Science

NASA says former astronauts must accompany private missions to the International Space Station.

NASA will require all private astronaut missions to the International Space Station (ISS) to be led by an experienced former agency astronaut.

New Information Notice (will open in a new tab) issued by the agency requires private crewed missions to the orbiting laboratory to be led by a retired NASA astronaut. The new rule is based on the experience of Axiom Space’s first mission to the ISS in April this year, which the agency called “a recent civilian spaceflight.” (This petition was first seen by SpaceNews. (will open in a new tab).)

The change is still being finalized. If passed, it could form NASA astronauts responsible for “experienced leadership for private astronauts during pre-mission pre-mission training,” the document says.

Photo: First space tourists

The ruling by a NASA astronaut instructor at the helm reduces the risk to International Space Station operations and improves the safety of the orbital facility as well as the private mission, the filing says. In addition, such a person will serve as “a link between the permanent crew of the ISS expedition and private astronauts,” the request adds.

Although not previously required by NASA, Axiom Space put this protocol into practice during its debut mission to the ISS. The flight, known as Ax-1, was piloted by retired NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria in April as commander of a crew of four; the remaining three crew members had no space flight experience. The upcoming Ax-2 mission will be commanded by retired NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson and will not launch until fall 2022.

López-Alegria acknowledged in recent comments that his crew requires the assistance of the Expedition 67 crew aboard the ISS to complete all mission tasks, confirming media reports in May from former NASA astronaut Susan Helms.

In comments at a recent conference, López-Alegria named Matthias Maurer of the European Space Agency as the “fourth crew member” for the Ax-1. “We couldn’t have done it without them,” Lopez-Alegria added, referring to Maurer and other professional astronauts aboard the ISS at the time.

In comments posted on YouTube, Lopez-Alegria spoke at the ISS Research and Development Conference. (will open in a new tab) July 28 that, despite months of training, his crew was “overwhelmed” with the adjustments that microgravity work imposed.

The crew of the Ax-1 had to get used to simple actions, like realizing that if you put a pencil “down” it would fly away, he said.

“We didn’t have enough time for that,” Lopez-Alegria said. He added that during the first six or seven days of the mission, “there was no break; people did not go to bed until late, did not get enough sleep. This was hard”.

While the busy schedule was very similar to that of the space shuttle, Lopez-Alegria said there was a difference in how his team was trained. The old space shuttle crews, with professional astronauts, trained and “corrected” according to a precise timeline using a simulator that included equipment very similar to what was flown in space, he said.

“We didn’t have time for all this, so it was a challenge for us,” Lopez-Alegria added of his Ax-1 crew’s training.

He also acknowledged that the discussion about former agency astronauts leading the Axiom crews had already been raised during the planning discussions for the Ax-1. “First, it became very clear that customers really didn’t want to fly with anyone who had done it before,” Lopez-Alegria said. “Secondly, it was much more convenient for NASA to have someone who had been there before.”

While Axiom will be making changes to its procedures to reflect the experience of the Ax-1, NASA is making other changes to its request to ensure research plans are communicated well in advance, “no later than 12 months before launch.” date,” the application says.

Former NASA astronaut Susan Helms has previously pointed out that the Ax-1 affected the workload of the Expedition 67 crew.

“Basically, the arrival of Axiom personnel appears to have had a greater than expected impact on the daily workload for the professional crew of the International Space Station,” Helms, chairman of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Group, said during a May 12 meeting. It is reported by SpaceNews. (will open in a new tab).

While the arrival of the Ax-1 did not cause “clear overt safety issues” for Expedition 67, Helms said additional private crew requirements prompted some changes to the ISS flight crew schedule.

The situation, she said, has led to “opportunity costs in the form of an undue burden on the onboard members of the ISS and the mission controllers who support them on the ground.” Helms recommended additional training for future private astronauts to prevent this problem from happening again.

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace (will open in a new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (will open in a new tab) and on facebook (will open in a new tab).

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