Raumfahrt - Amateur Astronauts Flock to The Starfighters as Space Travel Becomes Reality



The Starfighters are transitioning from an ace squadron of supersonic jets and aerobatic pilots to the first commercially certified private astronaut training program in the United States. Thaddeus Cesari for Observer

As NASA and its commercial partners are preparing to soon support the first crewed missions to take flight from Florida since 2011, private companies like the Starfighters are anticipating that a new wave of public interest in spaceflight will follow. Originally an aerobatic airshow team with over 500 performances under their belt, the Starfighters are lobbying to become the first certified astronaut training fleet endorsed by NASA to prepare both private pilot and non-pilot citizens for the rigors of space travel.

Aerospace companies like Blue Origin, SpaceX, Boeing and Virgin Galactic are all expecting to send both space tourists and federal astronauts above the 100 km boundary of space, called the Kármán line, by years end. Without a clear mandate of how to train astronauts not employed by NASA or other government-run space agencies, Starfighter founder and CEO Rick Svetkoff proposed that his fleet of four F-104 supersonic jets capable of flying mach 2.0, or 1500 mph, be the first official space support vehicles tasked to train private astronauts. Svetkoff’s team is hopeful their application for certification will pass by year’s end.

Svetkoff told Observer, “There’s no astronaut that has ever been to space that has not been in a high performance aircraft for NASA. The only people who have been left out of this program are the potential civilian astronauts that will eventually get the chance to go suborbital. There’s no training program for that, and we think we fit that element. That’s what we’re striving for.”


Rick Svetkoff. Thaddeus Cesari for Observer

Currently the Starfighters are only certified to train those already holding a pilot’s license, but they expect to soon work with non-pilot astronauts that may fly inside Blue Origin’s New Shepard, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, or Boeing’s Starliner Capsule. Svetkoff says, “The last thing you’d want to do is see yourself climb onto a rocket with the expectation it’s going to be so cool to go to space, and then to be sick all the way. You can train yourself for that.”

The Starfighters have held a permanent space act agreement with NASA since 2009, which grants permanent residence inside Florida’s Kennedy Space Center for Svetkoff and his fleet. It’s a big sign of trust from NASA, who permit the Starfighters’ jets to takeoff and land on the same historic runway in Florida’s Kennedy Space Center that the Space Shuttles used to return from space from.

Rick Svetkoff is a former naval aviator and NASA astronaut hopeful who had his dreams of flying to orbit in the Space Shuttle dashed when the Challenger tragedy occurred. After years as a successful commercial pilot following his service in the armed forces, Svetkoff formed an elite squadron of ace aerobatic pilots called the Starfighters in 1995. Originally, he only planned for the Starfighters to perform on the weekends so he could continue to work for the airlines.


The Starfighters. Thaddeus Cesari for Observer

“In 2007, NASA asked us if we’d like to help with commercial space operations… It’s very expensive to put pieces of hardware in a rocket and find out they don’t meet the simplest of standards with G’s, vibrations. We can basically do all of that with our aircraft,” explains Svetkoff. Soon after being approached by NASA, Svetkoff retired from his airline work to dedicate himself to the Starfighters.

As one of the only aircraft capable of carrying an external payload while traveling mach 2, the F-104 offers NASA a unique ability launch payloads to orbit from the underbelly of the jet during flight. The stressful nature of supersonic maneuvering also helps to test if scientific tools and experiments bound for space would survive the gravitational forces experienced in getting there. In the 1960s, the F-104 jet earned its nickname “Missile with a man in it“ while training Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong and Charlie Duke, who later went on to touch the surface of the moon. “When it comes to training these people, the F-104 is able to do things that most other aircraft cannot do,” added Svetkoff.

Capable of simulating the G-force experienced during lift-off, the F-104’s will help train new astronauts by preparing them both mentally and physically for the extreme pressures encountered when leaving the planet. Flights cost $20,000 for about a half hour worth of airtime above Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.

With private companies like Bigelow Aerospace currently developing a commercial space station, and both NASA and SpaceX posturing for a permanent residence on and around the moon, the need for private astronauts in space may greatly increase in the very near future.



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Update: 17.02.2018


Inside the First Commercial Astronaut Training Program

How Starfighters went from an aviation demo group to a permanent installation at NASA, and why they’re betting big on civilian spaceflight.


John Rost was all smiles as he climbed down from the cockpit of an F-104 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center last week. Just 30 minutes before, I had watched Rost and his instructor, former Italian Air Force pilot Piercarlo Ciacchi, taxi down the same runway that hosted space shuttle landings less than a decade before. After idling for a moment, the blue-and-white checkered jet exploded down the runway and went screaming into the restricted airspace around Kennedy.

Rost is the first pilot in a fledgling commercial astronaut training program run by Starfighters Inc., and this was his fourth flight.

“That was fucking awesome,” Rost, an amateur pilot who is the CEO of Fiesta Auto Insurance when he’s not training to be an astronaut, said when we spoke after his flight. “It’s just like being on a spaceship. Driving into Kennedy Space Center, flying around and seeing all the launch pads, the Vehicle Assembly Building—you feel like you’re Neil Armstrong.”

Starfighters is attempting to create the first commercial astronaut training program for space tourists who hope to catch a ride on SpaceX or Blue Origin rockets in the future. For now, it offers a high performance training program that teaches pilots like Rost how to fly F-104 fighter jets. The company hopes to one day be part of a more comprehensive astronaut training program, and to play a central role in creating federal regulations for commercial astronaut training programs in the US.

Right now, at least three companies—SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin—have said they want to take tourists to space, but so far none of these companies has developed a real training program for their future clients beyond some rough outlines. NASA’s astronaut training program, on the other hand, takes years to complete and is limited to a handful of carefully selected astronaut candidates. Starfighters wants to make astronaut training available to any prospective space tourist who can pay.

“We don't think it's good for the industry if people don't go up without some knowledge of what they're going to encounter,” Rick Svetkoff, the CEO of Starfighters, told me. “The last thing you'd want to do is see yourself climb onto a rocket with the expectation it's going to be so cool to go to space, and then to be sick all the way.”

The F-104 co-piloted by Roth is one of only a handful that are still operational and was, in fact, the same type of jet used to train Neil Armstrong and other Apollo-era astronauts. With the exception of one owned by the Royal Norwegian Air Force, Starfighters has the only seven operational F-104s in the world.

Originally developed by the US Air Force in the 50s and used into the late 1990s, the F-104 was the first aircraft able to sustain Mach 2 flight (twice the speed of sound, or around 1,500 miles per hour). It is also able to pull off the runway straight into a 90-degree turn, and can fly to altitudes of around 100,000 feet—about one-third of the way to space proper—making it ideal to simulate launch conditions on a rocket.

Svetkoff is a former naval pilot who had just begun working his way through NASA’s astronaut training when the Challenger disaster occurred in 1986. This put an end to Svetkoff’s astronaut ambitions, so he began working as a captain on commercial airlines and founded Starfighters as a side job in 1995. The company originally operated as an F-104 aviation group, mostly doing military and public demonstrations.

In 2007, Svetkoff said NASA approached the company and asked if the company wanted to assist the agency in commercial spaceflight development. As part of the deal, Starfighters received a permanent installation at NASA and took over the old shuttle landing facility in 2009.

“Nobody else has a permanent status at Kennedy Space Center,” Svetkoff said. “It was part of the deal when they brought us in and it’s a big statement.”

NASA’s interest in Svetkoff’s fleet of F-104s makes sense. The agency used the same type of jets to train astronauts and perform high-speed experiments for decades before discontinuing use of the F-104 in 1994 due to the difficulty of maintaining the aircraft and sourcing parts. Svetkoff sourced his fleet from the Italian and Norwegian air forces, which were in the process of phasing out the planes.

Starfighters is looking to put its small commercial air force to two main uses: delivering payloads to orbit with onboard rockets, and training the first commercial astronauts. Svetkoff said the company is in talks with Orbital ATK and CubeCab about rockets that can be launched from the aircraft while it is going Mach 2 and used to deliver a payload to orbit.

In the meantime, it’s kicking off its commercial astronaut training program with Rost, who is Starfighters’ first customer.

For around $20,000 per flight, entrants into Starfighters’ program get a taste of what it will be like to ride on top of a SpaceX or Blue Origin rocket, such as the extreme G-forces and rapid acceleration of a rocket at takeoff, and even microgravity when the plane nose dives.

“There's no astronaut that has ever been to space that has not been in a high performance aircraft for NASA,” Svetkoff told me. “The people who have been left out of this program are the potential civilian astronauts that will eventually get the chance to go suborbital. There's no training program for that, and that’s what we're striving for.”

In the future, the flight-training received by Rost will be just one part Starfighters’ larger astronaut training program, which Svetkoff said will include elements such as G-force and neutral buoyancy training, just like for NASA astronauts. There are no federal laws for astronaut training and Svetkoff said Starfighters hopes to shape the development of federal standards and possibly use its own program as a model. (The most recent space tourist, Cirque du Soleil co-founder Guy Laliberté, went to space in 2009; he trained for his flight at the Russian cosmonaut training center in Star City.)

“We want to be able to give people the opportunity to actually go into space without being one of those very few people out of our astronaut corps,” Svetkoff said. “I think this is the first step. You need a training program and right now there is none.”

Before Starfighters’ pilot training program can be folded out into a full-fledged astronaut training program, however, Svetkoff needs to get Starfighters F-104 fleet certified as Space Support Vehicles. He said there is currently legislation on the books to grant Starfighters this designation, which will allow the company to expand its program beyond its current “pilot training program” into a full astronaut training program.

“We don’t think we have a high risk with what we do, but people who don’t fly in jet fighters think differently,” Svetkoff, who has flown 500 airshows without incident, told me. “It’s still Washington and their first intentions are to make sure people don’t get hurt.”

By the time they’ve cleared all the regulatory hurdles, Svetkoff said he hopes that commercial companies like SpaceX or Virgin Galactic will have the ability to carry Rost or other trainees to space. Each of these companies has been promising crewed commercial flights for years now, but there’s little indication that these programs will start any time soon. Still, Svetkoff is hopeful.

“We see suborbital [human] spaceflight happening in the next two years,” Svetkoff said. “There's no training program for that and we think we fit that element. That's what we're striving for.”

Quelle: Motherboard