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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Spaceflight Companies Promised to Do Science—So How’s It Going?

In the summer of 2021, billionaires Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos skimmed the edge of space in their new Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic spacecrafts, officially launching an era of commercial spaceflight. Then SpaceX’s Inspiration4 mission took private spaceflight to the next level by propelling a different billionaire, Jared Isaacman, and three lucky passengers into orbit. Axiom Space’s Ax-1 flight to the International Space Station followed this April, lofting four passengers, including two multimillionaires and a billionaire, to the orbiting platform.

What these flights had in common—other than many ultra-wealthy passengers—was that they each promised to carry out some kind of scientific experiment. And unlike most space agency flights since the 1970s, almost none of the passengers had any scientific background, with a few notable exceptions, like geoscientist Sian Proctor, who flew on Inspiration4.

Virgin Galactic’s crew took along an imager for plants, and Blue Origin’s crew ran an experiment studying liquid and vapor interfaces in microgravity. The Inspiration4 passengers measured their heart activity, blood oxygen saturation, and immune system function and scanned their organs with an ultrasound device while they experienced zero-G life for a few days. The Axiom flight supported 25 research projects, including experiments investigating how space travel affects aging cells and heart health, and tested an anti-space-radiation vest.So far, the research aboard all those flights has resulted in only one published paper—and it wasn’t about scientific findings. It was on Expand, a new biomedical database designed to collect physiological data from all commercial space passengers and store it in a single place. 

But Christopher Mason, a geneticist at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City who has worked with Inspiration4 and Axiom, says more papers are in the works. He says his team has made some preliminary findings based on the Inspiration4 crew’s collection of their own biomedical data. Based on an initial analysis, he says, it looks like people spending just a couple of days in space experience some of the same health effects that agency astronauts do on longer orbital missions, like increased inflammation of the immune system, motion sickness, and higher doses of space radiation. His research group will publish a paper about their own genomics-focused biobank in March 2023, he says, as well as a series of new results using data from Inspiration4 and Ax-1.

These private flights are a research opportunity, says Mason, especially because they could become more frequent than agency-led missions. So far, only about 600 people have been to space. Now, he says, “There’s a quantifiable explosion of commercial spaceflight that’s happening, and concomitant with that is an opportunity to understand the body’s response to spaceflight.”

And there’s another good reason to systematically collect the biomedical data of commercial spaceflight travelers: These customers are more like the general population than extremely fit professional astronauts, so their bodies might respond to space differently. “Somebody should be capturing all that data in a standardized manner. If you don’t do that, you lose that opportunity to learn about all the different humans who are going to space,” says Dorit Donoviel, executive director of the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (Trish), an independent NASA-supported consortium led by Baylor College of Medicine in Houston that is running the Expand database.

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Still, some of these private companies haven’t shared much in the way of data or findings yet, even though they say they are working on it. In an emailed statement to WIRED, Alexis DeJarnette, an Axiom spokesperson, wrote that many of the research teams working on Ax-1 projects have finished their sample processing and “are still in the analysis phase.” This work will go through an independent peer review process, she writes, and the company plans to “coordinate a forum on research results next year.”

“We provide our customers the guidance and insight needed to ensure their research is rigorous, well-designed, and impactful to the broader scientific community–this helps move the needle forward on microgravity research,” she wrote.

Sirisha Bandla, the head of Virgin Galactic’s research operations, says analysis for their projects is also still in progress. “We have flown payloads on every single one of our flights,” says Bandla, who ran some experiments on the flight in July 2021 with Richard Branson, the company’s founder. The company gives researchers some flexibility in the kinds of experiments that can be carried on board, Bandla says, and they can tweak those projects for future flights if the first attempt doesn’t work as planned.

Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin have benefited from NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, which supports academic researchers developing technologies to test at near zero-G with commercial flight providers. That program provided funding for many of the payloads they’ve flown so far. 

(SpaceX did not respond to WIRED’s inquiries, and a representative from Blue Origin declined to comment.)

While there’s some agency funding attached to these projects, “a lot of the money for these flights is coming through their tickets rather than science contracts,” says Ariel Ekblaw, founder and director of the MIT Space Exploration Initiative. But, she points out, they’re a chance to move projects forward relatively quickly. For instance, her team’s automated Tesserae experiment flew aboard Ax-1, testing how robotic tiles can join together on their own to create a structure—a precursor to self-assembling construction in space. 

Still, private spaceflights have gotten far more attention for their celebrity customers than their scientific payloads. Jordan Bimm, a University of Chicago space historian, worries that science is being sold as a token add-on in an experience that mainly sells prestige and spectacular panoramic views. “It gives a scientific aura to the mission and to the participants when they go back to Earth,” satisfying cultural expectations associating space with science, he says.Donoviel expects that science will become a higher priority for these companies once they’ve proven the economic viability and technological capacities of the private space industry. “Honestly, with a lot of these companies, the last thing on their minds is research. But they will come around, and at some point it will become important to them,” she says.

And while few people can afford the six-figure costs of seats on suborbital jaunts today, the price tags could drop over the next decade, potentially enabling researchers to fly with the crew and conduct their own experiments—something that has never really been done before. Next spring, says Bandla, Virgin Galactic will do just that. The Italian Air Force will send a researcher to test how changes in gravity affect a person’s heart and cognitive abilities. (Launching a researcher who will run their own experiments on board costs $600,000, she says.) Ekblaw, for one, anticipates eventually sending her graduate students to space, once the prices have fallen more.

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Donoviel, Mason, and their colleagues have already begun working on some of next year’s private missions to continue collecting health and genomic data in space. Ax-2 will launch an investor and race car driver and two Saudi Arabian passengers to the ISS in the spring. And Isaacman, a pilot, and two SpaceX engineers plan to fly on SpaceX’s Polaris Dawn in March. That mission will include 38 experiments, including ones focused on how weightlessness affects vision and how the body processes pharmaceuticals in orbit, wrote Sarah Grover, a spokesperson for the Polaris Program who’s unaffiliated with SpaceX, in an email to WIRED. “The goal is to encourage ongoing, open, and extensive research that will contribute to improving life here on Earth and future long-duration human spaceflight,” she wrote.

The four companies currently flying commercial space trips offer unique research possibilities for scientists—and varying levels of transparency when it comes to sharing that data. But this variation is perhaps similar to that in the private aviation industry, Mason says. “SpaceX is different from Axiom, which is different from Blue Origin. It’s just like different airlines, which get you from one place to another, but they do it with different perks, different snacks, and different styles.”

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