Move over billionaires. Now, aam aadmi can aim for space flights

Expensive, risky and elite — that’s space travel in a nutshell ever since Yuri Gagarin became the first human to be sent to space 63 years ago. Till now, less than 700 astronauts have reached space altitude and a majority among them have been from just three countries. Even commercial space flights remain exclusive to the few who can afford them.
But not anymore.Giving regular folks from around the world a chance to become astronauts and participate in space science, US-based Space Exploration and Research Agency (SERA) has partnered with Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin to develop what they call “a human spaceflight programme for citizens of all nations”. The cost will be borne by SERA, and co-founders Sam Hutchison and Joshua Skurla say they might even be tapping talent from India for their programme.
In line with this mission to make space accessible, SERA has just signed an agreement to send the first Nigerian to space. In June 2022, Victor Hespanha, a 28-year-old civil engineer from Brazil, was selected to travel to space onboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard Rocket (NS-21). He was only the second Brazilian astronaut, and soon became a national hero.
SERA had commercially purchased a seat from Blue Origin for Hespanha, but the mission’s success has now opened the door to a partnership with Bezos’ firm, and launch of a new human spaceflight programme. For their next mission, SERA has reserved six seats on an upcoming launch of New Shepard, Blue Origin’s rocket. “We look at New Shepard as a wonderful tool to introduce space travel to people for whom it might feel like a very distant opportunity,” Skurla says.
Could an Indian be on their next mission? Skurla says, “One of the things we love about India as a potential partner country is all of its space infrastructure and activity. India can take a leadership role among other nations.”
Hutchison agrees that India could be a potential partner, which will enable the Indian community to vote in an astronaut. “We realised over 150 countries never had an astronaut. We want to create historical moments and use them to stimulate national conversations about each country’s space plans moving forward,” he says.
The first phase involves flying citizen astronauts selected by their communities on the New Shepard rocket. Five of the seats will be allocated to partner nations that have either never had an astronaut or had very few. The sixth seat will be open to individuals from any nation.
“We want to stand back and let the community run this mission. If you want to build a space agency, we’re providing the tools to allow that for people globally, especially young people to have a say and stake in this flight,” says Hutchison. Unlike traditional government space programmes, SERA is going for open voting to select astronauts from each partner country or region. Minimal physical requirements and astronaut training are needed.
But SERA’s ambitions go beyond just flying civilians to space. Their long-term vision is to provide an open platform and resources for communities worldwide to collaborate on early-stage space research, technology development, and even form new space startups.
“We’re going to provide the community with programme management tools, risk assessment, budgeting — all that’s traditionally used by large aerospace organisations. The idea is to get people collaborating on space missions, with us footing the bill initially,” adds Hutchison.

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