NASA is changing the rules for Private Astronaut (PA) activities and behavior expectations for missions to the ISS. What is NASA changing and why?
Axiom Mission Overview
Axiom Mission 1, or Ax-1, was a privately funded and operated crewed mission to the ISS. The mission was operated by Axiom Space. The crew consisted of Michael López-Alegría (ex-NASA astronaut, and Axiom Mission Commander), Eytan Stibbe, Larry Connor, and Mark Pathy.
Ax-1 launched on April 8, 2022 and returned to Earth on April 25, 2022. The mission was originally scheduled for eight days but ended up being 15 days due to unfavorable weather conditions in the recovery area.
The Axiom crew hosted 30 STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) educational engagements from the ISS.
Ax-1 carried and operated 25 ISSNL sponsored experiments. Unfortunately, some experiments took much longer than expected and some activities required unscheduled help from the ISS crew. The extra effort took time away from the ISS crew and impacted their NASA scheduled work.
NASA changes for future Private Astronaut Missions
The changes are, in part, being made as a consequence of the Axiom Ax-1 Private Astronaut Mission (PAM) being unexpectedly disruptive to the ISS astronauts and their scheduled work activities.
The following sections identify the specific changes NASA is making and a guess at what might have triggered the change.
Specific PA activities and/or behaviors while on ISS were not acceptable?
NASA will make changes to the ISS Crew Code of Conduct in order to more clearly delineate the acceptable types of activities for a PA and the code of conduct that they must adhere to as a PA on the ISS.
Axiom submitted experiments for approval which required “expedited” ISSNL reviews and certifications?
Significant research activities were not originally envisioned as a primary objective for PAMs. Due to the time necessary to review the research requests from a feasibility and implementation standpoint, certify payloads for operation on ISS, and go through ethical (for human research) review boards, NASA is requiring the PAM provider submit research requests to ISSNL no later than 12 months prior to the launch date.
As a NASA risk mitigation strategy future PAs will need to sleep and use toilets on their vehicle?
There are two toilets on the ISS, one in the American segment and one in the Russian segment. During the Axiom mission, the toilet on the American segment was broken for several hours, which required using the Russian toilet. ISS typically has a crew of seven. With the 4 additional PAs, the number of people occupying the ISS grew to 11. This incident may have highlighted the need for alternative toileting arrangements when the ISS is hosting PAMs.
The ISS has 7 permanent sleeping compartments, each the size of a telephone booth. When additional astronauts arrive at the ISS, for example during crew transfers, there may be a brief period of overlap where there are 11 astronauts present on the station. During this brief period 2 astronauts will sleep in the SpaceX capsule and 2 others will coordinate with the NASA flight controllers to sleep in other locations in the space station. Ax-1’s 15 day long stay may have also highlighted the need for more “static” sleeping arrangements when the ISS is hosting PAMs.
NASA updated PAM transportation vehicle requirements for autonomous flight and PAM crew members’ sleep accommodation and hygiene location.
One or more PA was not medically qualified for ISS?
NASA is making additions and clarifications related to: assessments required to certify PA candidates, personnel proficiency levels for PAM biomedical expert support, and details on NASA site visits to PAM quarantine facilities.
Axiom mission schedules did not account for any PAs suffering from space sickness?
Historical data shows that 60% to 80% of astronauts suffer from space sickness in the first 2 to 3 days in orbit.
NASA is requiring PAMs to provide documentation of private astronaut work-day schedules and constraints. 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.
NASA or PAs wanted to end the mission early?
NASA is adding requirements associated with return cargo packing and mitigations prior to undock and definition of a minimum duration flight plan with prioritized activities. Since logistics of undock and splashdown are dependent on the window of opportunities available at the time of the mission, NASA added these requirements to ensure the PAM provider meets its overall mission objective(s) and enables flexibility should a mission need to be shortened.
Axiom PAM may not have formalized the NASA support and resources required for Axiom’s communications plan?
NASA is requiring the formal delivery of a mission specific communication plan outlining all media and commercial activities. PAMs have a broad range of technical, outreach, and commercial activities, therefore it is necessary for NASA to understand the PAM provider’s strategy and plan to release information to the public. The plan will cover all phases of flight from mission kick off through the end of the mission and includes media interactions for crew announcements, private astronaut training, commercial partnerships, prelaunch, launch, on-orbit mission operations, and return to Earth activities, as well as stakeholders’ (e.g. NASA and the US crew vehicle provider) role in this process.
Axiom’s use of an experienced ex-NASA astronaut as the mission commander was viewed as a best practice to be continued?
NASA is requiring that future PAMs include a former flown NASA (U.S.) government astronaut as the mission commander. A former NASA astronaut provides experienced guidance for the private astronauts during pre-flight preparation through mission execution. Based on their past on- orbit and NASA experience, the PAM commander provides a link between the resident ISS expedition crew and the private astronauts and reduces risk to ISS operations and PAM/ISS safety.
Priceless experience for both Axiom and NASA
The experience gained from the mission will help ensure future private astronaut missions, whether to the ISS or a private space station, will be both safe and productive.