NASA will require visitors to the space station to be accompanied by an astronaut
The move comes as a number of private citizens fly into space, changing the definition of what an astronaut is and who can be one.
Private companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX have sent crews made up entirely of private citizens into space. (Blue Origin is owned by Jeff Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post.) And NASA has sought to capitalize on the growth of the commercial space sector, announcing in 2019 that it would finally allow private citizens to visit, which Russia had do. for years.
The new rules come a few months after the first private astronaut mission to the ISS from the United States on a flight organized by Axiom Space, a Houston-based company working to build its own space station. Three paying customers flew in a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former NASA astronaut who is now a company executive. Axiom is planning another mission, which will also have former NASA veteran Peggy Whitson on board.
The company had planned future missions to fly unguided crews. But in a notice this week, first reported by SpaceNews, the space agency said that “a former NASA astronaut provides experienced guidance to private astronauts during pre-flight preparation through mission execution,” as well as acting as liaison between the private crew and the professionals on board the station. The presence of a former NASA astronaut “reduces risks to ISS operations”, the space agency said.
In an interview, Lopez-Alegria said he was fine with the changes. “It’s a good idea,” he said, adding that it was “fundamentally sound policy.” But he said he hopes that over time NASA will allow civilians to fly unaccompanied as training improves and more people visit the station.
“I think there is a possibility that should be considered – that at some point we may wean ourselves off of it after we have enough experience,” he said. “It’s no secret that the more seats we sell, the more revenue we get. So it should come as no surprise to anyone that at some point we would like to move to a model where we don’t have an astronaut before.
Mission Pilot, Larry Connor, Founder and Managing Partner of the Connor Group, an Ohio-based real estate investment firm, agreed. Because the visitors spent a lot of time doing research and were the first fully private crew to call on the station, “I think having a proven NASA commander like Mike LA was really critical,” a- he declared. “We were the first. We had to do it right. We had to meet or exceed all appropriate NASA standards, which we did.
During the Axiom flight, Lopez-Alegria was busy, he said, making sure visitors got the most out of their experience. As they diligently prepared for the flight, training for hundreds of hours at SpaceX outside Los Angeles and at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, arriving in space still required a significant adjustment.
Many astronauts fall ill in space, an illness known as space adaptation syndrome. Some find that with no ups and downs in a weightless environment, they become nauseous, like severe car sickness. Lopez-Alegria said the three he was traveling with were free of any illnesses: “It was remarkable to see how well we all felt.”
Connor said that as soon as he floated into the space station, “I was like, ‘When are we eating?’ By day two or three, I was super comfortable in zero-G floating around sleep.Like so many things, it depends on the individual.
Yet learning to move in a weightless environment can be shocking. Rookie astronauts bang their heads, crash into walls or instruments. They find it difficult to find points of support to hold them in place. Everything that is not attached flies away.
“The problem is when you get to the space station, everything gets harder,” said Garrett Reisman, a former NASA astronaut who helped prepare one of the crew, Eytan Stibbe, for the flight. “Simple everyday tasks like brushing your teeth become complicated. … Everything is taking much longer than expected, and I’m not even going to get into bathroom operations. It’s the worst of all.
The Axiom-1 crew included Connor, Stibbe, a businessman and former Israeli Air Force fighter pilot, and Mark Pathy, Managing Director of Mavrik Corp., a Canadian investment company. Instead of pure jaunt, they conducted scientific research and experiments in space, and were a bit too ambitious with the amount of work they set out to accomplish, Lopez-Alegria said.
“We got up there and, boy, were we overwhelmed,” he told a conference last week. “Getting used to weightlessness doesn’t happen overnight.”
For the next private astronaut flight, he said in the interview, “Timelines will be more relaxed. We’ll have more free time. And we’ll give ourselves plenty of time to acclimate to the zero- G.