Space Tourism Hitting Its Stride

Space Tourism Hitting Its Stride

Twenty years after Dennis Tito became the first space “tourist” on the International Space Station (ISS), business is booming. Four confirmed orbital trips by private astronauts to ISS or simply into orbit are coming up in the next several months. A future mission will loop around the Moon. Suborbital space tourism also appears imminent. The future is finally here, raising questions of NASA’s role and whether current laws and regulations for private space travel are sufficient.

Today, Russia’s space state corporation Roscosmos announced the names of  privately-sponsored participants in two Soyuz missions to the ISS in October and December this year.  That makes four missions carrying private astronauts into orbit in the next several months.

On Monday, NASA and Axiom Space signed an agreement for Axiom’s four-person Ax-1 crew to spend about a week aboard ISS in January 2022, arriving and departing on a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft.  SpaceX has a separate deal to launch four people in a Crew Dragon on the Inspiration4 mission this September, but they will not visit the ISS.

Tito’s 2001 visit to the ISS is often cited as the first space tourist flight, though definitions of what constitutes a tourist vary. A wealthy American, he reportedly paid about $20 million to fly to the ISS on a Russian Soyuz, a trip brokered by the U.S. company Space Adventures. Six others followed through 2009, one of whom flew twice (Charles Simonyi) before NASA began purchasing all the extra seats on Soyuz as the space shuttle program came to an end.

With the certification of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, NASA no longer requires Soyuz seats and the Russians can once again sell them to anyone. Russia was charging NASA about $90 million per seat. How much they are asking from private astronauts has not been disclosed.

NASA was a reluctant partner in those early tourist visits to ISS, but not anymore. Crew Dragon was developed through a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) with the express goal that SpaceX find non-NASA customers to close its business case. The price for a seat on a Crew Dragon is rumored to be $55 million, but that figure has not been confirmed by SpaceX or its customers.

NASA wants to commercialize low Earth orbit (LEO), with flights by private citizens just the tip of the iceberg of a thriving LEO economy. It just updated its pricing policy for what visitors have to pay to use the U.S. part of the ISS, but the longer term goal is for the private sector to build its own space stations.

NASA’s policy right now is for no more than two short-duration private astronaut missions to the ISS per year. The limiting factor is how many docking ports are available for private missions in addition to regular crew rotations for astronauts from NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) who dock at the ISS’s U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS).  NASA, ESA and JAXA all provided modules for the USOS and Canada built the Canadarm2 robotic arm.

The two-per-year limit is a constraint on Axiom. On Monday, Mike Suffredini, Axiom president and CEO, said the company has three more private astronaut flights lined up just waiting for the OK from NASA. Suffredini is a former NASA ISS program manager who left the agency in 2015 to create a company to build a successor to ISS.  In addition to these private astronaut flights, it is building a module that initially will attach to ISS, but later separate and become a free-flying commercial space station on its own.

Russia’s Soyuz docks with the ISS’s Russian Orbital Segment (ROS) and Roscosmos determines its own schedule of private astronaut visits. It also is looking at post-ISS space station options.

Whether arriving on U.S. or Russian spacecraft, anyone coming aboard the ISS must be reviewed and approved by  the Multinational Crew Operations Panel and follow the rules while they are onboard.

NASA’s Mission Control Center-Houston (MCC-H) has mission authority for U.S.-sponsored private astronaut missions on ISS and the ISS Commander — who can be from any of the ISS partners — has overall authority for the ISS crew according to a NASA spokesperson. The U.S. private astronaut crews also have a Commander with specific responsibilities.

“The private astronaut crew commander is responsible for the day-to-day integration and leadership of the private crew, working under the construct and leadership of the ISS commander and MCC-H authority. All private astronauts are required to adhere to the Code of Conduct for the International Space Station Crew along with other applicable requirements and policies.”  In addition, “NASA requires two private astronauts to train as escorts to aid the other private astronauts aboard. Private astronaut escort training includes a deeper understanding of select ISS operations to enable the private astronauts to be more self-sufficient.”

Ax-1 Commander Michael López-Alegria will be very comfortable in that role. A former NASA astronaut who now works for Axiom, he is a veteran of four spaceflights including a long-duration mission to ISS where he was ISS Commander. The other Ax-1 crew members are space rookies. American Larry Connor is pilot. Canadian Mark Pathy and Israeli Eytan Stibbe are mission specialists.

Ax-1 Crew (L-R): Michael López-Alegria, Mark Pathy, Larry Connor, Eytan Stibbe. Credit: Axiom Space.

Flights like Inspiration4 do not need to worry about any of that since they will not dock with ISS. Billionaire Jared Isaacman, an experienced jet pilot, bought all four seats on a Crew Dragon for himself and three companions to simply orbit Earth for a few days. He is using publicity from the mission to raise funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where crewmember Haley Arceneaux was a cancer patient at the age of 10. He picked her to fly, while Proctor won a competition and Sembroski was chosen by lottery from people who contributed to St. Jude through the Inspiration4 website. (Actually, a friend of his won the lottery, but could not go for personal reasons and gave him the ticket knowing how much he wanted to fly in space).

Inspiration4 crew (L-R): Jared Isaacman, Sian Proctor, Haley Arceneaux, Chris Sembroski. Credit: Inspiration4 website

Both Ax-1 and Inspiration4 will use SpaceX Crew Dragons, but SpaceX is developing a much larger spacecraft, Starship, to take people to the Moon and Mars. Company founder and CEO Elon Musk already sold the first private flight of that vehicle. Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa paid an undisclosed price for all eight seats on a Starship trip around the Moon in 2023.  He is in the process of choosing companions for the trip.

First, though, he has decided to test out spaceflight closer to home. He will visit the ISS on Soyuz MS-20 in December along with his production assistant Yozo Hirano who will film the experience.

Shooting home videos in space is one thing. The two Russian private astronauts on Soyuz MS-19 are actually filming a movie — Challenge — for Russia’s Channel One. It is a “space drama” with Klim Shipenko directing and actress Yulia Peresild as the star. Both of them have backups, Alexey Dudin and Alena Mordovina, should anything prevent them from making the actual flight. They will begin training by June 1, just three months before their October launch.

Both the Soviet Union/Russia and the United States launched non-professional astronauts for decades on the Soviet/Russian Salyut and Mir space stations and the U.S. space shuttle, but they were chosen to meet foreign policy or commercial objectives, or in the case of Christa McAuliffe’s flight on the doomed space shuttle Challenger mission, to bring the wonders of space to students.

This is a different. Some refer to it as the “democratization” of space where everyone can have a chance to view the Earth from the special vantage point of space. For now, it is still reserved for people with a lot of money or a benefactor with a lot of money — like Isaacman who is paying for everyone on Inspiration4 — but it does bring the dream closer to reality.

With people paying money to fly into space and Axiom building a commercial space station, what is NASA’s role in this new commercial LEO environment?  Existing law commits the United States to supporting ISS through 2024 and efforts are underway to extend that to 2030. But the ISS will not last forever and NASA wants to focus its human spaceflight program on the Moon and Mars, not LEO.

NASA’s plan is to turn LEO over to companies like Axiom and pay them for whatever space station services are required for astronaut training or technology development. It requested $150 million for LEO Commercialization in FY2020 and FY2021 to facilitate private sector investment in LEO, but Congress appropriated only about one-tenth of that.

Indeed, the commercialization of LEO seems to be taking off without tens of millions from the government, but NASA still sees a need to lend a hand. Phil McAlister, NASA’s Director of Commercial Spaceflight, told today via a spokesperson that while “NASA is encouraged to see the emergence of several commercial LEO initiatives,” so far “all of those initiatives have relied on some level of government investment.”  With government funding “NASA, in partnership with industry, will begin the development of commercial LEO destinations now, ensuring a continuous U.S. human presence in low-Earth orbit.”

The Biden Administration plans to submit its complete FY2022 budget request to Congress on May 27, which should include details on how much it wants for commercial LEO this time.

Suborbital space tourism also appears to be finally getting underway. Blue Origin is auctioning off a seat on its first New Shepard mission with a crew, scheduled for July 20.

Almost two decades have passed since Congress enacted the Commercial Space Launch Act Amendments of 2004 creating regulations for private human spaceflight. The goal was a light hand of regulation that would not stifle an emerging industry. For an 8-year “learning period,” passengers only had to be warned of the dangers — “informed consent” — before climbing aboard a suborbital or orbital space mission. As years went by without any private U.S. spaceflights, the learning period was repeatedly extended. It now ends in 2023. The law prohibits the FAA, which regulates the commercial space launch and reentry industry, from creating new regulations until then.

These next few months should provide some insight as to whether the 2023 deadline needs to be extended again, or if new regulations to protect passenger safety are needed. After all these years of waiting, the time is finally here.

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