NASA plans to help support two new private astronaut missions to low Earth orbit.
The agency announced Wednesday (Sept. 14) that it has asked private industry to provide proposals for commercial astronaut missions to the International Space Station(ISS). The call for proposals envisions two new missions that will run between late 2023 and 2024 as NASA and the multinational ISS coalition seek to expand private research on the orbiting complex.
NASA already pioneered such an arrangement with the Houston-based company Axiom Space, whose first sortie sent three paying customers and a retired NASA spaceflyer to the ISS earlier this year on a mission called Ax-1.
While the Ax-1 astronauts were somewhat overtasked in orbit, NASA and Axiom have said they have a sustainable path to move forward on a second mission, which is expected to lift off in 2023. And now, the space agency is ready to plan for more.
"These [missions] provide a unique opportunity for industry to gain critical experience needed to select, train, and manage crews on future commercial low-Earth orbit [LEO] destinations, as well as work with new science partners, future commercial partners and grow this non-traditional market," Angela Hart, manager of the commercial LEO program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, said in an agency statement Wednesday.
This approach will be especially crucial as NASA plans for life after the ISS. The agency hopes to run operations on the orbiting complex until 2030, pending a sign-off from the other ISS partners. (Russia has said it will bow out at some point after 2024.) The next step in off-Earth living and research may be a set of commercial space stations that NASA announced early-stage funding for late last year.
The newly announced call for proposals outlines 14-day missions to the ISS, but specific dates will be announced after the spacecraft docking schedule is finalized, along with in-orbit activities. The missions, NASA said, must be brokered by a U.S. entity and use an American transportation spacecraft. Currently, SpaceX is the only provider authorized by NASA for astronaut flight services to orbit. (Elon Musk's company launched Ax-1 and will launch the Ax-2 mission in spring 2023 as well.)
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Other restrictions will include a requirement to have a retired NASA astronaut at the helm of the coming missions. Ax-1 went to orbit with retired agency astronaut Michael López-Alegría commanding the mission, and Ax-2 will be under the helm of Peggy Whitson, another NASA retiree.
Proposals are due on Oct. 27, 2022. NASA plans to hold a pre-proposal conference for interested vendors at 11 a.m. EDT (1500 GMT) on Friday (Sept. 16).