NASA is considering sending “overspecialized” scientists to the International Space Station to work alongside professional astronauts.
The idea is by no means new, as in the early 1980s NASA used payload specialists assigned to specific Space Shuttle experiments, including three-time space flyer Charlie Walker on behalf of his employer McDonnell Douglas. However, payload specialists’ requirements changed when the 1986 Challenger launch disaster killed seven crew members and changed NASA safety protocols.
NASA is currently reviewing these protocols. The agency plans to seek funding in fiscal year 2023, which begins in October, for a new program that will send scientists to the International Space Station along with astronauts, according to a SpaceNews report. (will open in a new tab) referring to a July 13 presentation to a committee of national academies developing a strategy for future research in the biological and physical sciences in space.
“We’re committed to getting scientists back into space,” Craig Kundroth, director of NASA’s Biological and Physical Sciences Division, told the committee.
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The committee met to plan a ten-year study that would set out community priorities that would guide future research. At the same time, NASA is working to commercialize space station research, including taking steps to carefully recruit more non-professional astronauts to the complex.
The space landscape has changed significantly since 1986, and NASA is already opening the International Space Station to non-professional astronauts. In 2022, Axiom Space successfully flew three people with no direct space experience on its debut Ax-1 mission, commanded by former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria.
(Image credit: NASA TV)
NASA is also taking steps to open up space station commercialization more broadly, including early-stage funding for private space stations in 2021 and acceptance of future commercial ISS modules from Axiom. A commercial gateway was added to the space station in 2020 to augment the US National Laboratory’s years of commercial research by the nonprofit Nanoracks.
Kundrot mentioned this growing commercial involvement in his presentation to the National Academy. “We are imagining a different version of this now that we have, in this developing, developing commercial world, opportunities for private astronaut flights,” he said. “We are looking to use this to send highly specialized scientists to conduct research in LEO. [low Earth orbit] this is really very difficult to do even for the most well-trained astronaut in this field.
(Image credit: NASA)
Assuming funding for the initiative is approved in NASA’s budget, the agency will send two requests for information (RFIs) to companies. The first will ask what research companies would like to do in low Earth orbit, while the second will discuss what specific contributions scientists can make.
NASA’s Private Astronaut Mission (PAM) protocols currently allow two such missions per year for up to 30 days each. Axiom Space has been approved for at least three more PAMs through Ax-4. Ax-2 will be launched between autumn 2022 and spring 2023, while Ax-3 and Ax-4 are yet to be approved or planned. They will be launched no earlier than 2023 after approval.
Once the PAM spacecraft arrive in orbit, some of their research will be gradually transferred to NASA astronauts until the private mission is completed, Kundrot said. One possibility, he said in the presentation, would be a “buddy system” in which an astronaut works alongside a PAM member on the ISS to learn how to do science in microgravity after the scientist is gone.
To be sure, NASA astronauts have already done complex research in space, including DNA sequencing and repair. However, Cambro said there are necessarily “very few people” at the “front line” of research who are reasonably familiar with the systems and methods needed for some experiments.
As NASA continues to work to do more scientific research aboard the ISS, Cambrot has predicted that the rate of research could increase by 10 to 100 times in some disciplines. He said that’s because scientists on the ground won’t have to wait months for materials to arrive on Earth, which is sometimes required to successfully complete experiments.
If funding and the proposed schedule are maintained, Kundrot said the agency plans to request less than $10 million in fiscal year 2023 and increase that to $25 million by 2028. The missions will start in 2026. , still not mentioned in NASA budget materials (will open in a new tab).
The money for 2023 will come from a requested increase in the biological and physical sciences budget at NASA, according to SpaceNews. NASA is requesting $100.4 million for this study in 2023, up 22% from the $82.5 million allocated for FY 2022.
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