Photo: Washington Post Photo by Jonathan Newton.
HOUSTON – He still looks a bit like the NASA astronaut he once was. Same breast position. Same Top Gun Instincts. Same American flag on the left shoulder of his flight suit. Chris Ferguson even has a call sign, "Fergy".
There is a small detail that distinguishes Ferguson from the NASA astronauts with whom he trains together. Where they wear the Space Agency's red and white and blue logo on their spacesuits, he wears Boeing's company insignia – a small accessory that points the space agency to a new era of space travel.
Ferguson retired to NASA Today he is the commander of the last space shuttle mission in 2011. Today, he is an astronaut who wants to be the first private citizen to write history with a commercial rocket in orbit start.
As test pilot of the inaugural flight of Boeing Starliner spacecraft, he would serve alongside NASA astronauts. But NASA hopes its presence in the International Space Station mission heralds a long-awaited next chapter in America's manned space program, in which commercial ventures have ended the government's long-held monopoly on space, hoping to expose civilians.
NASA was unable to transport people from US soil since the shuttle was retired. Since then his astronauts have flown with Russian rockets from a Soviet launch site in Kazakhstan to the space station. In 2014, NASA awarded US $ 6.8 billion worth of contracts to Boeing and SpaceX to develop spacecraft designed to restore human spaceflight from the Florida Space Coast.
The Space Agency, which wanted to fly normal people since the early days of World War II, hopes that by hiring companies to deliver a kind of taxi service to the space station, they also put all sorts of passengers into orbit would bring.
The contracts include a provision allowing Boeing and SpaceX to sell tickets to ordinary people, even tourists, to fly on NASA missions – civilian astronauts who would train the companies and then fly to the station where spend a week or so in space.
"We wanted to fundamentally enable a new market," said Phil McAlister, director of NASA's commercial space department. "We wanted these companies to sell their services to non-governmental customers, and NASA has always wanted to open space flights to a wider audience."
That's also the goal of SpaceX.
"Human spaceflight is the core mission of our company – to help create a future where millions of people explore the stars and live on other planets," said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer, opposite Washington Post. 19659022] – – –
Gathered in the Roosevelt Hall of the White House in 1985, Vice President George HW Bush said he was pleased to announce "the first private citizen in the history of space travel." It was Christa McAuliffe, a 36-year-old high school teacher from Concord, New Hampshire, who promised to keep a diary of her in orbit on time, as well as "the pioneer travelers of the Conestoga Wagon Days."  NASA had won the space race to the Moon in the Cold War and now wanted to make space travel with their Space Shuttle, a winged spacecraft that was supposed to fly at low cost.
NASA was already eyeing its next big program – chasing a journalist, a contest that had attracted interest from some of the biggest names in the news industry, including Walter Cronkite.
"Over time, poets, painters, workers, musicians, and others will come to fly," the New York Times reported.
And then, 73 seconds after the space shuttle Challenger took off, it exploded, killing McAuliffe and the six other passengers.
The "Teacher in Space" program, however, was actually canceled McAuliffe's backup, Barbara Morga n, finally flew on the shuttle in 2007). There was no journalist in space. After the Shuttle Columbia disassembled in 2003 and all seven were killed aboard, NASA began shutting down the shuttle program.
But now, a growing commercial space industry, driven in large part by the finances of a few billionaire entrepreneurs, is steadily advancing.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk, though he never lets anyone fly anywhere, talks about colonizing Mars and says his company will eventually send two paying tourists on a voyage around the moon. While flying NASA's astronauts remains the company's top priority, it also plans to fly "flying missions for private individuals," Shotwell said. In addition to the round about the moon, she said that the company wants to sign another deal to fly private citizens, though it refuses to provide details.
Jeff Bezos & # 39; Blue Origin hopes to fly customers across the edge of space in suborbital ways within a year or so. (Bezos owns the Washington Post.) Like Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, who killed a co-pilot after a spacecraft crash on a 2014 test flight.
Even Boeing, the big contractor, has teamed up with a company called Space Adventures to help tourists with their flights. The Virginia-based company has assisted seven tourists, including American businessman Dennis Tito, in organizing flights of Russian rockets to the orbiting space station. The company will not divulge the cost – estimated at tens of millions of dollars – but there is a list of several others, including Google's co-founder Sergey Brin, who made a $ 5 million deposit in 2008.  Maybe one day, costs will go down – companies say that's the goal as more people come into space. But now space would be a playground for the super-rich – or government astronauts. Virgin Galactic charges $ 250,000 for his flights. Blue Origin, which wants to sell tickets next year, has not announced a price.
Axiom Space, a Houston-based company, plans to build a private space station and has appointed Philippe Starck, the French designer, as modern and comfortable as a space outpost: oval windows in the cabins, soft and soft walls not made of metal, and an observatory with 360-degree visibility, the "best view anyone ever had from Earth," said Axiom co-founder, Mike Suffredini, who served as NASA's International Space Station Manager.
The company hopes to launch the first parts of the station in late 2022 or 2023, he said. In the meantime, it has an agreement with NASA to send tourists to the International Space Station for up to 10 consecutive days. The cost: $ 55 million.
NASA's McAlister Will Not Be Prices
"I think we're just getting started," he said. "Historically, you can look at air travel, it was very, very expensive when it was introduced, only relatively wealthy people were able to afford air travel when it was first offered, and then over time we saw new generations of airplanes
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Ferguson, a former Navy fighter pilot, completed a top gun training and flew NASA three times, where he spent more than 40 days in orbit , He was appointed an astronaut in 1998 and was then the commander of the last mission, which launched from the soil of the United States.
"Mission completed, Houston," he said after the space shuttle Atlantis came to a halt. "After serving the world for more than 30 years, the Space Shuttle has earned its place in history and has made its last stop."
Ferguson made sure he was the last to leave the shuttle. There were speeches and toasts that marked the occasion. But there was sadness underneath. NASA and the country were founded. Seven years later, it still is.
He never thought he would fly again. Especially like that.
"What is Fergy then?" said Sandy Magnus, a former NASA astronaut who flew into space twice with Ferguson. "A private astronaut, he's unique, he's not a tourist, he's paid, he spreads technical knowledge in space, but he's not a government astronaut, so what's his name?"
Ferguson now flies not only the country, but for his employer. Boeing uses its own test pilots to test its vehicles, including commercial aircraft and fighter jets. A spaceship is no different, Ferguson said.
He also sees a crucial moment in the history of manned space travel playing a key role: "Can we make space flights safe and cost effective, not just for the elite establishment of big companies and governments with deep pockets?"
Ferguson is now 56, with gray temples, adult children and progressive lenses. His reflexes are not what they were when he flew F-14 Tomcats on aircraft carrier decks. And his wife, who thought it was all over, is starting to get nervous as Boeing keeps pushing back the first flight data to get the Starliner ready and meet NASA's stringent safety requirements.
Ferguson also gets nervous – and the pressure rises. The Trump government has re-launched the National Space Council, prioritizing space and striving to launch rockets from the Florida Space Coast.
Who will start first – Boeing or SpaceX? It is a subject of intense speculation in the space community, a modern space race in which companies revive the role of nations: Boeing, the traditional star, against Elon Musk's cheeky and agile outfit.
The contest has come to the public According to Boeing boss Dennis Muilenburg, the first rocket that would take people to Mars would be built by his company.
Musk replied on Twitter, "Do it."
Boeing confirmed last week that the emergency shutdown is imminent The system suffered a major problem during a test in June: propellants escaped when the engines were shut down. While Boeing officials said, "We are confident that we have found the cause and are pushing corrective action," the issue is likely to further delay the start-up schedule.
In a recent report, the Government Accountability Office also said this was worrisome that in the event of an emergency, the Boeing abortion system could force the spacecraft to "overthrow", which could endanger the crew's safety.
Boeing has said it has resolved the problem and will "meet or exceed NASA requirements."
SpaceX was also facing delays as it helped correct a problem that turned its Falcon 9 rocket into one spectacular fireball exploded while being run on Launchpad in 2016.
In his corner, Boeing Ferguson, a secret weapon, has a polite and sophisticated pilot with an impeccable resume.
On the last shuttle mission he left an American flag aboard the International Space Station, with "the goal that the next crew will start Amer Ican ground brings it home."
The race is like a "Art of adults conquering the flag, "said Ferguson. "It probably has a much bigger meaning for me than for someone out of our competition." One of the last people to leave the US "does not claim it," he said. "But we are in a pretty good position."
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This spring Ferguson was back in the cockpit of the simulator, training to fly again. It had been years since he had flown, and he was a little nervous that he was rusty. He was now a senior executive, wearing the corporate uniform of pressed trousers and shirts more often than flight suits.
He has a sly company title: Boeing's director of occupation and mission operations.
The shuttle had wings, like an airplane. His new spaceship was a thimble-shaped capsule that was much harder to control. In this particular test, he would face a worst-case scenario: every autonomous spacecraft computer would be out there, which means that it would have to fly it manually and hit the atmosphere at Mach 25 or 25 times the speed of sound then somehow bring it a gentle landing. Two of the four NASA astronauts who had tried had failed, lost control of the spaceship so that it crashed, and Ferguson was eager to do extra exercises.
"I do not have to embarrass myself and you," he had said to his coach.
"The practice is good," she said.
He fought with what he called the "pitchworm". If the spaceship hit too much, it would be nearly impossible to recover. It was also hard for him to see the screen in front of him because it was so close.
"I have to tilt my head up to see through the right part of my glasses," he complained.
"Go buy a cheap pair of readers," said his coach.
"I have many cheap readers," he shot back. "I just forgot to take her."
He forgot to bring her the next day for the official test. Only now was he in a full space suit, and every time he tilted his head to look through the lower part of his lenses, his glasses were pulled crooked, pushing against his helmet.
The spacecraft began to oscillate 120 miles
"Oh, let's go," said Ferguson, grabbing the joystick and firing the thrusters in short bursts to keep the spacecraft level. "Game on."
Behind a glass wall, two evaluators watched
"It makes it look easy," said one. "But it's very fast from easy to difficult."
The spaceship now broke through the condensing air and flew Mach 60 km, then Mach 13, then Mach 6.5. Ferguson was in the rut, talking to himself and firing the thrusters to stabilize the spaceship.
"Keep hitting the worm again and again," he said quietly to himself. "Beat it back."
"He looks really good," said one of the evaluators behind the glass wall. "You can see he is fighting the pitch."
Altitude: 50 km, then 40 km, then 30 km.
At last the parachutes sat up. The spaceship splashed down. Ferguson delivered his line and rehearsed the coda that would usher in a new space age:
"Houston, we landed."
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Video: Chris Ferguson, a former NASA astronaut hopes to be the first corporate astronaut to fly the Boeing Starliner spacecraft.