Arguably, you can’t talk about the future without discussing space travel, and in my most recent episode of Metaverse, I got to do just that with my guest, four-time astronaut Michael López-Alegría. Michael is chief astronaut for Axiom Space and commander of the Ax-1 mission. He joined NASA in 1992, and holds their record for the most “spacewalks,” currently standing at ten, as well as a cumulative extravehicular activity time of 67 hours and 40 minutes. In 2021, he was inducted to the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame. His work on Ax-1 leverages his experience in traditional government space exploration to help forge a new era of private human spaceflight. Michael will become the first person to ever command an all-private crew mission to the International Space Station, as part of Axiom Mission 1 in 2022. Formerly, Michael was the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, and has served on several advisory boards and committees, including the Human Exploration and Operations Committee of the NASA Advisory Council, and many more.
My conversation with Michael spanned from his childhood dreams of becoming an astronaut and his first space mission in 1995 to his filmmaker son’s new documentary on the Ax-1 mission and his exciting current work with Axiom. It was incredible to get to hear firsthand about his lived experiences traveling beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. Michael described the beautiful sense of connection he felt looking down on Earth, how it made him feel to humanity as a whole, seeing it from afar. He also described the incredible sensation of zero gravity— how you feel “full” more often and how navigating eating and drinking is a whole process, how your wrinkles disappear, and how you experience Newtonian physics in their purest form: for example, just the pressure you put on your fingertips when typing on a keyboard is enough to sort of propel you backwards. We also discussed the challenges of returning to Earth—although today astronauts have found ways to combat bone density loss with heavy weight training, Michael lost about 12% of his bone density during space travel, which took a long time to recover from.
It was fascinating to get Michael’s insights about the future of space travel, which he sees as being significantly accelerated by the private sector. Michael has been proselytising for commercial human spaceflight since leaving NASA in 2012. Granted, he’s remained in close contact with the agency in his work with Axiom, whose private astronauts have to jump through the “same hoops” as NASA’s astronauts, given the very specific rules, compliance and regulations involved in space travel.
Having witnessed the first moon walk as a child, Michael always thought we’d have a colony on the moon by now, but never realised how the bulk of NASA’s advancements at the time were fueled by the geopolitical pressures of the Cold War. Today, much of his hope for the next chapter of the “Space Race” lies with young, nimble companies led by ambitious, well-resourced leaders, such as Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk. These men have the passion and resources to push ahead innovation in space travel without having to deal with the slow-moving bureaucracy of NASA or the government. To Michael, we’re just at the first stages of what stands to be a world-changing advancement in space travel, led by private companies.
When I asked Michael’s advice for aspiring young astronauts, he said first and foremost that you should always follow your dream. Unfortunately, there’s no university curriculum for astronauts, so one must simply study engineering or math, learn to apply it, and essentially, if you’re lucky, you’ll be chosen to become an astronaut, but that’s largely up to chance. Instead of putting all your hopes in that one possibility, Michael says it’s better to spend your time doing something you’re passionate about, so that if you aren’t chosen, you’ll still have discovered how to be happy by following your heart and doing what you love.
It was wonderful to get to hear about something as grand as space travel from someone who’s realised this incredible dream as part of his day-to-day reality. To hear the rest of our conversation, including Michael’s thoughts on Mars colonisation, you can listen to the full episode here.