The move comes as a number of private citizens are flying to space, changing the definition of what an astronaut is and who gets to be one.
Private companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX have sent crews comprised entirely of private citizens to 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, something Russia had been doing for years.
The new rules come a few months after the first private astronaut mission to the ISS from the United States in a flight arranged by Axiom Space, a Houston-based company that is working to build a space station of its own. Three paying customers flew in a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former NASA astronaut who now is an executive at the company. Axiom is planning another mission, which will also have a former NASA veteran onboard, Peggy Whitson.
The company had been planning on future missions to fly crews without a guide. But in a notice this week, first reported by SpaceNews, the space agency said that “a former NASA astronaut provides experienced guidance for the private astronauts during preflight preparation through mission execution,” as well as acting as a liaison between the private crew and the professionals onboard the station. Having a former NASA astronaut along “reduces risk to ISS operations,” the space agency said.
In an interview, Lopez-Alegria said he agrees with the changes. “It’s a good idea,” he said, adding that it was “a 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 do think that there is a possibility that should be considered — that at some point we can wean ourselves from this after we have enough experience,” he said. “It’s no secret that the more seats we sell, the more revenue we get. So it shouldn’t surprise anybody that at some point we’d like to transition to a model where we don’t have a previously flown astronaut.”
The mission pilot, Larry Connor, the founder and managing partner of the Connor Group, a real estate investment firm based in Ohio, agreed. Because the visitors spent a lot of time conducting research and were the first all-private crew to call on the station, “I think having a proven NASA commander like Mike L.A. was really key,” he said. “We were the first ones. We had to get it right. We had to meet or exceed all of the appropriate NASA standards, which we did.”
During the Axiom flight, Lopez-Alegria was busy, he said, making sure the visitors got the most out of their experience. While they prepared diligently for the flight, training for hundreds of hours at SpaceX outside Los Angeles and NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, arriving in space still required a significant adjustment.
Many astronauts get sick when in space, a condition known as space adaptation syndrome. Some find that with no up or down in a weightless environment, they get nauseous, like a heavy car sickness. Lopez-Alegria said the three he traveled with did not suffer any illness: “It was remarkable how well we all felt.”
Connor said that as soon as he floated into the space station, “I’m like, ‘When do we eat?’ By day two or three I was super comfortable in zero-G floating around sleeping. Like so many things it comes down to the individual.”
Still, learning how to move in a weightless environment can be jarring. Rookie astronauts bang their heads, crash into walls or instrumentation. They have difficulty finding toeholds to keep them in place. Anything not tethered down floats away.
“The problem is when you get to the space station everything becomes more difficult,” said Garrett Reisman, a former NASA astronaut who helped prepare one of the crew members, Eytan Stibbe, for the flight. “Simple daily tasks like brushing your teeth become complicated. … Everything takes a lot longer than you anticipate, and I’m not even going to get into bathroom operations. That’s the worst of all.”
The Axiom-1 crew included Connor, Stibbe, a businessman and former Israeli Air Force fighter pilot, and Mark Pathy, the chief executive of Mavrik Corp., a Canadian investment firm. Instead of going on a pure joyride, they conducted research and science 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, we were overwhelmed,” he said during a conference last week. “Getting used to zero gravity is not an overnight thing.”
For the next private astronaut flight, he said in the interview, “the timelines will be more relaxed. We will have more free time. And we will give ourselves ample time to acclimate to the zero-G environment.”