NASA reviews requirements for astronauts’ missions to the International Space Station

WASHINGTON — NASA is working to change the rules for future special astronaut missions to the International Space Station, including requiring that such missions be commanded by a former NASA astronaut.

In a purchase notice on August 1, NASA announced changes to the requirements for future orders for Special Astronaut Missions, or PAMs, to the station. The agency said the changes came from the experience of the first such mission, Axiom Space’s Ax-1 flight in April, “and other spaceflights of a modern civilian crew.”

One of the biggest changes, which is still being finalized according to the purchase notice, is the requirement for such missions to have a “former NASA (US) government astronaut” as commander. The document states that “a former US space agency astronaut provides experienced guidance to special astronauts during pre-flight preparation through mission execution,” and “provides a link between the ISS expedition crew and private astronauts and reduces risks to station operations.” International Space and PAM/International Space Station Safety”.

The Ax-1 mission was led by former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez Alegria. The company’s second mission, and the only other mission approved by NASA so far, will also be led by former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson.

“It’s becoming clear, first of all, that customers really don’t want to travel with anyone who hasn’t done so before,” Lopez-Alegria recalled planning for the Ax-1 mission during a lecture at the ISS Research and Development Conference July 28. “Second, NASA was more comfortable having someone who’s been there before.”

However, shortly before the Ax-1 mission, Axiom executives said they were looking forward to missions without a professional astronaut on board. Michael Suffredini, president and CEO of Axiom, said in a briefing on April 1 that the company expects to move four customers, instead of three customers and one professional astronaut, on its fourth mission.

This change has implications for the revenue and profitability of such flights. Axiom declined to say whether the existing missions, with three paying clients, were profitable.

Other changes to the PAM requirements described in the NASA notice clearly reflect the experience from Ax-1. NASA will require special missions to submit research plans to the ISS National Laboratory at least 12 months in advance for review and approval of payloads. The document states that “significant research activities were not originally envisioned as a primary objective of astronauts’ special missions.”

Likewise, the new requirements include a “mission-specific communications plan” that outlines the media and commercial activities of a mission, including those that occur in space, and will play the roles of NASA and the company providing the craft’s crew.

“Our time on the International Space Station has been very busy,” Lopez Allegria said at the conference. “We had a timeline that was similar to that of NASA.” That included 25 trials and 30 awareness events that took “more than 100 hours” of crew time, he said.

This tight schedule is linked to another change in requirements. “Access to the spaceflight environment requires time to adapt to each individual; therefore, NASA requires additional time to adapt to microgravity and delivery activities before major mission activities are carried out,” the document states.

“We went up there, and we were confused,” Lopez Allegria said. “Getting used to zero gravity is not an overnight thing.” He said the original schedules did not allow enough time to adjust to life at the station and then work through an ambitious schedule of experiments and outreach events.

He said at the conference that Axiom was wrapping up its lessons-learned operations, along with separate operations by NASA and SpaceX. One of the changes to the Ax-2 is that Whitson will have more time to assist the special astronauts accompanying her. “This will help reduce the burden we are placing on the International Space Station crew,” he said.

Axiom is in the final stages of planning with NASA for that mission, which is expected to fly next spring. He said the company has “sort of an assembly” of the Ax-3 mission, depending on when NASA seeks proposals for another PAM.

“We still have a lot of learning to do,” Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for space operations, told Special Astronaut Missions during another panel at the conference on July 27. She said NASA has been working on publishing lessons learned from Ax-1 in future orders for PAMs. “You’ll see some of that learning when we come up with our new agreements in the future.”

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