NASA will soon require a retired astronaut to serve as mission commander on all private flights to the International Space Station, according to an agency notice posted today. The policy — which has yet to be finalized — is intended to both increase passenger safety and reduce any strain on existing ISS operations. The former astronauts would provide “experienced guidance for the private astronauts during pre-flight preparation through mission execution."
A number of changes will also have an impact on the space tourists themselves, including new medical standards for private astronauts, more lead time for private research projects, changes to the policy for return cargo and additional time for private astronauts to adjust to microgravity.
According to the notice, the new changes were a result of “lessons learned” on last April’s Axiom Space flight, where passengers paid $55 million each to fly on the first private astronaut mission to the ISS. The hectic, two-week trip — where passengers also worked on their own research — took a toll on both the ISS crew and the Axiom crew themselves, according to interviews with astronauts following the mission’s return.
The Ax-1 mission actually had a former NASA astronaut at its helm — Michael López-Alegría, who currently is the Chief Astronaut at Axiom. The company was considering crewing future missions without a professional astronaut on board as that would free up space for an extra (paying) passenger on board, Axiom president Michael Suffredini said at a press conference earlier this year. The new policy by NASA is likely an effort to prevent such unsupervised missions.
Capable astronauts aren’t exactly a dime a dozen. Currently, there are well over 200 living retired NASA astronauts, according to the agency’s website — though it’s unclear how many would be willing to command future missions or meet the medical requirements. NASA itself is in the middle of an astronaut shortage — its current corps of 44 astronauts is the smallest since the 1970s. An agency report from January said a lack of working NASA astronauts could complicate future missions to the ISS and the moon.