Lueders Confident of ISS Partnership as Ax-1 Readies for Launch

Lueders Confident of ISS Partnership as Ax-1 Readies for Launch

NASA’s head of space operations, Kathy Lueders, expressed confidence today that the ISS partnership will transcend the current geopolitical crisis. She spoke at a press conference in advance of the launch of the first private astronaut crew, Axiom-1, to the ISS, scheduled for March 30. No changes are anticipated for that mission or the return of three ISS crewmembers from the ISS the same day.

NASA Associate Administrator for Space Operations Kathy Lueders at a press conference on the Axiom-1 mission, February 28, 2022. Screengrab.

A 30-year NASA veteran, Lueders managed the commercial crew program at NASA before her promotion to head human spaceflight operations at NASA headquarters two years ago. Today she conveyed a sense of calm about the status of the U.S.-Russian-European-Canadian-Japanese relationship in space versus what’s happening here on Earth in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

We are not getting any indications on a working level that our counterparts [in Russia] are not committed to ongoing operation of the International Space Station. We as a team are operating just like we were operating three weeks. ago. [Flight] controllers are still talking together. Our teams are still talking together. We’re still doing training together. We’re still working together. …

[The ISS] is a place where we live and operate in space in a peaceful manner … and I actually feel like this is good message for us – that we are operating peacefully in space now. …  It would be a sad day for international operations if we can’t continue to peacefully operate in space and as a team we are doing that.

SpaceX developed its Crew Dragon spacecraft through NASA’s commercial crew program. NASA’s goal was for SpaceX and Boeing, which is developing Starliner, to build and own crew space transportation systems where NASA would be just one of many customers.

SpaceX is achieving that goal. Its first Crew Dragon mission with only private astronauts, Inspiration4, took place last fall. That four-person set of non-professional astronauts spent three days orbiting Earth, but did not visit ISS. The Axiom-1 (Ax-1) crew will.

Like Inspiration4, all four are commercial astronauts, but the misison commander, Michael López-Alegria is a former NASA astronaut who now works for Axiom. This will be his fifth spaceflight. He has already spent 257 days in space and conducted 10 spacewalks.

His companions are three very wealthy entrepreneurs who are paying an undisclosed price for the trip, but it is rumored to be about $55 million each. If launch takes place as scheduled on March 30, they will spend 10 days on the ISS, docking on March 31 and undocking on April 9.

Axiom-1 crew, L-R: Larry Connor (U.S.), Michael López-Alegria (U.S.), Mark Pathy (Canada), and Eytan Stibbe (Israel). Credit: Axiom Space

Several terms are used to refer to people who fly into space as commercial passengers, often “space tourists.” López-Alegria pushed back today on using that term to refer to his crew insisting they will be conducting about 25 scientific research and technology experiuments while aboard the ISS, not just enjoying weightlessness and views of the Earth.

But the news of the day is sanctions that are being imposed on Russia because of its invasion of Ukraine.  Earlier today the European Space Agency announced that the launch of its ExoMars 2022 rover in September is “very unlikely” because of the sanctions.

Russia itself has retaliated against the sanctions by suspending launches of its Soyuz-ST rockets from Europe’s launch site in French Guiana and cooperation with NASA on a planetary science mission to Venus.

The situation begs the issue of whether the ISS partnership can weather the storm. NASA and its partners are right now negotiating over extending ISS operations from 2024 to 2030. Russia has not agreed.

Asked if NASA has any contingency plans in case Russia stops participating, Lueders pointed out that the ISS was “created as an international partnership with joint dependencies, which is what makes it such an amazing program.” It would be “very difficult” to operate it without them.

She added, however, that NASA is always looking at ways to increase operational flexibility. For example until now, periodically boosting the ISS’s orbit to compensate for atmospheric drag has been done using engines on Russia’s Zvezda space station module or Progress cargo resupply ships. For the first time, a U.S. cargo ship, Northrop Grumman’s NG-17 Cygnus, capable of performing a reboost is now docked at the ISS. But her message was that the ISS remains a team effort and Russia is part of that team.

Mike Suffredini, President and CEO, Axiom Space. Credit: Axiom Space.

ISS will not last forever, however, and NASA is working with Axiom and three other companies to build commercial space stations to replace the ISS. NASA’s plan is to transition to the new commercial facilities in 2030. Axiom is building a module that will attach to the ISS in 2024 and detach and become a free-flying commercial space station as early as 2028 after other hardware is added.

Axiom President and CEO Michael Suffredini, a former NASA ISS program manager who left the agency to create Axiom, was asked today if the schedule could be accelerated. He did not directly answer the question, but confirmed the plan remains on track for the first module’s launch in 2024, then two more modules after which “we’re sitting in a state waiting for the point at which ISS is ready to retire.” Then the final piece, a power and cooling module, will be launched. Axiom was the first company to sign a commercial space station contract with NASA and is the furthest along. The other three companies are still in the design phase, so keeping ISS operating for at least six more years is critical.

Apart from short-term visits like Ax-1, ISS crews typically rotate on 6-month schedules and a Russian crew rotation is about to take place. Three Russian cosmonauts will launch to the ISS on March 18.

Two Russian cosmonauts, Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov, and NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei will return to Earth March 30, the same day Ax-1 launches. Vande Hei and Dubrov pulled a double shift and have been onboard for almost a year — 355 days. Shkaplerov arrived in October. They have been onboard with three other NASA astronauts — Raja Chari, Thomas Marshburn, and Kayla Barron — and ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer who will remain until April when a new U.S./European crew will replace them.

Shkaplerov, Dubrov and Vande Hei are returning on Russia’s Soyuz MS-19 spacecraft, landing in Kazakhstan. NASA typically sends a sizable team, including medical personnel, to meet returning astronauts. asked NASA over the weekend if they might consider bringing Vande Hei back on Ax-1 instead of Soyuz MS-19. It would require one of the Ax-1 crew to give up his seat, but it would avoid the need to travel to Kazakhstan and Vande Hei would be that much closer to home when he landed. The answer was no.

No. On March 30, a Soyuz spacecraft will return as scheduled carrying NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei and cosmonauts Pyotr Dubrov and Anton Shkaplerov back to Earth. Upon their return, Vande Hei will hold the American record for the longest single human spaceflight mission of 355 days. — NASA spokesperson

Lueders reiterated today that the plans for Vande Hei’s return are proceeding as planned.

We are getting ready for Mark to return and all of our normal operations are in place for us to be able to go do that. But as you know, we continue to… monitor the situation. We have operated … in these kinds of situations before and both sides always operated very professionally and understand at our level the importance of this fantastic mission and continuing to have peaceful relations between the two countries in space.

NASA astronauts have been launching and landing on Soyuz spacecraft since the very first ISS crew over 21 years ago. NASA astronaut Bill Shepherd and Russian cosmonauts Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko opened the hatch between their Soyuz TM-31 spacecraft and the ISS for the first time on November 2, 2000.

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