LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Ever since Alan Shepard blasted off aboard the Freedom 7 capsule in Jan. 1961, the roughly 550 individuals who have traveled into space have all come from an elite – albeit similar – pool of candidates.
The original "Mercury Seven" astronauts? All military pilots. Through much of NASA's space shuttle program, the space agency mostly limited its pool of astronauts to pilots, engineers, scientists and medical doctors – along with the occasional politician.
In 1986, NASA expanded its criteria when it launched teacher Christa McAuliffe aboard space shuttle Challenger – a flight that ended in fatal tragedy for all seven crew members. Though NASA says McAuliffe will always be remembered as the nation's first and only "Teacher in Space," the agency launched McAuliffe's backup, Barbara Morgan, as an "Educator Mission Specialist" in 2007, and says it remains committed to sending more teachers in the future.
But as the crew that makes up Expedition 44 – comprised of American astronaut Kjell Lindgren, Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko and Japanese astronaut Kimiya Yui – prepares to launch for a six-month stint aboard the International Space Station, they say they're also preparing to host a new type of ‘unconventional' astronaut: famed opera singer Sarah Brightman.Station Soprano
Brightman, who received worldwide acclaim for her breakout role as 'Christine' in Andrew Lloyd Weber's popular 1986 rock-opera "Phantom of the Opera," has been a performing vocalist for three decades, with her official Web site calling her "the world's biggest selling soprano" who boasts a vocal range of over "three full octaves."
And if all goes as planned, in September, Brightman will be singing from an unprecedented venue, launching aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule and spending 10 days aboard the International Space Station. Using the station as her concert stage, Brightman is expected to perform a song written in collaboration with Weber especially for the occasion, along with accompaniment by artists on the Earth.
Lindgren, Kononenko and Yui will be on the station during Brightman's brief stay, and WDRB Web Producer Travis Kircher -- along with Space.com
reporter Miriam Kramer -- spoke with them briefly during a round robbins phone interview about the upcoming flight.
"I'm excited that Sarah Brightman is flying," Lindgren said. "She is something of an international ambassador for arts and so I'm excited to see the arts in space – to see music and do a little performance in space of something that's new."
"She's going to be reaching out to a whole new population that maybe didn't have a particular interest in space previously," he added. "And then she's just going to be something new to the space station. I can tell you that it's going to be very exciting to watch her and hear her perform up there."
According to a report by the BBC, Brightman is forking over roughly $51 million of her own money to pay for the trip.
"That is going to be great," said Yui of Brightman's visit. "Usually, astronauts are scientists, or doctors or pilots – kind of like this kind of people, this kind of area. Artists, or like, a singer, it's really rare to go up and fly on space. But this kind of opportunity really helps."
Lindgren says Brightman's flight is more than just an isolated event, but is also emblematic of what's going to become increasingly common in the future.
"We're really at kind of a cusp of a new chapter of human space flight…with the commercial companies that are developing the capability to launch humans into low earth orbit, I think we're going to start seeing more and more non-professional astronauts journeying into space," Lindgren said. "I think that's incredibly exciting that, for one, that we have a commercial sector that's capable of doing something like this, doing something that only nation states – three nation states – have been able to pull off in the past. So it's very interesting and exciting to be a part of that new chapter in spaceflight."Milestones Miles High
But this crew isn't made up of 'space tourists' and is in it for the long, six-month, haul. During that period, each man has specific scientific objectives.
Lindgren, who has a medical background, will be performing several experiments, and will also be interacting with astronaut Scott Kelly, who will be spending a year on the space station.
It's Lindgren's first space mission.
"I'm really going to have to adapt and learn how to move and work efficiently in space," he said. "I'm told that there really is kind of a six-week adjustment period, and after that, you still incrementally get better, but just learning all those little things that we don't really think about on Earth and just mastering all these different things that are just a part of everyday living. So that's very exciting."
"Looking at the Earth – just taking photos of the Earth – is something that I'm looking forward to, and the opportunity to do a spacewalk is also high on that list," he added.
He also has one objective that is more down-to-Earth.
"I submitted an application for an absentee ballot back in, I think, six months ago," he said. "So I'll be able to vote from space, which is kind of a neat thing. It will be, I think, just for local elections of course, since we're not on the four-year presidential cycle or the congressional cycle right now."
Yui says he's excited about a Japanese cargo ship that will be ferrying supplies and experiments to the International Space Station during his stay. He'll be setting up and performing many of those experiments himself.
"Actually, I love experiments," he said. "When I was a boy – I've always been very interested in science -- so I always ask my science teacher to do some experiments at school, actually."
But more than anything, when the time comes, Yui says he wants to be the one to reign the cargo ship in.
"It is not decided yet who is handling grapple, but I really hope to do that," Yui said.
But it's not all about science. Yui says one of his goals has been reached already: that of learning more about his international partners – something Yui says he accomplished during his past years of training.
"I am really interested in learning, also culture," he said. "So I learn Russian culture, Russian history, and also U.S. culture, U.S. language. So a lot of movies. I am very interested in those kinds of things. Now, I can understand both sides', like, point of view – a Russian point of view, and also a U.S. point of view. So that's kind of like a great thing for us to work together on ISS."Time away
For now, Lindgren says he's preparing his family and home for the lengthy trip.
"I'm the guy who pays the bills at home, and just making sure that my wife has all the passwords that she needs to get into my e-mail and to get into all of our accounts, is very important of course," he said. "Little things like that, and then of course just getting everything in order just makes life easier on my wife and kids so they don't have to worry about things when I'm in space."
He laments the fact that he won't be able to take his family with him to the station – and says the six-month separation from them will be the most challenging aspect of the mission, despite being in regular contact with them.
"I'll be able to call down and talk with my wife and kids every night," he said. "We'll be able to hold a teleconference once a week, so I'll be able to chat with them that way. We'll have e-mail and they'll be able to follow, of course, the photos that I take and post on Twitter and social media."
"But, you know, the six months, in the scope of things, is also not that long," he added. "We have service members that are deployed overseas for six months, 12 months, 18 months, and so this is really kind of small potatoes compared to the service and sacrifice that our military and service members are doing."Copyright 2015 by WDRB News. All rights reserved.NOTE: Images of Sarah Brightman appear courtesy of SarahBrightman.com. Other video and still images appear courtesy of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the European Space Agency (ESA).