Earth as seen from the International Space Station. Many astronauts have spoken of the ‘overview effect’ and how seeing the planet from space can change their perspective. Picture: Scott Kelly/NASA
Earth as seen from the International Space Station. Many astronauts have spoken of the ‘overview effect’ and how seeing the planet from space can change their perspective. Picture: Scott Kelly/NASA
Visitors watch an astronaut practise for flight at Nasa’s Johnson Space Centre in Houston in April.
Visitors watch an astronaut practise for flight at Nasa’s Johnson Space Centre in Houston in April.
The journey to outer space for American astronauts for the past seven years has begun at a Soviet-era launch site in Kazakhstan, deep in central Asia.

The landscape is barren, resembling the moon or some distant celestial body, a reminder that the astronauts are a long way from Cape Canaveral.

Now, human space flight is returning to the place where the American Space Age was born. As soon as this year, Nasa expects to end its reliance on Russia and launch American pilots from US soil for the first time since the final shuttle mission in 2011. But this time, the astronauts will fly on rockets unlike any Nasa has ever seen - built and operated by companies trying to turn space flight into a sustainable business.

These first flights will be the fruits of $6.8 billion (R91.3bn) worth of contracts Nasa awarded to Boeing and SpaceX and mark a fundamental shift in the US’s human space programme - outsourcing access to Earth’s orbit to private sector companies, some of which hope to eventually bring tourists to space.

Those chosen by Nasa for its missions are a quartet of former military pilots and Nasa veterans who combined have spent more than a year in space over eight flights. They were all carefully selected not just to fly to the International Space Station but to help reinvigorate Nasa’s human space flight programme.

Yet unlike their predecessors from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programmes - heroes and household names whose “one giant leap” was imprinted in the national lexicon and whose lunar footprints endure undisturbed decades later - today’s astronauts are largely anonymous.

The stars of the new Space Age are instead a group of billionaire entrepreneurs, led by SpaceX’s Elon Musk and Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson, who value technology over bravery, algorithms over instinct, and whose spacecraft may one day turn ordinary people into astronauts. In the digital age, the mantle of “the right stuff” is being bequeathed to the engineers and the programmers, who are collapsing the line between pilot and passenger one line of code at a time.

They are the ones calling for the Kennedy-esque vision of space travel, which has attracted the public’s attention and investors. Musk talks of colonising Mars. Branson boasts Virgin Galactic already has 700 people signed up for tourist jaunts to the edge of space. And Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin says its goal is “millions of people living and working in space”.

Aboard the space station, the orbiting laboratory, Nasa’s astronauts work more as researchers and scientists than explorers, circling the Earth every 90 minutes on an endless loop just 400km high.

Inside Houston’s Johnson Space Centre they are still treated like heroes. But outside those walls, they are recognisable only when they don their signature blue suits. Otherwise, they are government employees, performing a job that has an entry-level salary for civilians of $69904 a year.

This is a good thing, said Scott Kelly, the most famous of the modern astronauts, who spent nearly a year in space. It’s hard-won progress that’s the result of making space travel routine.

“It’s an indication we do it right,” he said. “Safely.”

More than 500 people have been to space. Not all can be famous. “Everyone knows who Orville and Wilbur Wright were. But no one knows the second or third person to fly an airplane.”

Robert Behnken, 47, Eric Boe, 53, Doug Hurley, 51 and Sunita Williams, 52, are the ones chosen for Nasa’s next big missions. But instead of flying on rockets designed and operated by the space agency, their rides will come courtesy of SpaceX and Boeing, hired to provide a taxi-like service to the International Space Station.

Even the spacesuits are new and sleek, different from the orange ones worn by the shuttle astronauts. Boeing’s are ocean blue and comfortable; SpaceX’s are black and white, right out of a sci-fi flick.

With the first flights scheduled for later this year, Nasa is expected to soon announce which astronauts are flying when, marking a definitive step for its “Commercial Crew” programme. It has already offered a glimpse of four members of the first crews to fly. Combined, they have spent 74 years at Nasa. Three have children. All are married. Two, Hurley and Behnken, are married to other astronauts.

Inside the Johnson Space Centre, the four astronauts’ photos line the walls. But their anonymity among the public doesn’t bother them. They fly not for fame but “for the greater good”, Hurley said. “We do it for the country. We do it for the agency. And we do it because we are passionate about it.”

When they launch on Russian rockets, a world away in Kazakhstan, Nasa’s astronauts are like foreign exchange students, strangers soaking up the local culture and customs in a distant and curious land.

Soon, they may gather somewhere else as well - in the deserts of New Mexico and West Texas, in Mojave, California and along the Gulf of Mexico, in the secluded retreats where the billionaires are building their private spaceports.

The most stunning of these is New Mexico’s Spaceport America, which Branson’s Virgin Galactic has been promising for years would become a destination for the tourists who for as much as $250000 a ticket would go on a thrill ride to the edge of space.

So far, more than 700 have signed up, the company says, more than the 560 or so people who have been to space. In 2014, the company suffered a major setback when its spacecraft came apart in midair during a test flight, killing the co-pilot in a blow that set the company back years.

Now it is flying again, and on May 29 its new spacecraft flew supersonic for the second time from its test site in Mojave, roaring closer to the edge of space, making it 35km high.

Just over 300km away, in the West Texas desert, Bezos’s Blue Origin has built its own launch site, where it, too, plans to fly tourists just past the edge of space.

Across the state in Brownsville, SpaceX is building a private launch site of its own.

Axiom, a Houston company building a commercial space station, recently advertised 10-day trips to the International Space Station for $55 million a stay, starting in 2020.

The companies have different approaches and ambitions but all want to open up space for the masses, to create a new generation of astronauts far different from the ones Nasa has been producing since the dawn of the Space Age. It would be an era in which voyages may be not just about collective achievement but the opportunity for private individuals to go.

“I’m completely supportive of all kinds of people going into space. I mean that’s the whole point of what we’re trying to go do,” said Bob Smith, the chief executive of Blue Origin. “We want poets, we want artists, we want journalists, we want all kinds of people to go out there because we believe strongly that there is this thing called the ‘overview effect’,where people get a better perspective of where they live.”

Both Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are hoping to have their first test flights with humans to space later this year.

That breakthrough could come before Williams and her colleagues launch into space. That would mean the people restoring human spaceflight from US soil won’t be Nasa astronauts but the private executives and their customers who have become the new celebrities of America’s foray into the cosmos. - The Washington Post