By Karlijn Korpershoek

“It is different when there are people in there, you know”

Our cab driver is right; I also feel differently heading to a rocket launch where four people will be on their way to space. So far, all launches I have seen have had “just” technological passengers on board. And when I saw Vega-C fail last December, imagining all the hard work lost was gut-wrenching, but it could relatively easily be qualified as “part of the job”: painful, but surmountable. This time, if anything goes wrong, the consequences would be earth-shattering. And that changes everything about the lead-up and the weight of the day.

I am on the way to the Kennedy Space Center, sharing a cab with one of my good friends from the industry, who invited me to come along. When we tell the cab driver where we are going, he seems surprised: “Oh, I didn’t know there was a launch today”. With 57 launches from Cape Canaveral in 2022 alone, it makes sense that it is becoming hard, and less interesting, to keep track of when they are happening. However, when we mention it is a human space flight today, his attitude changes: he wants to see it. He says he always tries to watch when there are people aboard.

The launch we are on our way to is the Ax-2 mission: the second-ever fully private commercial space launch, which will bring four astronauts to the International Space Station for a stay of 10 days. One of the astronauts is Peggy Whitson; the most experienced US astronaut and on one of her previous trips, the first female commander of the ISS. This time her role will be different; rather than being employed by NASA, she is now part of Axiom and the mission commander of this mission which will add to her record-breaking 665 days in space. In interviews, she has mentioned that she is almost more excited for this launch than for any of her prior ones as she did not expect to be going back at all. The second member is John Shoffner, an American investor with a background in motor racing, who will be making his first trip to space.

The last two members hold a special first: as official astronauts selected by Saudi Arabia, they are the first national astronauts aboard a fully commercial mission. Their mission is part of the country’s attempt to establish a sustainable, ie. continuous, presence in space for the nation. This in turn is part of a larger effort, titled “Saudi Vision 2030” which, among other goals, aims to: “ accelerate growth through strategic investment, new industries and world-class leadership”. Saudi’s official presence aboard is once again a sign of the private/national partnerships that are harder and harder to untangle, as written about so expertly by Peter Timko, here and elsewhere.

The rocket ready for launch at the Kennedy Space Centre

This specific mission launch shows that the changing nature of the American space industry has further-reaching consequences outside of the country’s borders. On the first initial two fully private flights conducted by Axiom to the International Space Station, half of the passengers were not from the US, and this trend will most likely continue in the future.  Agreements between Axiom and multiple other countries have been signed to send more nationalities to space for short-duration ISS missions, including several European signatories (Italy, Hungary, Turkey and Sweden, the latter directly supported by ESA). It is a sign that countries, even those who are part of the European Space Agency, have a way to send people to space in a much shorter timeframe than through the official, and very bureaucratic, astronaut selection process. Hungary, for example, has been criticised as their contribution to ESA has been equalled by the cost of the deal with Axiom, putting in question their commitments to the European project.

So these new types of launches come at a cost. Both a huge financial ones, with a seat creeping up to 100 million dollars, but also new and complex moral ones. Saudi Arabia not in the least, has a reputation for breaking human rights and their regime is a notorious one. It begs the question of what accessibility and openness, attributes propagated by these commercial/national partnerships, mean. On the one hand, yes they allow for more people to go to space – although only incrementally – from a more diverse pool of nationalities. On the other hand, there is enough reason to criticise the voyage of a group of overly rich people and nationals selected by controversial regimes like Saudi Arabia, going to space.

And this is where ethnographers have an interesting role to play. The diversification of the space industry, with more actors entering the field – some with more dramatic and visible entrants than others – warrants the question of if we can still talk about a singular space sector. In many ways this trip and watching the launch opened new avenues and approaches for exploring the growing variety of space actors within a growing industry. Yet, it also exposes a blind spot: every time I encounter a new direction, I feel a little heartache and inadequacy to cover all that I would like. There are so many stories that would be interesting to follow; either because its because its from people and places who had a say in what happens out there in space, or because their voices were left out.

The experience reiterates the opportunity of research in so many directions when it comes to the social sciences of space. The launch made me want to go to Saudi Arabia, to tackle these aforementioned difficult questions with undoubtedly complex and competing answers. I would love to see how the privatisation of space is actually perceived there on the grounds, such that judgements on the supposed increased accessibility are based on stories of people who are meant to benefit from it. It would also be interesting to follow the educational initiatives and experiments that are conducted in space by these commercial astronauts – the Saudi’s are carrying out at least 14 – who do they reach? Who do they speak to?

Just being at the launch, these ripple effects remain out of sight. From where I am standing, it is almost impossible to say if these missions increase accessibility, or are keeping it within the same elitist realms but just including a wider range of countries.

People anticipating the Ax-2 launch

But when the countdown starts, all these questions no longer matter. All I and everyone can hope for is a safe trip for the four people aboard the ship. Everything runs on time, and smoothly, and before the broadcast on the radio has reached zero, we already see a large ball of light mounting the sky in the near distance. Everybody claps and heaves a sigh of relief.

On our way out, we all get handed a glass of champagne, lest we forget we are the lucky ones.

Share This Story!