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SpaceX launches 3 visitors to space station for $55M each

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By Marcia Dunn in Cape Canaveral

Arriving at the space station Saturday will be an American, Canadian and Israeli who run investment, real estate and other companies. They’re paying $55 million apiece for the rocket ride and accommodations, all meals included.

Russia has been hosting tourists at the space station — and before that the Mir station — for decades. Just last fall, a Russian movie crew flew up, followed by a Japanese fashion tycoon and his assistant.

NASA is finally getting into the act, after years of opposing space station visitors.

“It was a hell of a ride and we’re looking forward to the next 10 days,” said former NASA astronaut and chaperone Michael Lopez-Alegria on reaching orbit.

The visitors’ tickets include access to all but the Russian portion of the space station — they’ll need permission from the three cosmonauts on board. Three Americans and a German also live up there.

Lopez-Alegria plans to avoid talking about politics and the war in Ukraine while he’s at the space station.

“I honestly think that it won’t be awkward. I mean maybe a tiny bit,” he said. He expects the “spirit of collaboration will shine through.”

The private Axiom Space company arranged the visit with NASA for its three paying customers: Larry Connor of Dayton, Ohio, who runs the Connor Group; Mark Pathy, founder and CEO of Montreal’s Mavrik Corp.; and Israel’s Eytan Stibbe, a former fighter pilot and founding partner of Vital Capital.

Before the launch, their enthusiasm was obvious: Stibbe did a little dance when he arrived at the rocket at Kennedy Space Center.

SpaceX and NASA have been upfront with them about the risks of spaceflight, said Lopez-Alegria, who spent seven months at the space station 15 years ago.

“There’s no fuzz, I think, on what the dangers are or what the bad days could look like,” Lopez-Alegria told The Associated Press before the flight.

Each visitor has a full slate of experiments to conduct during their stay, one reason they don’t like to be called space tourists.

“They’re not up there to paste their nose on the window,” said Axiom’s co-founder and president, Michael Suffredini, a former NASA space station program manager.

The three businessmen are the latest to take advantage of the opening of space to those with deep pockets. Jeff Bezos’ rocket company Blue Origin is taking customers on 10-minute rides to the edge of space, while Virgin Galactic expects to start flying customers on its rocket ship later this year.

Friday‘s flight is the second private charter for Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which took a billionaire and his guests on a three-day orbit ride last year.

Axiom is targeting next year for its second private flight to the space station. More customer trips will follow, with Axiom adding its own rooms to the orbiting complex beginning in 2024. After about five years, the company plans to detach its compartments to form a self-sustaining station — one of several commercial outposts intended to replace the space station once it’s retired and NASA shifts to the moon.

At an adjacent pad during Friday’s launch: NASA’s new moon rocket, which is awaiting completion of a dress rehearsal for a summertime test flight.

As a gift for their seven station hosts, the four visitors are taking up paella and other Spanish cuisine prepared by celebrity chef José Andrés. The rest of their time at the station, NASA’s freeze-dried chow will have to do.

The automated SpaceX capsule is due back with the four on April 19.

Connor is honoring Ohio’s air and space legacy, taking up a fabric swatch from the Wright brothers’ 1903 Kitty Hawk flyer and gold foil from the Apollo 11 command module from the Neil Armstrong Air and Space Museum in Wapakoneta.

Only the second Israeli in space, Stibbe will continue a thunderstorm experiment begun by the first — Ilan Ramon, who died aboard shuttle Columbia in 2003. They were in the same fighter pilot squadron.

Stibbe is carrying copies of recovered pages of Ramon’s space diary, as well as a song composed by Ramon’s musician son and a painting of pages falling from the sky by his daughter.

“To be a part of this unique crew is a proof for me that there’s no dream beyond reach,” he said.

___

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Marcia Dunn , The Associated Press

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Freeland says drop in foreign-aid spending is not a cut, Ukraine fight is pivotal

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Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, Chrystia Freeland, speaks during a news conference at Powertech Labs, in Surrey, B.C., on Thursday, March 30, 2023. Freeland insists the government’s projected $1.3-billion drop in foreign aid spending does not amount to a cut. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

By Dylan Robertson in Ottawa

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland insists the government’s projected $1.3-billion drop in foreign aid spending does not amount to a cut.

The Liberal budget released this week projects that Ottawa will spend nearly $6.9 billion for international development in the coming fiscal year, which is a 16 per cent drop from last year’s allocation.

That’s despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tasking International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan to increase aid spending every year.

The Liberals had delivered a historic boost in aid in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

Asked about criticism from the aid sector about the cut, Freeland said she “wouldn’t characterize it that way.”

She stressed that Canada is allocating $2.4 billion in direct financial aid to Ukraine, and called that country’s fight the world’s most important struggle.

The Liberals have also allocated funding for infrastructure projects in developing countries in the Indo-Pacific region, arguing that these countries want investment more than aid.

Representatives of Canada’s aid sector have said they will need to end projects abroad due to the lower-than-hoped funding projected in the Liberals’ budget last week, and they’re particularly concerned about whether aid dollars are being diverted from Africa to Ukraine.

Freeland told reporters Thursday at a press conference in Surrey, B.C., that Ukraine’s fight is crucial to Canada’s interests.

“The fight that is happening in Ukraine today is the single most important battle in the world between democracy and dictatorship,” she said, while defending her government’s record.

“I believe that Canada has a responsibility to be strong and active around the world,” she added.

“We’re making a very big difference. Canada is the eighth-largest foreign-aid donor (in the world). That is a big deal.”

Last October, Freeland was criticized for her response to an African aid expert who said that the West diverting dollars to Ukraine leaves the continent relying more on Russia’s support, an idea she rejected.

“A democracy can only be defended by people themselves if they’re actually prepared to die for their democracy,” she said.

In a later apology for those remarks, she said she was sorry if people found the comments insensitive, adding: “If a white western person has offended someone, the first answer is to say, ‘I really didn’t mean to offend you.'”

At the time, Freeland said the western world needs to recognize that Africa’s current problems stem from colonization.

“These are challenges that have been imposed from the outside. And I think that means we have a high level of responsibility.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2023.

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China’s global influence looms over Harris trip to Africa

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U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, left, is greeted by Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema in Lusaka, Zambia, Friday March 31, 2023. Harris is on the last leg of a a seven-day African visit that took her to Ghana and Tanzania. (AP Photo/Salim Dawood)

By Chris Megerian, Cara Anna And Andrew Meldrum in Lusaka

LUSAKA, Zambia (AP) — When Vice President Kamala Harris arrived in Zambia on Friday for the final stop of her weeklong trip across Africa, she touched down at an airport that’s doubled in size and features glittering new terminals.

Rather than a symbol of promising local development, it’s a reminder of China’s deep influence. Beijing financed the project, one of many that has expanded its footprint on a booming continent that’s rich in natural resources, often generating goodwill among its citizens.

The global rivalry between the United States and China has been a recurring backdrop for Harris’ journey, and nowhere has that been more apparent than Zambia and her previous stop in Tanzania.

Besides the airport, China built a 60,000-seat stadium in Lusaka, plus roads and bridges around the country. Zambia is on the hook for all of the development with billions of dollars in debt. Tanzania is a major trading partner with China, and it has a new political leadership school funded by the Chinese Communist Party.

The developments have alarmed Washington, and President Joe Biden’s administration is worried that Africa is slipping further into Beijing’s sphere of influence.

Harris has played down the issue on her trip, preferring to focus on building partnerships independent of geopolitical competition. However, she has acknowledged there’s limited time for the U.S. to make inroads on the continent, telling reporters earlier in the trip that there is a “window” that is “definitely open now” for American investments.

At a news conference with Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema on Friday, Harris reiterated her call for “all bilateral official creditors to provide a meaningful debt reduction for Zambia” — an oblique reference to China — but she stressed that “our presence here is not about China.”

Hichilema said it would be “completely wrong” to view Zambia’s interests in terms of a rivalry between the U.S. and China.

“When I’m in Washington, I’m not against Beijing. When I’m in Beijing, I’m not against Washington,” he said, adding that “none of these relationships are about working against someone or a group of countries.”

China’s roots in both Tanzania and Zambia run deep. In the 1970s, Beijing built the Tazara Railway from landlocked Zambia to Tanzania’s Dar es Salaam port, allowing copper exports to circumvent white-minority-ruled Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa.

Today, China is Africa’s largest two-way trading partner, with $254 billion of business in 2021, according to the United States Institute of Peace. That’s four times the amount of trade between the U.S. and Africa. In addition, dealing with Beijing features less admonishments about democracy than with Washington.

“Most African countries are rightly unapologetic about their close ties to China,” Nigeria’s vice president, Yemi Osinbajo, tweeted on Thursday. “China shows up where and when the West will not and/or are reluctant.”

Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat who has worked on Africa issues in Congress, expressed frustration over China’s growing influence on the continent.

“We switched from being the No. 1 trade partner or the No. 1 investment partner in two dozen countries, to China being the No. 1 trade and investment partner,” he told reporters aboard Air Force Two on the flight to Ghana at the beginning of Harris’ trip. “I think our challenge for this decade is to address that.”

Biden has been taking steps toward that, such as hosting a summit for African leaders in December, when he announced that he wants to commit $55 billion to the continent in the coming years.

Harris has made announcements as well during her trip, including more than $1 billion in public and private money for economic development, $100 million for security assistance in West Africa and $500 million to facilitate trade with Tanzania.

However, there’s skepticism about whether the U.S. will follow through on its promises, and Harris has been faced with not-so-subtle hints that Africa expects more. For example, the presidents of Ghana and Tanzania bluntly said they hope Biden chooses to visit their countries during his expected trip to Africa later this year, which would be his first to the continent as president.

By comparison, Tanzania was among the first countries that Chinese President Xi Jinping visited after becoming president in 2013. And after Xi secured a third term, Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan was the first African head of state to visit Beijing.

“Kamala faces Chinese dominance in Tanzania,” the Tanzania Business Insight publication tweeted Wednesday.

Ian Johnson, a former China-based journalist who works at the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations, said Beijing presents a powerful narrative in the developing world as a country that rapidly built its economy and pulled much of its population out of poverty.

African leaders think “let’s see what we can learn from China,” he said, adding that “there’s a certain fascination in how they did it.”

Johnson also said China views Africa differently than the U.S.

“We have a tendency to see Africa as a series of problems — wars, famines, something like that,” he said. “But in China’s eyes, Africa is much more of an opportunity.”

Edem Selormey, who conducts public opinion research at the Ghana Center for Democratic Development, said the feeling is often mutual.

“China’s influence in Africa is largely seen as positive,” she said. “And the U.S. trails China in that regard.”

The difference, she said, is often about “what citizens see on the ground,” such as infrastructure projects, and “the U.S. has been missing from this picture for a while.”

John Kirby, a White House national security spokesman, said the debt that comes from China’s involvement is ultimately corrosive. He said African leaders are “beginning to realize that China is not really their friend.”

“China’s interests in the region are purely selfish, as opposed to the United States,” he said.

It’s a sentiment that draws scoffs in some corners of Africa.

“America is like playing the role of a big Uncle Sam in trying to defend African countries against what they think is the encroachment of China into the liberty of African countries through these loans,” said Tanzania-based analyst Mohamed Issa Hemed.

However, he added, “China is ahead of the U.S. in many, many ways.”

Daniel Russel, a former State Department official who is now at the Asia Society Policy Institute, summed up the African perspective as “enough with the lectures” about China. “They’ve got something we want. And they’ve got it right here.”

When it comes to U.S. hopes for Africa, he said, ”you can’t beat something with nothing.”

___ Anna reported from Nairobi, Kenya, and Meldrum from Johannesburg. Associated Press writer Evelyne Musambi in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report.

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