Astronaut training company envisions blue-collar space workforce

Williamson County

GEORGETOWN, Texas (KXAN) — A commercial astronaut training facility opened last week in central Texas, and the man behind it says he wants to prepare builders, drillers, plumbers and other trade workers for jobs in space.

Barton Bollfrass, owner and operator of Opifex Global, told KXAN his company will take on eight applicants per year at first, training them to become “spacejacks” who can help build and repair infrastructure in space as extraterrestrial exploration becomes more commercialized.

Just like asking a world-class surgeon to build a hospital, Bollfrass said, “Asking jet pilot scientist genius astronauts to go into space and repair the heater, to go onto the moon and build a simple structure, it seems like a complete waste of their talent.”

Instead, he wants to democratize space, building the workforce his company believes will be necessary in as few as five years.

“We want to be able to take those people and train them how to do what they already know how to do, but in space,” said Dr. Anita Greenberg, chief operation officer at Opifex Global.

Space is a booming industry, and analysts expect it to continue growing in the coming decades. In 2005 the industry was worth about $175 billion, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It grew to $385 billion last year, and the Chamber expects it to balloon to $1.5 trillion by 2040. Some analysts expect it top $3 trillion in the same period.

Commercial space companies are poised to lead that growth. “We are going to need more workers,” Greenberg said.

At Opifex Global’s training facility in Georgetown, spacejacks-in-training will learn what it’s like to work in zero gravity thanks to the company’s neutral buoyancy tank. 

Decked out in a spacesuit mock-up, students will work on a scale model of a robotic arm while floating midway down the tank, simulating the experience of weightlessness. The tank also simulates the darkness of space, Bollfrass said, giving future commercial astronauts a taste of what they might one day be doing outside Earth’s atmosphere.

The neutral buoyancy tank is not as big as NASA’s in Houston — that one holds a full-size model of the International Space Station — but Bollfrass said his smaller tank provides the same training at 1 to 2 percent the cost of the U.S. space agency’s training.

“Launching someone into space is rocket science and it’s expensive,” he said, “but training people in suits and helmets isn’t.”

The training will cost about $40,000 for a six month course, Bollfrass said, and between $50,000-60,000 for a full year, depending on the specific program a student wants to pursue. It’s not cheap, but he noted that commercial diving instruction can also cost tens of thousands of dollars, and there’s often financing options available for people who want to work in that industry.

He has a lot of experience in diving, too. A former U.S. Navy explosive ordnance disposal diver, Bollfrass started Fathom Academy in 2017 to train first responders in swift water rescue. Now the facility shares space with the astronaut training academy, and the FBI and National Guard are using it to brush up on their rescue skills.

Opifex also includes a classroom portion, as well as exercises in tethering and working in zero gravity environments where a slip or wrong move could mean trouble.

Bollfrass plans to accept two students, a man and woman, every three months. He’s accepting applications now and also offers a shorter weekend course for the casual space traveler.

With two commercial spaceports in Texas, one at Houston’s Ellington Airport and one in Midland, the state is positioned to push commercial space travel forward in the coming years and decades.

Bollfrass wants to be on the forefront as companies change the perception of what space exploration is and where it can happen.

“We’ve got one place to go right now, and it’s a space station,” he said. “But you’re not allowed to go there; I’m not allowed to go there, so let’s go someplace else where you are allowed to go.”

“Let’s go to the moon. Let’s go to Mars.”

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