The Sentinel-Record

60 years since 1st American in space: Tourists lining up


CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Sixty years after Alan Shepard became the first American in space, everyday people are on the verge of following in his cosmic footsteps.

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin used Wednesday’s anniversar­y to kick off an auction for a seat on the company’s first crew spacefligh­t — a short Shepard-like hop launched by a rocket named New Shepard. The Texas liftoff is targeted for July 20, the date of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic aims to kick off tourist flights next year, just as soon as he straps into his space-skimming, plane-launched rocketship for a test run from the New Mexico base.

And Elon Musk’s SpaceX will launch a billionair­e and his sweepstake­s winners in September. That will be followed by a flight by three businessme­n to the Internatio­nal Space Station in January.

“We’ve always enjoyed this incredible thing called space, but we always want more people to be able to experience it as well,” NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough said from the space station Wednesday. “So I think this is a great step in the right direction.”

It’s all rooted in Shepard’s 15-minute flight on May 5, 1961.

Shepard was actually the second person in space — the Soviet Union launched cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin three weeks earlier, to Shepard’s everlastin­g dismay.

The 37-year-old Mercury astronaut and Navy test pilot cut a slick sci-fi figure in his silver spacesuit as he stood in the predawn darkness at Cape Canaveral, looking up at his Redstone rocket. Impatient with all the delays, including another hold in the countdown just minutes before launch, he famously growled into his mic: “Why don’t you fix your little problem and light this candle?”

His capsule, Freedom 7, soared to an altitude of 116 miles (186 kilometers) before parachutin­g into the Atlantic.

Twenty days later, President John F. Kennedy committed to landing a man on the moon and returning him safely by decade’s end, a promise made good in July 1969 by Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

Shepard, who died in 1998, went on to command Apollo 14 in 1971, becoming the fifth moonwalker — and lone lunar golfer.

Since Gagarin and Shepard’s pioneering flights, 579 people have rocketed into space or reached its fringes, according to NASA. Nearly two-thirds are American and just over 20% Soviet or Russian. About 90% are male and most are white, although NASA’s crews have been more diverse in recent decades.

A Black community college educator from Tempe, Arizona, sees her spot on SpaceX’s upcoming private flight as a symbol. Sian Proctor uses the acronym J.E.D.I. for “a just, equitable, diverse and inclusive space.”

NASA wasn’t always on board with space tourism, but is today.

“Our goal is one day that everyone’s a space person,” NASA’s human spacefligh­t chief, Kathy Lueders said following Sunday’s splashdown of a SpaceX capsule with four astronauts. “We’re very excited to see it starting to take off.”

Twenty years ago, NASA clashed with Russian space officials over the flight of the world’s first space tourist.

California businessma­n Dennis Tito paid $20 million to visit the space station, launching atop a Russian rocket. Virginia-based Space Adventures arranged Tito’s weeklong trip, which ended May 6, 2001, as well as seven more tourist flights that followed.

“By opening up his checkbook, he kicked off an industry

20 yrs ago,” Space Adventures co-founder Eric Anderson tweeted last week. “Space is opening up more than it ever has, and for all.”

There’s already a line. A Russian actress and movie director are supposed to launch from Kazakhstan in the fall. They’ll be followed in December by Space Adventures’ two newest clients, also launching on a Russian Soyuz rocket. SpaceX will be next up in January with the three businessme­n; the flight from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center was arranged by Axiom Space, a Houston company run by former NASA employees. And as early as 2023, SpaceX is supposed to take a Japanese entreprene­ur and his guests around the moon and back.

While no fan of human spacefligh­t — he prefers robotic explorers — Duke University emeritus history professor Alex Roland acknowledg­es the emergence of spacefligh­t companies might be “the most significan­t change in the last 60 years.” Yet he wonders whether there will be much interest once the novelty wears off and the inevitable fatalities occur.

Then there’s the high price of admission.

The U.S., Canadian and Israeli entreprene­urs flying SpaceX early next year are paying $55 million — each — for their 1 1/2week mission.

Virgin Galactic’s tickets cost considerab­ly less for minutes versus days of weightless­ness. Initially $250,000, the price is expected to go up once Branson’s company starts accepting reservatio­ns again.

Blue Origin declined Wednesday to give a ticket price for future sales and would not comment on who else — besides the auction winner — will be on board the capsule in July. A couple more crew flights, each lasting minutes, would follow by year’s end.

As for SpaceX’s private flight on a fully automated Dragon capsule, tech entreprene­ur Jared Isaacman won’t say what he’s paying. He considers his threeday flight a “great responsibi­lity” and is taking no shortcuts in training; he took his crewmates hiking up Mount Rainier last weekend to toughen them up.

“If something does go wrong, it will set back every other person’s ambition to go and become a commercial astronaut,” Isaacman said recently.

 ?? The Associated Press ?? ■ In this May 5, 1961, file photo, astronaut Alan Shepard arrives at the launching pad in Cape Canaveral, Fla., to board a Mercury-Redstone rocket. Freedom 7 was the first American manned suborbital space flight, making Shepard the first American in space.
The Associated Press ■ In this May 5, 1961, file photo, astronaut Alan Shepard arrives at the launching pad in Cape Canaveral, Fla., to board a Mercury-Redstone rocket. Freedom 7 was the first American manned suborbital space flight, making Shepard the first American in space.

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