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A Private Astronaut with a Public Mission

Last Friday saw the launch of the second crewed SpaceX mission to the International Space Station (ISS) but, despite all of the impressive professional photography from the launch, there were two videos captured by two different people (on their phones) which really stood out to me in the way they encapsulated the awesomeness of human spaceflight.

A frame from phone footage of the Crew-2 Launch
Photo Credit: Haim Pinson

The first was sent to me by a someone who happened to be passing through the area with friends and thought it would be fun to see the rocket launch from a nearby bridge. Watching the footage I couldn’t help but recognise their silent awe - broken only by the occasional “wow” - from my own experience during the launch of SpaceIL’s Beresheet1 in 2019, which had left me speechless as I heard and felt the echoes of the Falcon 9’s engines reverberate across the water.

About 10 seconds in, as the rocket passed through the clouds creating a stunning halo, one of the onlookers exclaims “there are people in there!” as it dawned on them that there were actually human beings brave enough to strap themselves atop the ~400 tonnes of liquid rocket fuel generating that bright light rising through the sky.

During NASA’s infancy, when military test pilots were breaking records of speed and altitude, having the right stuff might have been more about courage and physical fortitude than anything else. But once the world realised it was possible for humans to survive, function, and even conduct experiments in space, being an astronaut started to require more than just grit and guts.

This brings me to the second video I saw, taken from inside the Kennedy Space Center complex. In it we see Eytan Stibbe amid a crowd of excited onlookers watching the launch from up close. Stibbe, who is slated to launch with Axiom Space to the ISS in early 2022, clapped and smiled as he kept his eyes fixed on the rocket. While I can’t know for sure exactly what thoughts were going through Eytan’s mind during those moments, his excitement in anticipation of his own flight was abundantly visible.

Eytan Stibbe’s 10-day Rakia mission will be the first private space mission to carry significant scientific cargo - with 80% of Axiom-1’s experiments being designed by Israeli scientists and high-school students. In fact during his short visit to the ISS, Stibbe will spend almost all of his waking hours carrying out scientific experiments and sharing his experiences through video calls with students and teachers in Israel and abroad.

Some have been quick to judge and overanalyse the implications of sending private citizens to space especially those paying for their own tickets, but I think those people are missing the point of this mission entirely. When Eytan spoke at the Ramon Science Communication conference in January (for a full recording of his talk click here) his main focus was on how to maximise the positive impact of the mission, and whether Rakia would be able spark an increase in the number of children in STEM studies and grow the number of companies in the space ecosystem.

Humanity has spent thousands of years looking out at the stars, while less than 600 of us have had the opportunity to venture beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Seeing private citizens like Eytan Stibbe and Dr. Sian Proctor - who is scheduled to launch with the Inspiration4 mission in late 2021 - devote their spaceflights to public education and outreach is truly remarkable. Such efforts will undoubtedly help inspire the coming generations to work to better our planet and maybe even make visits to other planets a reality.

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