WASHINGTON — La NASA está cambiando las reglas para futuras misiones privadas de astronautas a la Estación Espacial Internacional, lo que incluye exigir que dichas misiones sean dirigidas por un exastronauta de la NASA.
En un aviso de adquisición del 1 de agosto , la NASA anunció cambios en los requisitos para futuras solicitudes de misiones privadas de astronautas, o PAM, a la estación. Los cambios, dijo la agencia, provienen de la experiencia de la primera misión de este tipo, el vuelo Ax-1 de Axiom Space en abril, “y otros vuelos espaciales recientes con tripulación civil”.
Uno de los cambios más importantes, y que aún se está finalizando de acuerdo con el aviso de adquisición, es el requisito de que tales misiones tengan “un astronauta del gobierno de la NASA (EE. UU.) que haya volado” como comandante. “Un exastronauta de la NASA brinda orientación experimentada a los astronautas privados durante la preparación previa al vuelo hasta la ejecución de la misión”, afirma el documento, y “proporciona un vínculo entre la tripulación residente de la expedición de la ISS y los astronautas privados y reduce el riesgo para las operaciones de la ISS y PAM/ Seguridad de la EEI”.
The Ax-1 mission was led by a former NASA astronaut, Michael López-Alegría. The company’s second mission, the only other PAM approved to date by NASA, will also be led by a former NASA astronaut, Peggy Whitson.
“It became pretty clear, first of all, that customers really didn’t want to fly with nobody who has done it before,” López-Alegría recalled of planning for the Ax-1 mission during a talk at the ISS Research and Development Conference July 28. “Secondly, NASA was a lot more comfortable having someone who had been there before.”
However, Axiom executives said shortly before the Ax-1 mission that they were looking ahead to missions without a professional astronaut on board. Michael Suffredini, president and chief executive of Axiom, said at an April 1 briefing that the company expected to fly four customers, rather than three customers and one professional astronaut, by its fourth mission.
That change has implications for the revenue and profitability of such flights. Axiom has declined to say if the current missions, with three paying customers, are profitable.
Other changes to the PAM requirements outlined in the NASA notice also clearly reflect the experience from Ax-1. NASA will require private missions to submit research plans to the ISS National Laboratory at least 12 months in advance in order to review them and certify payloads. “Significant research activities were not originally envisioned as a primary objective for private astronaut missions,” the document states.
Similarly, the new requirements include a “mission specific communications plan” outlining media and commercial activities for a mission, including those taking place in space, and the roles of NASA and the company providing the crew vehicle will play.
“Our time on ISS was extraordinarily busy,” López-Alegría said at the conference. “We had a timeline that looked just like a NASA timeline.” That included 25 experiments and 30 outreach events that took “well over 100 hours” of crew time, he said.
That tight schedule is linked to another requirements change. “Arrival to the spaceflight environment requires adaptation time for each individual; therefore, NASA is requiring additional time for microgravity adaptation and handover activities prior to the execution of the main mission activities,” the document states.
“We got up there and, boy, we were overwhelmed,” López-Alegría said. “Getting used to zero gravity is not an overnight thing.” The original timelines, he said, didn’t allow enough time to get adapted to life on 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 own lessons-learned processes, along with separate ones by NASA and SpaceX. One change for Ax-2 is that Whitson will have more time to assist the private astronauts accompanying her. “That will help offload the burden that we put on the ISS crew,” he said.
Axiom is in the final stages of planning with NASA for that mission, expected to fly next spring. He said the company has “kind of put together” an Ax-3 mission, depending on when NASA seeks proposals for another PAM.
“Todavía tenemos mucho que aprender”, dijo Kathy Lueders, administradora asociada de la NASA para operaciones espaciales, de misiones privadas de astronautas durante otro panel en la conferencia del 27 de julio. Dijo que la NASA estaba trabajando para implementar las lecciones aprendidas de Ax-1. en futuras solicitudes de PAM. “Verá algo de ese aprendizaje a medida que salgamos con nuestros nuevos acuerdos en el futuro”.