NASA is Taking into Account Sending Scientists to The International Space Station
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NASA has been considering sending “hyper-specialized scientist” to the International Space Station to assist career astronauts. This idea isn’t new. NASA used payload specialists in space shuttle experiments during the 1980s. These included Charlie Walker, three-time space flyer for McDonnell Douglas. NASA safety protocols were altered in 1986 when seven crew members died in the Challenger Launch Disaster. Payload specialist requirements were modified. NASA is now reviewing those protocols. According to Space News, the agency will seek funding in fiscal 2023, which starts in October, for a program that would send scientists to space alongside astronauts.
During the meeting, Craig Kundrot from NASA’s physical and biological sciences division stated, “We seek to get scientists back into space.” The committee met to prepare a decadal study that will outline community priorities and guide future research. NASA is also working simultaneously to commercialize space station research, including steps to attract more non-career NASA astronauts into the complex. NASA has already opened the International Space Station for non-career astronauts since 1986. Axiom Space successfully flew three astronauts without direct space experience in 2022, on Ax-1, which was piloted by Michael Lopez Alegria, former NASA astronaut.
NASA is also making efforts to increase commercialization of its space station, including funding private space stations in the early stages of 2021 and accepting future commercial ISS modules by Axiom. To expand the years of U.S. National Laboratory research conducted by the non-profit Nanoracks, a commercial airlock was installed to the station in 2020. Kundrot mentioned this increasing commercial participation during his National Academies presentation. He stated that he is envisioning a new version of this now that the private astronaut mission capability has become available in this emerging, commercial world. “We are looking to use that to fly hyper-specialized scientist to LEO [lower earth orbit] research that is really difficult for even the most highly trained astronauts in that field.”
Assuming NASA has approved funding for this initiative, NASA will issue two requests for information to companies. The first asks companies what kind of research they would like to conduct in low Earth orbit. While the second discusses how scientists might be able contribute. NASA’s private astronaut mission protocol (PAM) currently allows for two such missions per year for up 30 days each. Axiom has been approved for three additional PAMs through Ax-4. Ax-2 will be launched between fall 2022-spring 2023. Ax-3, Ax-4 and Ax-4 are yet to be approved. After approval, they will launch no later than 2023.
Kundrot explained that NASA astronauts will gradually receive part of their research after the PAM space flyers have arrived in orbit. In his presentation, Kundrot suggested a “buddy system”, in which an astronaut will work with the PAM participant on the ISS in order to learn the science in microgravity. NASA astronauts are experts in complex space research including the sequencing and repair of DNA. Kumbrot noted that “very few people are” familiar enough with certain systems and techniques to perform some experiments at the cutting edge of space research.
Kumbrot, who is working with NASA to expand science on the ISS and predicts that certain disciplines could see a 10- to 100-fold increase in research speed. Kumbrot stated that this is due to scientists not having to wait for months to receive materials from Earth. This is often required to finish experiments. Kundrot indicated that the agency will request less than $10 million for fiscal year 2023. This figure is expected to grow to $25 million by the end of 2028, if funding and schedule are confirmed. In 2026, missions will begin. NASA budget materials have not yet mentioned the Commercially Enabled Rapid Space Science Initiative (CERISS). Space News reports that NASA requested a budget increase to fund biological and physical sciences in 2023. NASA has requested $100.4million for this research in 2023. This represents a 22% increase on its $82.5million fiscal year 2022 allocation.
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