.

nasa, private astronaut mission
FILE – The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule is pictured, March 3, 2019, about 20 meters (66 feet) from the International Space Station’s Harmony module. VOA

As of now, the only ways to get to the space station are spacecraft developed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Boeing, so “whatever prices Boeing and SpaceX set is on them,” said Jeff DeWit, NASA’s chief financial officer.

NASA pays about $80 million per seat, a price that it is working to trim to $50 million per seat, to send its astronauts.

Apart from the cost of getting there, companies hoping to work on the space station will have to pay to stay there: One night’s stay would be about $35,000 for one person, DeWit said.

“It’s now up to you to use your creativity — your ingenuity — and figure out how you can generate potential revenue,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration.

ALSO READ: NASA: Skywatchers will be Able to See Jupiter’s Largest Moons Using Just Binoculars

‘Learning experience’

“This is the beginning of us actively starting open dialogue with the industry to figure out how we can open up space to commercial activities, where revenue can be generated from private sector companies. … This is going to be a growing and learning experience for both [sides].”

But NASA’s Read points out a key element to this new venture: “We are a government bureaucracy that is trying to enable development of a new economy. That’s pretty different,” he said. (VOA)