The age of commercial astronauts has arrived. Virgin Galactic announced yesterday that it had selected former USAF test pilot Keith Colmer as its newest commercial astronaut pilot. He was the sole person chosen from a highly competitive pool of more than 500 applicants, probably comprised mostly of test pilots and former astronauts. The press release mentions that "additional selections will be made as the company nears commercial operations," so if you're an accomplished test pilot and want to fly in space, it's time to dust off that resume.
Colmer joins David Mackay as Virgin Galactic's second astronaut pilot. Mackay began flight training on WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo earlier this year and has been designated as Virgin Galactic's chief pilot. He will pilot the first commercial suborbital spaceflight in 2013. He was tapped from a pool of several Virgin Atlantic pilots who may one day also serve as pilots in the burgeoning spaceliner fleet.
While Mackay and Colmer prepare to be the first pilots to take paying passengers into space, Scaled Composites test pilots Doug Shane, Peter Siebold, Brian Binnie, and Mike Melvill continue a program of rigorous test flights of the WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo vehicles. One of them will likely be the first to fly SpaceShipTwo on its maiden voyage into space sans passengers. Binnie and Melvill made history in 2004 when they became the world's first commercial astronauts and won the Ansari X PRIZE.
"With space long ago reached by man, and commercial spaceflight tantalizingly close, the last great challenge for humans is to reach and explore the depths of our planet's oceans."
Sir Richard Branson made that statement shortly after announcing Virgin Oceanic earlier this year. With this week's dedication of Spaceport America and the start of NASA's latest NEEMO Mission, the seemingly unrelated topics of spaceflight and aquanauts are all abuzz on the interwebs. Nowhere do these two ideas converge better than in Virgin Oceanic. Realizing that more than 95% of the Earth's oceans are unexplored, Virgin Oceanic hopes to ignite public excitement in ocean exploration by venturing to the deepest points on Earth. In the process, we'll learn a great deal about those environments and ourselves. As submersible technology improves, this could lead to a whole new realm of possibility for humans to explore our home planet.
Today, I have the distinct privilege to share with you an exclusive interview with Virgin Oceanic's Operations Manager Eddie Kisfaludy, who recently returned from testing Virgin Oceanic's "Deep Flight" submarine with Branson and some great white sharks near Guadalupe Island, Mexico.
1. What is the mission of Virgin Oceanic both short term and longer term?
Kisfaludy: The short term goals of Virgin Oceanic (VO) are to get the world excited about exploring the deep sea. I think it would be great for VO to ultimately make the deep sea more accessible to people, not just robotic instruments. Perhaps looking at what Sir Richard has done with space travel may be of some indication. We are taking things one step at a time, conquering challenges as we go, and building on those successes one challenge at a time. Working in the ocean is uniquely challenging, but we have a great team to make it possible and hopefully achieve feats never before acomplished. Recent advances in technology and composite materials are making the deep sea more available than in decades past.
2. What is your background and what drives you to explore?
natural history TV programming. I was the senior curator of field operations and marine biological collector at Scripps Institution of Oceanography UCSD for 10 years, founding director of the Scientific Boating Safety Association, American Academy of Underwater Sciences SCUBA diver/board member, ROV pilot, licensed U.S. Coast Guard Captain, and FAA Certified Flight Instructor with suborbital astronaut training experience at NASTAR and AGSOL as an associate member of Astronauts for Hire.
3. How did you get involved with Virgin Oceanic and what is your job?
Kisfaludy: VO co-founder Chris Welsh discovered me when I was working at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and thought my background running their nearshore marine operations would make a valuable contribution to his mission. I started working with him on a project called the Five Dives Expedition before Virgin even entered the picture. It's been an interesting ride so far, especially with the Virgin partnership.
4. Which of Virgin Oceanic's scientific or geographic investigations excite you the most?
Kisfaludy: Getting the world excited about exploring the deep sea is what really drives me and is the main reason why I am part of VO. The oceans have been neglected so badly that it'll take someone like VO to do something sensational and grab the world's attention. People need to be inspired - passionately inspired, and that only comes from intimate involvement. The Apollo team did it for the moon; hopefully we can do it for the deep sea.
5. How does overcoming the challenges of deep ocean exploration help space exploration and vice versa?
Kisfaludy: It really is two different worlds, sea and space. The ocean can be a nasty, corrosive, unforgiving, unpredictable, hostile environment with many mysterious unknowns that sometimes catch you off guard logistically. Space is far more predictable in an extremely stable environment. Space exploration is focused on technology and systems whereas Virgin Oceanic submarine operations deal with the system challenges along with dynamic environmental conditions like swell, wind, cold, heat, extreme pressures, seclusion, motion sickness, predatory and toxic sea creatures, and all the other inherent hazards that come with working at sea. The difference in pressure between the sandy beach and space is 15 PSI. The difference in pressure between a sandy beach and the bottom of the worlds deepest deep sea trench is 16,000 PSI! Thats about 1000 times more pressure difference working in the deep sea then space. Interestingly, it's far more expensive to send a man to deep space then it is to send a man to the deep sea.
6. What, if any, crossover or collaboration may occur between Virgin Oceanic and Virgin Galactic?
Kisfaludy: There is not very much crossover. Virgin Galatic and Virgin Oceanic are two separate companies with a similar name. At this time, we know each other and attend each others events, but have not collaborated significantly on any major project yet.
7. Richard Branson has asserted a new definition of 'aquanaut' as as anyone who goes below 20,000 feet depth in the ocean, but the traditional meaning is anyone who has spent 24 hours or more living continuously underwater. What do you think about this, and does it have any implications for how 'astronaut' could be defined?
Kisfaludy: It's like asking the difference between a cosmonaut and an astronaut or a space flight participant. If an astronaut is someone who conducts scientific missions in space, then perhaps an aquanaut is one who performs scientific missions at depth. SEALAB was a saturation diver project that was conducted in 200 feet of water in front of Scripps Institution of Oceanography a few decades ago where people lived on the seafloor for several days. This was not below 20,000 feet, but they were living under the sea conducting science. Does this make them 'aquanauts'? I think you would qualify as an 'aquanaut' if you traveled to a significant depth or remained underwater for a significant amount of time in support of science. What exactly formally defines 'aquanaut' will likely be decided by an ocean equivalent of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale.
announced earlier this week that it will seek a new class of astronaut candidates starting in November 2011 for selection around March 2013. While the focus is on providing crewmembers to support the International Space Station (ISS), the announcement specifically mentions that the new astronauts will participate in missions "beyond low Earth orbit" too. With the Shuttle now retired and NASA's future plans somewhat in question, I think it's encouraging that NASA is advertising this class as the first to potentially take part in missions to destinations beyond the ISS in the 2020-2025 timeframe. Since that likely means field exploration on asteroid and lunar surfaces leading up to martian missions, maybe NASA will place higher importance on selecting astronauts with a geoscience background this time.
The head of NASA's Astronaut Selection Office Duane Ross offered some details on the scope expected for the new crop of astronauts:
“The new class will train for learning the International Space Station systems, the Russian language, spacewalk and robotics training, and several other disciplines and other things that will come online such as the MultiPurpose Crew Vehicle [MPCV]. For the things that mature downstream, there will be training for those when the time is right but right now we are going to concentrate on the space station.”
Mr. Ross was also quoted at MSNBC Cosmic Log and Universe Today saying that NASA will probably select 8-12 new astronauts candidates (ASCANs) in 2013, adding to the 9 NASA astronaut ASCANs chosen in 2009 (and 24 in other countries). Requirements seem to be the same as in the 2007-2009 selection: a bachelor's degree plus three years relevant experience, vision correctable to 20/20, and probably Soyuz spacecraft anthropomorphic size constraints. However, given his mention of the MPCV and the fact that man-rated commercial crew vehicles are just a few years away, I wouldn't be surprised if the anthropomorphic requirements are more relaxed this time.
What constitutes "relevant experience"? Mr. Ross added that, "the key things we'll be looking for is evidence that folks can come in and work in an operational environment... There's lots of ways you can get that experience." I'm hoping that my six years working in the operational environment of a tsunami warning center will help my chances - that, plus my recent UND degree and all of the commercial astronaut training I've been doing through Astronauts4Hire.
I started this blog to chronicle NASA's astronaut selection process following its 2007 announcement for the 2009 ASCAN opportunity. Now we've come full circle to another selection cycle. The new tentative 2011-2013 selection process timeline available at astronauts.nasa.gov is very similar to the 2007-2009 selection process timeline. If NASA thinks you have the right stuff, you could be deemed a Finalist by this time next year. The main question in my mind is how stiff will the competition be during this selection cycle compared with the last one.
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