A Turning Point in Space Travel
Private companies are pushing the boundaries in human access to space, and UI alumnus Jeff Ashby sees a new future opening up.
Jeff Ashby is convinced that we are living in the second greatest decade in human space exploration. The first — the 1960s — saw man land on the moon. But this one, Ashby says, will see even greater things.
“For 50 years now, we’ve been flying just a handful of people into space each year,” said Ashby, a former NASA astronaut and veteran of three Space Shuttle missions. “This decade is a turning point where not only will more people be able to visit space, but eventually we’ll have thousands of people living and working there.”
That giant leap for mankind is possible because ambitious private companies are pushing the boundaries of what is possible for human spaceflight with innovations like reusable rockets that cut costs and open space for visitors and entrepreneurs.
Ashby received his bachelor’s in mechanical engineering from the University of Idaho in 1976. The retired U.S. Navy captain, aviator and test pilot left NASA in 2008 to join Blue Origin, a private aerospace manufacturer owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Blue Origin has successfully tested rockets that can be reused multiple times. The New Shepard rocket will launch a capsule of passengers to the edge of space, where they can experience weightlessness for about 3 ½ minutes before returning to Earth. The company plans to begin manned flights in the next few years.
“The way I see it, the new space race in the world is to privatize and open space up to thousands and millions of people,” Ashby said. “Our United States is so far ahead of all other countries in that regard, that it’s not even perceived as a race.”
Q: How did you transition from working for NASA to working in the private sector for Blue Origin?
A: Jeff Bezos often reminds us, “You don’t choose your passions, your passions choose you.” In 2005, when private space companies were just starting to be noticed, I felt a pull to move toward the private space industry because I thought I could help them be successful and I thought it would be exciting. I’m happy to say that I was right on both counts.
Q: What was it about Blue Origin’s mission that attracted you?
A: They were different. When I first came across their website, it was one page and it simply said, “We’re going to do things differently. If you’re interested send us your resume.” So I sent them an email. It wasn’t anything I planned, there was just something about the words on their website that grabbed me enough to send an email and that was it. That was 11 years ago.
Q: Your job title is “Chief of Mission Assurance.” What does that mean?
A: Mission assurance can also called mission success. My job is to do whatever I can to ensure that our launch vehicles and astronauts return safely to Earth. I view the task holistically in that I monitor everything from our work culture to the fasteners and software code on our rockets.
Q: Are there specific risks of spaceflight you are working to reduce?
A: I’m looking at any classic risk that you can think of, plus a whole lot more that you wouldn’t normally think of. For example, the vehicle designs have to protect human safety. The hardware has to be reliable. The software has to be error-free. The operating procedures need to be written in a way that minimizes the likelihood for human error. The New Shepard vehicle is remotely operated, but the occupants will have some safety functions, for instance getting back in their seats after weightlessness and buckling their harnesses. There’s no one in the capsule to help them do that.
Q: Blue Origin is working to put space flight within reach for everyone, not just specially trained astronauts. Are there physical limitations for people who might be interested in a suborbital flight?
A: The New Shepard suborbital space launch system is designed to be like a commercial airline, where if you can walk aboard you can fly. One difference is that our astronaut seats have a finite limit on the size of person they can accommodate safely based on their design. But even handicapped persons will be able to fly in space on our vehicle, using scenario-dependent accommodations like onboard handlers. Suborbital flights are shorter than airline flights — about 10 minutes.
Q: The website talks about the training that participants will receive before their flight — but just hours compared to the years it took for you to be prepared to enter space. What allows for that difference?
A: Training for a suborbital flight can be safely completed in a matter of hours. That is possible because suborbital flights are short and the vehicles have been designed to fly autonomously, without human intervention from the crew. For an orbital trip, training will be longer, but still only days or weeks instead of the years required for a NASA space flight — there are a lot of “depends” in that estimate. Depends on whether you’re going to do a spacewalk. Depends on the design of the vehicle. Depends on the duration of the flight.
Q: Why is space accessibility for all humans something you feel is important to achieve?
A: The answer to that question is really hard to articulate. There is the long view that humans must leave Earth to survive. But there are also important near-term goals, one of which is getting a lot more people see Earth from the perspective of space, to change the way they think about the world. Research has documented core value changes in astronauts that are generally positive for humankind. They include desires to protect our environment, live together without conflict, and know that what we’re doing on one side of the planet affects the other side.
Q: Do you have any hesitations about making space so accessible? If taking a trip to space becomes as common as a trip to Disneyworld, will we begin to take it for granted?
A: Is Disneyworld any less special now then it was when they first opened doors? The answer to that of course is no, for both adults and children. When thousands or millions of people are traveling to space, that journey will surely take on new meaning, but I wouldn’t say it’s less special. I would hope that we would one day take for granted our ability to schedule a space flight and undertake it as we do today on the airlines. That will be a sign of great progress if we can reach that point.
Q: In a 1998 article in Here We Have Idaho, you said that for you, “that bigger picture is the personal experience of being able to get into space and look back on our planet and wonder about what our future holds.” Reflecting on that, did you imagine your future taking you on this path? What do you think the future holds now?
A: Looking back, I could not have predicted the path that human space exploration is taking nor my role in it. I also couldn’t be more excited about the way it’s going. This decade is literally a turning point in history. The transition to private industry for space launch is a huge enabler for innovation and progress. As to what the future holds, given that I so poorly predicted where we are today, I would be crazy to try to predict the future now, but I will do it anyway. In 30 years, we are likely to have private citizens making the journey to Mars - I hope that happens much sooner.
Q: Having worked for both NASA and a private company, what is it that makes private industry able to accomplish so much so quickly?
A: NASA is in an interesting position where it is technically able to do things that private industry can’t and at the same time is highly constrained by non-technical things like politics, funding, and governmental obligations. NASA still has the role of pathfinder, because there are some things that only a large government organization can do, but other things like launch to Earth orbit can be more efficiently handled by private industry. That’s of course what you’re seeing today: while NASA is sending probes to Pluto, Saturn, and Jupiter, you’re seeing private companies launching payloads into Earth orbit, and talking about going beyond Earth, where NASA has been going beyond for 50 years.
Q: With talk about colonizing other planets and private industries leading that effort, are there legal or ethical issues that must be overcome?
A: One of the areas that will need a lot of thought and progression in the coming decade is how we handle ownership and responsibilities outside of the orbit of our Earth. There are issues like microbial contamination, tapping of resources, and permanently changing the atmospheres of other planets. It is a lot of to think about, but I consider that to be a high-quality problem as that means we are headed there.
Q: You flew on three space shuttle missions, achieving what you have said was a childhood dream. Is there any one particular memory that stands out among those trips?
A: When I lay in my seat awaiting the countdown for my first flight realizing that I was about to achieve a lifelong dream, I smiled when I recalled that I had invited all of the people who had helped me along the way to witness the launch. Most of them were all sitting just 3 miles away, sharing the moment with me. Some of them were from University of Idaho. The other memory is looking back at Earth from space. It’s a perspective that changes one’s life. Blue Origin is attempting to make that view possible for many more people.
Q: Any closing words for students interested in a career in space travel?
A: There are some incredible opportunities for graduating students in our world. Several UI engineering grads work with me at Blue Origin, contributing to something much bigger than a business initiative or an engineering project. In this case, they are contributing to the opportunity for humans to move into space and take advantage of the resources and opportunities there. Not only are there great jobs awaiting new grads, but some of those great jobs also enable contribution to a much greater vision.
Article by Savannah Tranchell, University Communications and Marketing