AmericanLegends Gathered to Celebrate the Past, and Look Toward the Future
MONTE CARLO—While many Americans were celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday, a cadre of American astronauts descended on Monaco to celebrate the 60th anniversary of NASA, the impending landing of the Insight Mars rover, and the country’s plans to send one of its own into space.
Known for its glamour and glitz, and a casino that redefined the term “high roller,” the tiny Mediterranean nation isn’t new to space exploration. Space Systems International-Monaco (SSI-Monaco) launched its first communications satellite MonacoSat-1 with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launcher in 2015, and is planning to launch MonacoSat-2 within the next few years. A new agreement between Houston-based Axiom Space, which runs the world’s first commercial space station, and SSI-Monaco will jointly train one or more Monaco citizens or residents as private or professional astronauts, and fly them on an orbital space mission. Once completed, the flight would make the Principality on the French Riviera the 19th sovereign nation to send an astronaut to the International Space Station (ISS). Under the agreement, Axiom and SSI-Monaco will also explore the feasibility of attaching a “Monaco Module” to the Axiom station.
Several members of the crew of the 1986 Columbia shuttle mission were in attendance, including General Charles Bolden, Dr. George "Pinky" Nelson, pioneering woman astronaut, Dr. Rhea Seddon, American space-walk record holder Captain Michael López-Alegria, and Seddon’s husband, Captain Robert "Hoot" Gibson. Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon in the famed Apollo 11 mission, was also in attendance.
The International Space Station marked its twentieth anniversary on November 20th, and is scheduled to be retired within the next decade. The retirement will result in the loss of low Earth orbit services, critical exploration infrastructure, and the Earth-focused research the space station has been providing for almost two decades. A growing community of countries and corporations are taking up the mantle of lunar explorations, deep space exploration, and Mars settlement.
“We’ve been going to orbit now for sixty some years and we’re pretty good at it, but NASA spends a large portion of the budget on the ISS, and they would like to start looking beyond lower orbit,” López-Alegría, a veteran of three NASA Space Shuttle missions and one ISS mission, said. “NASA and the other agencies have decided they want to let commercial companies take up residence in lower orbit, and have an economy.”
Last year, Aldrin said that if NASA and other agencies were serious about putting an astronaut on Mars, the ISS should be retired at the earliest opportunity. “We simply cannot afford $3.5 billion a year of that cost,” Aldrin said at the Humans on Mars conference in Washington, DC.
That issue of cost is one frequently at the forefront in discussions about the viability and relevancy of the space program, and a question that was broached during a press conference announcing the new agreement. Bolden, who served as the Administrator of NASA under President Obama, said of the current $20 billion budget for NASA represents less than one half of one percent of the federal budget. “But people forget we’ve never spent a dime in space,” Bolton said. “We spend the money here on earth, building satellites, building robots, training people, enabling us to go do the kinds of things that we talk about today.”
“When you think about NASA, I hope people won’t just think about space exploration,” Bolden said. “There are some people here who understand the critical importance, and the role Monaco plays with preserving and protecting the planet, and that’s a huge portion of what NASA does.”
For López-Alegría, a veteran of three NASA Space Shuttle missions and one ISS mission, and now an advisor for Axiom Space, space exploration serves a critical diplomatic function, as well. “The ISS is a product of five space agencies. Besides NASA, it’s the Russians, the Europeans, the Japanese, and the Canadians,” López-Alegría said. “It’s an incredible feat of engineering, and it’s proven to be an amazing instrument of diplomacy.”
“We get along with our Russian colleagues every day both in space and on the ground,” López-Alegría said, “and that’s not true with maybe of the rest of our relationships with the Russians these days.”
In addition to the diplomatic, economic, environmental, scientific and educational aspects, for all of those who had been to space, the impact was also deeply personal.
“Being able to see the earth from that altitude, you realize how connected it is, to everything else on the earth,” Seddon, a three-mission veteran and one of the first six women to be accepted into the space program, said. “You see a sandstorm in Africa and then you come back around and you see that sand is over the Atlantic. And you go another orbit and you come and you see that it’s dropping dust on your car back in Houston Texas.”
“You can see vast areas of the earth, the grandeur of it, and you can see what man has done to it. You can see things in the ocean and you can see where ships have dumped oil, you can see many things that are not good for the earth. And it gives you a feeling that we need to protect the earth in a great way,” Seddon said.
It’s a feeling more people can expect to experience in coming years as space tourism gains traction. According to López-Alegría, now an advisor for Axiom Space, the idea isn’t science fiction. “We have transportation about to debut next year with companies that will take NASA and other partner astronauts to the ISS.”
The initial space tourism flights are expected to be quick, suborbital ones, with perhaps twenty minutes of microgravity flight. Those are expected to occur within the next three to five years. Orbital space flight tourism will take a little bit longer to become reality.
And because those initial, suborbital flights will be so quick, Nelson says amateur astronauts, or “space tourists” should prepare themselves. “In the beginning, it’s going to be a short ride, so my advice would be to sit down with a piece of paper and make a list of the things that you want to look at, that you want to notice, and really prepare yourself for the experience so that you can take it in before you go,” Nelson said.
A number of challenges are expected to accompany the first wave of space tourism, and one of them is inherently human.
“There’s one issue that we still face and that’s the first few hours in space, a lot of people don’t feel well. We don’t understand why, exactly,” Nelson said. “For space tourism, we’ll have to prepare people. Perhaps they’ll have to take a patch like you’d wear on a cruise ship and that can help a little bit.”
Since its inception, the NASA space program has not been without its risks. The crew recalled that the flight they flew together, the Columbia shuttle mission in 1986, was the last mission before the Challenger disaster a few weeks later. The Challenger exploded just over a minute into its flight, killing all aboard. In a chilling foreshadow, fourteen seconds before the Columbia mission was set to launch, a booster rocket detected an electronic problem and cancelled it. “Had we launched that day, we would have been the coldest launch, which of course was a factor in the Challenger accident,” Gibson said.
Later, in a private conversation, Gibson said that following the Challenger, the momentum of the space program came to a grinding halt. In addition to grieving for their friends and colleagues, the uncertainty over the future of NASA and their program, had left many of the astronauts struggling. “It was the darkest period of my life,” Hoot said.
There doesn’t seem to be any halting the momentum for this next era in space exploration, which will be determined by private actors as much, if not more than, the countries that began the space race more than sixty years ago. If, as predicted, the next era brings more private citizens into space, these astronauts seem excited to have more members join their club.
“I’m really looking forward to having space open up to everyone,” Nelson said.
Hosted by Maguy Maccario Doyle, the Monegasque Ambassador to the United States and Canada, and Permanent Observer at the Organization of American States (OAS), the NASA legends and guests gathered in a series of events ranging from a press conference, a screening of the Rory Kennedy documentary, “Above and Beyond: NASA’s Journey to Tomorrow,” and a classroom visit with local schoolchildren. Several guests also visited Monaco’s legendary Oceanographic Museum, to experience the aquarium, interactive exhibits and touch tank. “Earth science and space exploration have impacted humankind in countless positive and tangible ways,” Doyle said. “Monaco is proud to once again bring together such distinguished international panelists to share their experiences.”
Editor’s Note: Diplomatic Courier’s Editor-at-Large Molly McCluskey was the sole journalist to travel with the astronauts and diplomatic corps in Monte Carlo where she had a series of on- and off-the-record conversations.