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Multimillionaire hires ex-NASA 'naut to work on private spaceship

Secret cheese capsule readied for manned flight

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Upstart startup rocket company SpaceX, bossed by renowned geek idol and internet nerdwealth kingpin Elon Musk, has recruited a NASA astronaut to help make the company's spacecraft ready to carry people into space.

Dr Garrett Reisman was a NASA astronaut from 1998 until this month, having previously worked in industry as an engineer designing NASA space tech. He holds an engineering PhD from Cal Tech, and flew in space twice during his NASA career: a three-month spell as flight engineer on the International Space Station in 2008 and an 11-day trip back to the station as a mission specialist aboard shuttle Atlantis last year. Reisman has made three spacewalks and also spent two weeks living on the bottom of the sea in the "Aquarius" underwater habitat in 2003.

Now Reisman will use his engineering and manned spaceflight expertise to get SpaceX's "Dragon" capsule ready to carry people. The Dragon has already been contracted by NASA for uncrewed missions carrying supplies and other cargo to the space station in the post-Shuttle era, but Musk and his team intended it for manned operation from the outset. SpaceX has high hopes that it will be able to win further business under NASA's "commercial crew" initiatives, taking personnel to and from the station as well as cargo: and, perhaps, from other manned-spaceflight customers in future.

"Garrett’s experience designing and using spaceflight hardware will be invaluable as we prepare the spacecraft that will carry the next generation of explorers,” said Musk in a SpaceX statement issued on Friday.

“I am excited to help SpaceX because I care deeply about the future of human spaceflight,” adds Reisman. “I see commercial spaceflight as our country’s best option for a robust and sustainable human spaceflight future.”

It's the view of Musk - and evidently Reisman too - that there is not enough funding available from the US government for serious manned space exploration to occur on the traditional model of massive established aerospace firms supplying traditional, often cryogenically-fuelled hardware to other massive NASA workforces to operate.

Musk considers that the only way realistic levels of funding will ever put human boots on Mars is through the creation of much more efficient low-cost commercial space organisations such as SpaceX, which supplies, maintains and operates its own equipment despite having only recently passed the 1,000-employee point. SpaceX also uses brand new rocket designs burning easy-to-handle kerosene - as opposed to the established space majors who generally favour Shuttle- and Apollo-era kit running on hazardous and troublesome liquefied hydrogen.

According to SpaceX:

In the coming years, NASA will use Dragon for at least 12 cargo missions to the International Space Station, creating strong flight experience before the first manned mission... Both the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft have been designed from the start to one day carry astronauts.

The Dragon made its inaugural test flight in December, reaching orbit aboard a Falcon 9 without difficulty and coming in successfully to splash down the the Pacific. On the test flight it carried only a large cheese marked "Top Secret", but the mission - a unique achievement for a private firm, which had required the issue of a unique operating licence by the US aviation authorities - would seem to bode well for Musk's manned flight plans. SpaceX hopes in future to move away from splashdowns at sea, saying that the Dragon is capable of setting down accurately enough on land that large ocean safety margins aren't required.

Musk's dreams don't stop with supplying and then crewing the space station. It is also well known that he aspires to build the mighty, Apollo-sized heavy lift rockets which - according to President Obama - will be selected by NASA in 2015 in order to carry astronauts of the future beyond low Earth orbit for the first time since the Moon landings of the 1970s.

Apart from grand future ambitions, it is also clear that SpaceX aspires to make money in the near term carrying US military and spy satellites into space - an activity which is probably more lucrative than working for NASA, as the US government appears to spend more money on it.

Meanwhile Dr Reisman will join SpaceX's other ex-NASA 'naut Ken Bowersox in the company's labs, where he will help in the development of "human interfaces including controls, displays, seats, suits and environmental control systems". ®

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