John Rost was all smiles as he climbed down from the cockpit of an F-104 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center final week. Just 30 minutes earlier than, I had watched Rost and his teacher, former Italian Air Force pilot Piercarlo Ciacchi, taxi down the identical runway that hosted area shuttle landings lower than a decade earlier than. After idling for a second, the blue-and-white checkered jet exploded down the runway and went screaming into the restricted airspace round Kennedy.

Rost is the primary pilot in a fledgling industrial astronaut coaching program run by Starfighters Inc., and this was his fourth flight.

“That was fucking superior,” Rost, an newbie pilot who’s the CEO of Fiesta Auto Insurance when he’s not coaching to be an astronaut, stated after we spoke after his flight. “It’s similar to being on a spaceship. Driving into Kennedy Space Center, flying round and seeing all of the launch pads, the Vehicle Assembly Building—you’re feeling such as you’re Neil Armstrong.”

Starfighters is making an attempt to create the primary industrial astronaut coaching program for area vacationers who hope to catch a experience on SpaceX or Blue Origin rockets sooner or later. For now, it provides a excessive efficiency coaching program that teaches pilots like Rost fly F-104 fighter jets. The firm hopes to sooner or later be a part of a extra complete astronaut coaching program, and to play a central position in creating federal rules for industrial astronaut coaching packages within the US.

Right now, no less than three corporations—SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin—have stated they need to take vacationers to area, however to this point none of those corporations has developed an actual coaching program for his or her future shoppers past some tough outlines. NASA’s astronaut coaching program, then again, takes years to finish and is restricted to a handful of rigorously chosen astronaut candidates. Starfighters desires to make astronaut coaching obtainable to any potential area vacationer who pays.

“We do not assume it is good for the business if folks do not go up with out some information of what they’ll encounter,” Rick Svetkoff, the CEO of Starfighters, informed me. “The very last thing you’d need to do is see your self climb onto a rocket with the expectation it is going to be so cool to go to area, after which to be sick all the way in which.”

The F-104 co-piloted by Roth is one in every of solely a handful which can be nonetheless operational and was, actually, the identical sort of jet used to coach Neil Armstrong and different Apollo-era astronauts. With the exception of 1 owned by the Royal Norwegian Air Force, Starfighters has the one seven operational F-104s on the planet.

Originally developed by the US Air Force within the 50s and used into the late 1990s, the F-104 was the primary plane in a position to maintain Mach 2 flight (twice the velocity of sound, or round 1,500 miles per hour). It can also be in a position to pull off the runway straight right into a 90-degree flip, and might fly to altitudes of round 100,000 ft—about one-third of the way in which to area correct—making it ideally suited to simulate launch situations on a rocket.

Svetkoff is a former naval pilot who had simply begun working his method by way of NASA’s astronaut coaching when the Challenger catastrophe occurred in 1986. This put an finish to Svetkoff’s astronaut ambitions, so he started working as a captain on industrial airways and based Starfighters as a facet job in 1995. The firm initially operated as an F-104 aviation group, principally doing navy and public demonstrations.

In 2007, Svetkoff stated NASA approached the corporate and requested if the corporate needed to help the company in industrial spaceflight improvement. As a part of the deal, Starfighters obtained a everlasting set up at NASA and took over the outdated shuttle touchdown facility in 2009.

“Nobody else has a everlasting standing at Kennedy Space Center,” Svetkoff stated. “It was a part of the deal after they introduced us in and it’s an enormous assertion.”

NASA’s curiosity in Svetkoff’s fleet of F-104s is sensible. The company used the identical sort of jets to coach astronauts and carry out high-speed experiments for many years earlier than discontinuing use of the F-104 in 1994 because of the problem of sustaining the plane and sourcing elements. Svetkoff sourced his fleet from the Italian and Norwegian air forces, which have been within the technique of phasing out the planes.

Starfighters is seeking to put its small industrial air drive to 2 foremost makes use of: delivering payloads to orbit with onboard rockets, and coaching the primary industrial astronauts. Svetkoff stated the corporate is in talks with Orbital ATK and CubeCab about rockets that may be launched from the plane whereas it’s going Mach 2 and used to ship a payload to orbit.

In the meantime, it’s kicking off its industrial astronaut coaching program with Rost, who’s Starfighters’ first buyer.

For round $20,000 per flight, entrants into Starfighters’ program get a style of what it is going to be prefer to experience on prime of a SpaceX or Blue Origin rocket, resembling the acute G-forces and speedy acceleration of a rocket at takeoff, and even microgravity when the airplane nostril dives.

Read More: NASA’s Kennedy Space Center is Reborn as a Commercial Spaceport

“There’s no astronaut that has ever been to area that has not been in a excessive efficiency plane for NASA,” Svetkoff informed me. “The individuals who have been ignored of this program are the potential civilian astronauts that can finally get the prospect to go suborbital. There’s no coaching program for that, and that’s what we’re striving for.”

In the longer term, the flight-training obtained by Rost might be only one half Starfighters’ bigger astronaut coaching program, which Svetkoff stated will embrace components resembling G-force and impartial buoyancy coaching, similar to for NASA astronauts. There are not any federal legal guidelines for astronaut coaching and Svetkoff stated Starfighters hopes to form the event of federal requirements and presumably use its personal program as a mannequin. (The most up-to-date area vacationer, Cirque du Soleil co-founder Guy Laliberté, went to area in 2009; he educated for his flight on the Russian cosmonaut coaching heart in Star City.)

“We need to have the ability to give folks the chance to truly go into area with out being a type of only a few folks out of our astronaut corps,” Svetkoff stated. “I feel this is step one. You want a coaching program and proper now there may be none.”

Before Starfighters’ pilot coaching program will be folded out right into a full-fledged astronaut coaching program, nonetheless, Svetkoff must get Starfighters F-104 fleet licensed as Space Support Vehicles. He stated there may be at the moment laws on the books to grant Starfighters this designation, which can permit the corporate to broaden its program past its present “pilot coaching program” right into a full astronaut coaching program.

“We don’t assume we’ve got a excessive threat with what we do, however individuals who don’t fly in jet fighters assume otherwise,” Svetkoff, who has flown 500 airshows with out incident, informed me. “It’s nonetheless Washington and their first intentions are to ensure folks don’t get damage.”

By the time they’ve cleared all of the regulatory hurdles, Svetkoff stated he hopes that industrial corporations like SpaceX or Virgin Galactic may have the power to hold Rost or different trainees to area. Each of those corporations has been promising crewed industrial flights for years now, however there’s little indication that these packages will begin any time quickly. Still, Svetkoff is hopeful.

“We see suborbital [human] spaceflight occurring within the subsequent two years,” Svetkoff stated. “There’s no coaching program for that and we expect we match that aspect. That’s what we’re striving for.”

This article sources info from Motherboard