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Civilians in Space

Civilians in Space

Within a few years of the space shuttle's debut in 1981, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) declared the spaceships operational and set about fulfilling an ambitious flight schedule. The space agency hoped to demonstrate that in addition to deploying commercial satellites, flying military payloads , and conducting research, the shuttles were safe enough for ordinary people to fly in.

The first guest astronaut invited into the shuttle's crew cabin was a U.S. senator, Jake Garn of Utah, who chaired a NASA oversight committee. Garn, flying as a "congressional observr," made a seven-day flight in April 1985. While his crewmates dispatched two satellites into orbit and conducted science experiments, Garn took part in an informal quasi-educational "Toys in Space" study.

A twenty-eight-year-old Saudi Arabian prince followed Garn into orbit a few months later. On June 17, 1985, Prince Sultan Salman Abdelazize Al-Saud accompanied a crew of six into space for a weeklong mission. The prince was a member of the Saudi royal family and a pilot in the Saudi Air Force. His flight on the shuttle was ostensibly tied to one of the shuttle's payloads: an Arabsat communications satellite. Arabsat was one of three communications satellites launched by the shuttle during that mission, which also involved the deployment and retrieval of an astronomy spacecraft. Another U.S. congressman, Representative Bill Nelson of Melbourne, Florida, flew in January 1986 on the last successful shuttle mission before the Challenger accident.

The Challenger crew, which blasted off on their ill-fated flight on January 28, 1986, included another guest astronaut, the finalist of the agency's Teacher in Space Program, Christa McAuliffe. Her death, along with the loss of five career astronauts and a scientist, brought a quick end to the guest astronaut program.

In the months following the accident, the agency not only ordered equipment redesigns and management changes but also shifted its thinking about the shuttle's operational status. NASA canceled plans to fly a journalist in space and put the Teacher in Space Program on hold.

In 1998 the agency made a slight exception to its ban on nonprofessional astronauts aboard the shuttle. The agency approved former Mercury Seven astronaut John Glenn's petition to fly on the shuttle for geriatrics research. Glenn, who was retiring from the U.S. Senate, was seventy-seven years old when he flew. He served as a research subject for a variety of experiments sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.

In announcing Glenn's flight on the shuttle, NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin also created a new position in the elite astronaut corpsthe educator-astronautand selected McAuliffe's backup, Barbara Morgan, to fill the position. Morgan joined the astronaut corps that year and completed a mandatory one-year training program. In 2002, NASA announced that Morgan would fly to the International Space Station, possibly in 2004, as the first educator in a new educator mission specialist program.

Guest astronauts may not be flying on the shuttle anytime soon, but the agency has been unable to prevent its Russian partners in the International Space Station program from selling seats on its Soyuz rockets bound for the orbital outpost. On April 28, 2001, Dennis Tito, an American businessman, became the world's first paying space tourist. Tito reportedly paid the Russians about $20 million for a weeklong stay in space. South African Mark Shuttleworth made a similar trip on April 25, 2002, and others were set to follow.

see also Challenger (volume 3); Glenn, John (volume 3); Teacher in Space Program (volume 3); Space Tourism, Evolution of (volume 4); Tourism (volume 1); Toys (volume 1).

Irene Brown


National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Space Shuttle Mission Chronology, 1981-1996. Kennedy Space Center, FL: Author, 1997.

Nelson, Bill, with Jamie Buckingham. Mission: An American Congressman's Voyage to Space. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.

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