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What a Fungus Reveals About the Space Program

  • September 23, 2021

It’s getting crowded up there around the ultimate velvet rope.

Two years ago NASA announced that anyone could visit the space station for $35,000 a day, not counting the cost of getting up there and back again. Tom Cruise is said to have wanted to shoot a movie there. Mr. Musk famously said that he wanted to die on Mars, but not yet. And Alan Stern, head of the New Horizons mission to Pluto and beyond, has now signed up to do space research on a series of Virgin Galactic flights, each costing $250,000, paid for by the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo., where he works.

What does he plan to do with the four minutes of weightlessness he will enjoy on each shot? Quite a lot, Dr. Stern, who is definitely not a billionaire, said in a recent telephone interview.

Among other things, Dr. Stern will be wearing a biomedical harness on his first flight that will record his body’s response to spaceflight and zero gravity, while taking pictures of star fields to gauge the quality of the spaceship’s windows. Over the next decade, he said, hundreds of space tourists will wear the harness, giving scientists and doctors a trove of data about how ordinary people — as opposed to the fit and finely trained astronauts — respond and adapt, or don’t, to space.

Other items on the agenda may include searching for asteroids very close to the sun, Dr. Stern said.

The price of a Virgin Galactic seat has since risen to $450,000, but that’s still a bargain, Dr. Stern said. Suborbital spaceships like Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship 2 or Mr. Bezos’s Blue Origin can fly more often and less expensively than the traditional rockets that NASA has used to lift sensitive instruments above the atmosphere but that cost $4 million or more per flight.

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