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Ax-1 splashdown
A Crww Dragon spacecraft splashes down off the Florida coast April 25 to end the Ax-1 private astronaut mission to the ISS. (credit: SpaceX)

Lessons from a new era of destinations

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A delayed flight home is usually a bad thing—unless, perhaps, you’re in space.

“Here we are at the conclusion of an incredible mission, and I must say the teams exceeded every expectation,” Axiom’s Blachman said.

The four private astronauts on Axiom Space’s Ax-1 mission arrived at the International Space Station April 9 on a Crew Dragon spacecraft for what was supposed to be an eight-day stay. Instead, the four remained on the station for more than 15 days before departing late April 24, safely splashing down the next day off the coast from Jacksonville, Florida.

The Ax-1 crew got effectively a free extra week on the ISS because of poor weather at splashdown locations in both the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. “We had a pattern of high winds that affected all of our various potential landing sites,” said Benji Reed, senior director of human spaceflight programs at SpaceX, in a call with reporters after splashdown.

Despite the delay, Axiom called the mission, the first private astronaut mission to the ISS by a US spacecraft, a success. “Here we are at the conclusion of an incredible mission, and I must say the teams exceeded every expectation,” Amir Blachman, chief business officer of Axiom Space, said after splashdown. “We could not be more proud of what has just been accomplished.”

The mission was the latest step in a long-term plan by NASA and industry to transition from the ISS to commercial stations by the end of the decade. Those private astronaut missions to the ISS are intended to prime the pump for more ambitious commercial activities on a commercial module Axiom plans to add to the ISS in the middle of the decade and, later, commercial space stations being developed by Axiom and others.

It also illustrated some the challenges of that mission. For example, did the extended stay of Ax-1 at the ISS mean NASA would charge Axiom more money for life support and other services? Would that charge then be passed on to the three customers, who each paid a rumored $55 million for the flight?

Axiom said that the company’s agreement with NASA included provisions for an extended stay, but declined to go into specifics. (The company has been reticent to discuss financial aspects of the mission, including whether the Ax-1 mission itself will make a profit.) NASA said that the agreement included “equitable balance” to cover delays like what Ax-1 experienced. “NASA negotiated the contract with a strategy that does not require reimbursement for additional undock delays,” agency spokesperson Stephanie Schierholz said.

The delayed return of Ax-1 also affected NASA’s Crew-4 mission, another Crew Dragon flight carrying NASA and ESA astronauts to the station for a long-duration stay. Crew-4 could not launch until after Ax-1 returned home, although NASA and SpaceX managed to successfully launch Crew-4 less than 39 hours after Ax-1 splashed down.

“Our joint team had to make sure we weren’t going to screw anything up. We had to do it one step at a time, not in a hurry, making sure that we got it done,” Lueders said.

“We started with a little more spacing than what you’re seeing here between the Axiom and the Crew-4 missions, and that’s always our goal, to space these things out, give you some time to work any issues you have,” said Joel Montalbano, NASA ISS program manager, last week. “One of the lessons learned out of this is to see if we can define a better spacing between the missions.”

He noted the program had to deal with not just the Ax-1 and Crew-4 missions, but working launches around the delayed SLS wet dress rehearsal, Russian spacewalks, and launches in May and June of a Boeing CST-100 Starliner on an uncrewed test flight and a SpaceX cargo Dragon mission. “Spaceflight tends to be a magnet of dynamic activities,” he said. “They all tend to draw together.”

“We learned a lot conducting that mission. We learned a lot about cadence,” Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for space operations, said of Ax-1 in a talk Thursday at the AIAA ASCENDx Texas conference in Houston. “Our joint team had to make sure we weren’t going to screw anything up. We had to do it one step at a time, not in a hurry, making sure that we got it done.”

Those lessons from Ax-1 are valuable, both NASA and industry said, as they move into a future with more commercial activity on ISS and, eventually, commercial space stations. “We’ve had some early validation of the crewed market with the successful Ax-1 mission,” said Michael Baine, chief engineer and chief designer of Axiom Space, during a panel of commercial space station developers Wednesday at the AIAA conference. The company is looking ahead to its next crewed ISS mission, Ax-2, scheduled for early spring of 2023.

“I think that market is going to take off as we expect it to,” he said, adding the company was seeing “some early signs of life” from media and entertainment markets for its future commercial ISS modules and standalone space station.

One issue that he and others raised is the transition of research being done on the ISS to commercial platforms. “Every one of our business cases has assumptions in it about the fraction of the NASA market that we’re going to capture,” said Brent Sherwood, senior vice president of advanced development programs at Blue Origin. “I guarantee you that, if you add up all those fractions across this stage, it exceeds unity.”

He suggested NASA could help companies by providing more quantitative data about how it would divide up research currently being done on the ISS among two or more stations. “Having that quantified would help all of us.”

Jeffrey Manber, president of international and space stations at Voyager Space, said he’s still waiting to see more research emerge from customers other than NASA and other government agencies. “We don’t have that magical mix yet of industrial players,” he said. “We have to have that mix between the NASA-inspired research, US government research, and also, we’ve got to figure out the ways that get the overall industry involved.”

But the near-term success and the long-term optimism face a medium-term challenge: whether the ISS will last long enough to enable that transition to commercial space stations by the end of the decade. The Biden Administration formally endorsed at the end of last year an extension of the ISS through 2030, a move that Canada, Europe and Japan have also backed.

However, even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February severed most cooperation between the West and Russia in space outside of the ISS, Roscosmos had expressed skepticism about extending the ISS beyond 2024, citing what it thought was a growing cost to maintain the aging station.

Russia has not provided any clarity about its plans since then beyond occasional Russian media reports, such as one over the weekend where Dmitry Rogozin, head of Roscosmos, claimed that Russia had decided when to leave the ISS but “we’re not obliged to talk about it publicly” beyond it would not be before 2024. He added that, if and when Russia decided to exit the ISS partnership, he would give the other partners one year’s notice.

“Ending that partnership is going to be a challenging thing,” Kelly said. “It would be hard for either country to operate the ISS without the other country.”

NASA administrator Bill Nelson, speaking at a briefing before the Crew-4 launch last week, said he remained optimistic that Russia would remain part of the ISS partnership for the long term. He cited the “professional relationship” that continues between NASA and Roscosmos on day-to-day ISS operations.

“Despite the horrors that we are seeing with our eyes daily on television of what’s happening in Ukraine as the result of political decisions that are being made by the president of Russia,” Nelson said, “I see that professional relationship with astronauts and cosmonauts and the ground teams in the two respective mission controls continuing.”

At the McCain Institute’s Sedona Forum on Saturday, Sen. Mark Kelly (D-AZ), a former astronaut, said he talks regularly with Nelson and with NASA’s deputy administrator, Pam Melroy, on how the Ukraine crisis affects NASA and, specifically, the ISS. While NASA has not talked about contingency plans should Russia exit the ISS partnership in 2024, or any time before the retirement of the station, he suggested that NASA could turn to commercial cargo vehicles to provide the reboost of the station’s orbit that the station’s Russia segment currently handles.

“Ending that partnership is going to be a challenging thing,” he said. “It would be hard for either country to operate the ISS without the other country.”

He suggested there could be pressure from the US side to reexamine its partnership with Russia on the ISS as the West ratchets up sanctions on Russia. “Eventually we will have done everything and there will be one thing left, and that’s this partnership in space on ISS with them,” he said.

Those working on commercial space stations are focused on the long-term prospects, and that fact that such stations look more feasible now than ever. “We’re here talking about four private space stations. I’ve waited a long time for this,” Manber said on a panel that included Axiom, Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman. “This is a new era of destinations.”

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