The next Canadian astronaut will likely be from a source you are not expecting. They are not from the Canadian Space Agency or NASA, and they also don’t have any direct aerospace experience besides amateur enthusiasm.
That person is Canadian investor Mark Pathy, who is set to fly in a private spacecraft no earlier than January 2022. If that happens on time, Pathy will easily fly ahead of the next Canadian government astronaut, who will soar around the Moon in 2023, according to the current schedule.
On January 26, Axiom Space announced Pathy would be flying to space with three other men — Michael López-Alegría, Larry Connor and Eytan Stiebbe. If launched, this will be the first fully private astronaut trip to the International Space Station. The crew members have been drawn from areas mostly outside of aerospace, although the commander, López-Alegría, is a former NASA astronaut.
Pathy won’t be the first private Canadian citizen to reach orbit — that honour goes to Guy Laliberté, the founder of Cirque de Soleil, who flew to the ISS in 2009. But Pathy’s flight takes place in a much more evolved space economy.
The rise of small satellite Earth imaging, the rapid growth of SpaceX’s launches and self-propelled rocket landings, and the constant delivery of private cargo vessels to the ISS represent just some commercial sectors of space that were not as mature a decade ago.
“The Axiom Space mission is a strong example of progress being made in the commercialization of orbit,” said Dallas Kasaboski, a senior analyst at Northern Sky Research, in an e-mail to SkyNews. NSR is a satellite and space market research firm.
“With government programs pursuing opportunities beyond low-Earth orbit, there is an opportunity for commercial players to participate. This participation is limited by lower technology development, high funding required, and the typical challenges of proving the revenue incentive and viability of operating in a new sector. Continued collaboration will lead to more opportunity and a stronger entrance to market.”
The ISS may be the new frontier of commercialization, if the earlier plans of the Donald Trump administration come to fruition under new United States President Joe Biden. The vision would see the ISS host a plethora of commercial vehicles, modules and experiments and open up further to commercial ventures, such as the work that Axiom proposes.
“Commercial space missions offer opportunities unique to the sector,” Kasaboski said. “This includes wider availability, either through potentially quicker turnaround time or more targeted focus, more diverse service — through the potential variety of competing players and solutions — and riskier missions within reason, focused on short-term demonstration or development of novel approaches and services.”
Axiom thus represents the leading edge of a rapidly pivoting space industry that is benefitting, even amid the pandemic, from increased investment and partnership demands, NSR research shows. Late last year, for example, 3D rocket startup Relativity Space closed a US $300 million (roughly CAN $385,000) funding round and now has a market valuation second to industry giant SpaceX.
There still is a large role for government in this era space exploration, however. Private companies don’t yet have the infrastructure to reach beyond low-Earth orbit, but NASA is working to change that. The agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program aims to allow commercial landers and payloads the chance to work on the Moon, alongside astronauts, who could land as early as 2024.
The CSA recently signed a memorandum of agreement with NASA to contribute to the Americans’ lunar Artemis program, adding on to a previous commitment to supply a Canadarm3 to the future NASA Gateway space station in lunar orbit. (It was as a part of this agreement that CSA received the chance to fly an astronaut around the Moon, who has not yet been named from our set of four government astronauts.) The CSA also has the Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program (LEAP), which has handed out funding to Canadian companies with the eventual aim of trying to get Canadian technology on the Moon’s surface.
Sky News This Week is a biweekly column by Canadian science and space journalist Elizabeth Howell, focusing on a trending news topic in Canadian astronomy and space.