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Out of this world: Knoxville man to pilot private space mission

John Shoffner's love for space began when he was a child. Now, he plans on inspiring children with the same dreams as him—while in space.

HOUSTON — A 67-year-old Knoxville man is heading to space. 

John Shoffner will pilot the SpaceX Dragon capsule for Axiom Space's Ax-2 mission to the International Space Station. The take-off is scheduled for early May.

Axiom is a privately-owned company. In 2022, Axiom's first mission, Ax-1, was the first-ever private mission to the ISS. The company plans to open its first commercial space station in 2024.

Shoffner was born in Alaska, raised in Middlesboro, Kentucky and now lives in Knoxville. He has been a pilot since he was a teenager and has accumulated more than 8,500 flight hours. 

In preparation for his mission, Shoffner's trained for over two years at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The training included learning the ISS's hardware and equipment and understanding the systems and dynamics of space flight. 

"It's a lot of fun. I had to learn to be a student all over again," Shoffner said. "You take this old brain and you have to relearn how to learn." 

The work doesn't end once Shoffner makes it up to the ISS. He has a full timeline of activities for his 12-day trip.

Half of Shoffner's mission is dedicated to STEM education outreach. He will record videos to show children what living in space is like in comparison to living on Earth. 

As part of the STEM education outreach, Shoffner is holding an International Space Art & Poetry Contest. Children from 5 years old to 18 years old can submit a poem or artwork that focuses on the idea of living in space. Shoffner will present the winner's art in space. 

"You know, this mission is not about me saying, 'Hey, look at me going to space,'" Shoffner said. "It's about saying, 'Hey, look at space and look at the opportunities.'" 

The pilot was inspired by space at an early age. While growing up in Kentucky, he formed a space club with his friends. 

"We watched some of the early spaceflights, the Gemini program, and it just took our breath away," Shoffner said. "It captured us." 

The pilot hopes his trip to space is just the start of private individuals traveling to space.

"Axiom space is building the next space platform, which will become part of the ISS. And then later, Axiom will become its own station," Shoffner said. "We'll have a commercial operating platform that companies, universities and private individuals can go to." 

If traveling to space seems too scary to you, Shoffner emphasized the importance of support from humans on Earth. 

"Everybody doesn't have to go to space. There is a lot of support and a lot of development and a lot of the effort comes from people on the ground," Shoffner said. "For every person that flies into space, there's at least 1,000 individuals on the ground that are conducting efforts and providing resources to make it possible and make it safe."

As for bringing a piece of Knoxville to space, Shoffner said he didn't pack anything orange.

"Actually, I don't have any orange clothing," Shoffner said. "I think Knoxville's got enough orange."

If you know a child who wants to enter Shoffner's competition, visit spaceartcontest.com.

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