Commercial crews and private astronauts will boost International Space Station's science

SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft approaches the International Space Station with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, on May 31, 2020.
SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft approaches the International Space Station with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, on May 31, 2020. (Image credit: NASA)

A golden age may be coming for human spaceflight research as more astronauts than ever fly to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard commercial crew vehicles and through private companies, NASA officials said during an online conference Thursday (Aug. 27).

"We're going to have more people on the International Space Station than we've had in a long time, and [research and development] throughput is actually going to increase," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in opening prerecorded remarks for the ISS Research & Development conference.

Bridenstine was referring to a new era of human spaceflight that opened on May 30, when SpaceX launched its first-ever crewed mission, the Demo-2 test flight. Demo-2 sent NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the ISS for two months, ending on Aug. 2 when SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule made the first American ocean splashdown from orbit since 1975.

Related: SpaceX's historic Demo-2 test flight in photos

Demo-2 was made possible by more than a decade's worth of work across several presidential administrations. The goal was to spur the development of private American spaceships to fill the shoes of NASA's space shuttle fleet, which retired in 2011 after 30 years of service. 

The space shuttle typically ferried crews of seven astronauts to and from the space station. Russian Soyuz spacecraft, the only orbital crewed vehicle available for the past nine years until Crew Dragon came online, can carry just three people at a time.

Crew Dragon and Boeing's delayed (but forthcoming) CST-100 Starliner capsule will carry four astronauts apiece on their operational ISS missions for NASA. (Both companies won multibillion contracts from NASA's Commercial Crew Program in 2014.)

This boost over the Soyuz crew size will expand crew research time during long missions to 70 hours a week, NASA ISS program manager Joel Montalbano said in another set of prerecorded remarks broadcast at the conference. (Montalbano did not say how many hours ISS crews of three to six people typically perform today).

"For commercial crew vehicles, we're continuing to work with the teams," Montalbano added, saying the agency is aiming for a "steady cadence" between SpaceX and Boeing to send astronauts to the space station to perform science and research. 

The first operational SpaceX crewed mission is set to fly in late October, and NASA is accelerating crew announcements for future flights — such as one this week in which it named astronaut Jeanette Epps to the first operational Boeing Starliner mission to the space station, which is expected to launch next year.

These crews will arrive on the space station seasoned via a couple of years of training per astronaut. They'll also have the benefit of knowledge accrued over the past 20 years, during which the ISS has been continuously staffed by rotating astronaut crews. 

Kathy Lueders, NASA's newly appointed head of human spaceflight, said she remembered an early space station assembly flight (Flight 2A in 1998) being derailed for five hours as crew and ground control discussed how to address a broken treadmill piece, the treadmill being critical to keep astronauts healthy through exercise. "Today it would be a very short conversation," Lueders said in live remarks at the conference Thursday. "The crew would fix it and move on."

Related: The International Space Station inside and out (infographic)

Lueders pointed out that NASA is getting more comfortable with continuing challenging space station work even during test missions. During Demo-2, for example, ISS crewmembers participated in an ongoing set of battery replacements to upgrade power on the station. "In the past, we would have been avoiding that," she said.

Increased crew autonomy and increased crew sizes are two things buttressing the possibility of more ISS research. Private modules and crews are also on the horizon. 

In January 2020, NASA selected the Houston company Axiom Space to build a private ISS module, with a target launch date of 2024. In June, Axiom selected Thales Alenia to build that new module, which will be designed to fly independently when the station program comes to an end.

Space Act proposals for private astronaut missions are ongoing, Angela Hart, NASA's low Earth orbit commercialization manager, said in live remarks at the conference. These private astronauts will be distinct from space tourists; a handful of people have paid millions of dollars each for brief stays on the ISS or the Soviet/Russian space station, Mir, which was deorbited in 2001. The new private astronauts, however, would presumably be employed by a company to perform private research, similar to the payload specialist position that used to be open to outsiders early in the space shuttle program.

NASA has received proposals from multiple companies, and two proposals are being reviewed, Hart said, without disclosing details on what the evaluation metrics are and which companies are being considered for the opportunity. (That said, Axiom and SpaceX jointly announced earlier this year that they aim to fly four private astronauts to the ISS as soon as 2021, for a 10-day mission.)

Hart added that the selected companies will have opportunities to fly up to twice per year, for short-duration missions of 10 to 30 days apiece. A typical space station stay for NASA astronauts and international crews is six months.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: