WASHINGTON — The private astronauts who spent two weeks on the International Space Station in April said they were trying to cram too much into their schedules while on the station, putting pressure on both themselves and the professional astronauts there.
At a press conference on May 13, the four people who flew to the station on Axiom Space’s Ax-1 mission said that even though they had a good trip to the station, they overestimated how much work they could do after arriving at the station. ISS April 9 for what was originally to be an eight-day stay.
“Our timeline was very aggressive, especially early in the mission,” said Michael López-Alegría, the former NASA astronaut and current Axiom employee who commanded Ax-1. “The pace was hectic in the beginning.”
“In hindsight, we were way too aggressive in our schedule, especially the first few days,” said Larry Connor, one of three clients who accompanied López-Alegría on Ax-1. He gave an example of an experiment that, according to preflight training, was supposed to take two and a half hours, but ended up taking five hours.
López-Alegría thanked the four Crew-3 astronauts from NASA and the European Space Agency who were at the station for help during their visit, calling them “extremely helpful, gracious, kind, sharing” during their stay. “I can’t say enough good things about them, and we really needed them.”
This had consequences for the Crew-3 astronauts’ own work schedule. At a meeting of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel on May 12, Susan Helms, a former NASA astronaut who serves on the panel, said the Ax-1’s visit presented “no apparent overt safety concerns,” but that it affected the performance of the Ax-1. astronauts.
“There was some real-time dynamics to the flight crew timelines with the addition of these four Axiom employees, who had their own flight targets,” she said. “Essentially, the arrival of the Axiom personnel appeared to have a greater-than-expected impact on the daily workload of the International Space Station’s professional crew.”
While the Ax-1 mission enabled some new science, and the ability to carry some NASA cargo back to Earth, “there was also some opportunity cost in the form of undue stress from the workload of the ISS members on board and the mission controllers that support them on the ground,” Helms said, advising future private astronaut missions to be managed in “normalized processes” that fully integrate them into the overall ISS operations.
“It’s up to us to reduce our burden on the crew,” Michael Suffredini, president and chief executive of Axiom Space, said at the press conference, saying this was part of “lessons learned” discussions with NASA and SpaceX that will explore future missions will inquire about the station. “Over time we will reduce what the crew has to do.”
One way to reduce that burden is to extend the work over a longer stay. The Ax-1 mission ended up spending more than 15 days on the ISS, instead of its original 8, due to adverse weather conditions at landing sites off the Florida coast.
“It was a blessing to have the extra time,” said López-Alegría. “I think in the first 8 or 10 days in space we were so focused on research and outreach that we needed the extra time to complete the experience by having time to look out the window, connect with friends and family, just to enjoy the thrill.”
Suffredini said longer missions should fit into a busy schedule on the ISS and address issues such as the effects on the life support system of 11 people there for an extended period of time. However, he noted that Axiom has scheduled 30-day missions to the station and would like to go 60 days.
“This flight was really hugely successful,” he said. “From our perspective, we’re going to be a little bit more efficient, train a little bit differently, do a few things to help the timeline.”
He added that the company had sold three seats for future missions since Ax-1, including an agreement announced on April 29 with the United Arab Emirates to fly an Emirati astronaut on a long-term mission using a seat provided by the United Arab Emirates. NASA was provided in exchange for a Soyuz. chair that Axiom had previously purchased from Roscosmos. He declined to disclose the other customers who had signed up.