Space & Science

NASA changes its rules for private astronauts

Axiom Space's four-man Ax-1 mission crew arrived aboard the ISS on April 9.

Axiom Space’s four-man Ax-1 mission crew arrived aboard the ISS on April 9.
Image: Axiom space

As more and more private astronauts venture into space, NASA is looking to better regulate their journeys to Earth orbit. The space agency recently announced updates to the set of rules required for upcoming private astronaut missions, including the stipulation that all future missions be led by a former NASA astronaut.

NASA released the listing rules updated on Monday, which will be documented as part of Annex 1 on Authorization, Coordination and Execution of Private Astronaut Missions (PACE). Updates are “lessons learned” from the first private astronaut mission to the ISS, in which Axiom Space sent four astronauts to the ISS in April. The Axiom 1 (Ax-1) mission was led by former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría, but new requirements now require everything future missions will be led by a former NASA astronaut. For these missions, the NASA astronaut will serve as mission commander and provide guidance “during pre-flight preparation through mission execution.”

Axiom Space planned to send future missions without a NASA astronaut and have four paying customers instead of three, according to SpaceNews. It’s not yet clear how the new rules will affect the private space company’s original plan to launch private missions without a NASA astronaut at the controls.

The crew of the Ax-1 mission was tasked with a number of research experiments on board the ISS, including an EEG-enabled space helmet and the first two-way holoportation experiment to be performed in space. The Ax-1 crew consisted of three wealthy investors and entrepreneurs, Larry Connor, Eytan Stibbe and Mark Pathy, who had never been in space before. After landing on Earth, the crew members admitted they were overwhelmed by the amount of work they had to do on the ISSsaying they had too much to do in their busy schedule.

The presence of the Axiom crew on board the ISS also put pressure on the existing crew schedule. “Essentially, the arrival of Axiom personnel appeared to have a greater than expected impact on the daily workload of the professional crew of the International Space Station,” said Susan Helms, former NASA astronaut and member of the Aerospace Security Advisory Group at a roundtable in May.

The updated requirements now state that private missions must submit their research applications at least 12 months before the planned launch date in order to review their “feasibility and implementation perspective”. NASA will also need more time to train astronauts in microgravity before launch to better adapt to the spaceflight environment. After Ax-1, the private crew admittedly struggled to adapt to the microgravity environment. “We got up there and, boy, were we overwhelmed,” López-Alegría said at a post-mission press conference. “Getting used to weightlessness doesn’t happen overnight.”

The new rules also require a private mission-specific outreach plan to provide information to the public during training, pre-launch, in-orbit and return-to-Earth activities.

NASA and Axiom Space are preparing for the second private mission to the ISS. Axe-2 will be commanded by former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson and is expected to launch next spring.

After: Billionaires sent to space didn’t expect to work so hard on the ISS

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