WASHINGTON — The private astronauts who spent two weeks on the International Space Station in April said they tried to over-pack their schedules on the station, straining both themselves and the professional astronauts there.
At a May 13 press conference, the four people who flew to the station on Axiom Space’s Ax-1 mission said that while they had a good trip to the station, they overestimated how much work they had to do once they arrived at the station ISS could do April 9 for what was initially planned as an eight-day stay.
“Our schedule was very aggressive, especially early in the mission,” said Michael López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut and current Axiom employee who commanded Ax-1. “In the beginning the pace was hectic.”
“In hindsight, we were way too aggressive with our schedule, especially for the first few days,” said Larry Connor, one of the three customers who accompanied López-Alegría on Ax-1. He gave an example of an experiment that was supposed to take two and a half hours based on pre-flight training, but ended up taking five hours.
López-Alegría thanked the four NASA and European Space Agency Crew-3 astronauts who were on the station during her visit for their support, calling them “extraordinarily helpful, kind, kind, sharing” during their stay. “I can’t say enough good things about her, and we really needed her.”
This affected the Crew 3 astronauts’ own work schedule. During a May 12 meeting of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, Susan Helms, a former NASA astronaut on the panel, said the Ax-1 visit raised “no obvious safety issues” but that it impacted the astronauts’ performance.
“There was some real-time dynamics related to flight crew schedules with the addition of these four Axiom employees who had their own flight destinations,” she said. “In essence, the arrival of Axiom personnel appeared to have a greater than expected impact on the day-to-day workload of the International Space Station’s professional crew.”
While the Ax-1 mission enabled some new scientific discoveries and the ability to ship some NASA cargo back to Earth, “there was also some opportunity cost in the form of undue strain on ISS members on board and the mission leaders who support them.” on site,” said Helms. She recommended managing future private astronaut missions in “normalized processes” that fully integrate them into overall ISS activities.
“It is our responsibility to reduce our burden on the crew,” Michael Suffredini, president and chief executive officer of Axiom Space, said at the news conference, saying it was part of “lessons learned” talks with NASA and SpaceX, which will guide future missions will affect to the station. “Over time we will reduce the workload for the crew.”
One way to reduce this burden is to spread the work out over a longer stay. The Ax-1 mission ended up spending more than 15 days on the ISS instead of the original 8 days due to unfavorable weather conditions at landing sites off the coast of Florida.
“It was a blessing to have extra time,” said López-Alegría. “I think we were so focused on research and outreach for the first 8 or 10 days in orbit that we needed the extra time to complete the experience by having time to look out the window, socializing with friends and take in family, just enjoying the sensation.”
Suffredini said longer missions must fit into a busy schedule on the ISS and address issues such as the impact on the life support system when 11 people are there for an extended period of time. However, he noted that Axiom has planned 30-day missions to the station and would like to go up to 60 days.
“This flight was really incredibly successful,” he said. “From our point of view, we’re going to be a little bit more efficient, train a little bit differently and do a few things to improve the timeline.”
He added that since Ax-1, the company has sold three seats for future missions, including an agreement with the United Arab Emirates announced on April 29 to fly an Emirati astronaut on a long-duration mission, with a NASA-provided seat in the Exchange for a Soyuz Seat Axiom had previously purchased from Roscosmos. He declined to disclose the other customers who signed up.