NASA says retired astronauts must act as sherpas on private flights to the ISS

NASA will soon need a retired astronaut as a mission commander on all private flights to the International Space Station, according to an agency released today. The directive – which has yet to be finalized – is intended to both increase passenger safety and reduce the strain on existing ISS operations. The former astronaut would “provide experienced guidance to private astronauts throughout flight preparation through to mission execution.” A number of changes are also impacting space tourists themselves, including new medical standards for private astronauts, more lead time for private research projects, changes to the Return cargo policy and additional time for private astronauts to adjust to microgravity.

According to the statement, the new changes were a result of “lessons learned” from last April’s Axiom Space flight, in which passengers each paid $55 million to fly to the ISS on the first private astronaut mission. The hectic, two-week journey, during which passengers also worked on their own research, took its toll on both the ISS crew and the Axiom crew itself after the mission’s return, according to astronauts.

The Ax-1 mission actually had a former NASA astronaut at its helm – Michael López-Alegría, who is currently chief astronaut at Axiom. The company is considering crewing future missions without a professional astronaut on board, as doing so would free up space for an additional (paying) passenger on board, Axiom President Michael Suffredini said at a news conference earlier this year. NASA’s new policy is likely an attempt to discourage such unsupervised missions.

Skilled astronauts are hard to come by. There are currently well over 200 NASA astronauts, according to the agency’s website – although it’s unclear how many would be willing to command future missions or fill medical requirements. NASA itself is in the midst of an astronaut shortage — its tally of 44 astronauts is the smallest since the 1970s. An agency report in January said a shortage of working NASA astronauts could complicate future missions to the ISS and the moon.

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