It appears that the International Space Station will welcome more amateur astronauts who are willing to pay a hefty price for trips to space. NASA is requesting proposals for two more private astronaut missions to the ISS that could fly to low Earth orbit as early as late 2023.
The space agency is calling on the space industry to provide proposals for the third and fourth commercial spaceflights to the ISS, NASA announced on Thursday. NASA collaborated with private company Axiom Space to send the first all-private crew to the ISS in April, where the four crew members spent 15 days living and working in the microgravity environment. NASA selected Axiom Space for the second private mission to the ISS, which is scheduled to launch in the second quarter of 2023 on board a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft.
But when it came time for the third and fourth private trips to the orbiting space station, NASA is seemingly looking elsewhere. The space agency rejected a proposal from Axiom Space for the third private mission after giving it a poor rating, according to SpaceNews.
The two new missions to the space station could last up to 14 days in orbit, according to NASA. Through these private trips to the ISS, the space agency is hoping to establish a “robust low-Earth orbit economy” led by the private sector. “We recognize the importance of NASA’s continued support, and are dedicated to working with industry to identify areas where our expertise and unique capabilities support expansion, as with private astronaut missions,” Angela Hart, manager of the Commercial Low-Earth Orbit Program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, said in a statement. “These provide a unique opportunity for industry to gain critical experience needed to select, train, and manage crews on future commercial low-Earth orbit destinations, as well as work with new science partners, future commercial partners and grow this non-traditional market.”
Following the return of the Ax-1 mission, NASA admitted to having learned some important lessons about these private trips to the ISS. As a result, the space agency updated a few of its rules for future private astronauts venturing into space. Most importantly, the new requirements now call for all future missions to be led by a former NASA astronaut, who will serve as the mission commander. Ax-1 was led by retired astronaut Michael López-Alegría, while Ax-2 will be led by another retired NASA astronaut, Peggy Whitson.
In its call for proposals, NASA stipulates that the maximum number of crew members per mission should not exceed four astronauts and that any mission concept that involves spacewalks conducted by the private astronaut mission will not be accepted. It appears, therefore, that the first spacewalk to be performed by a commercial crew may be carried out by the all-private Polaris Dawn crew, which is launching on board a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule in December. Additionally, NASA stipulates that the upcoming ISS private missions must travel to orbit on board a U.S. commercial spacecraft. Right now, Elon Musk’s SpaceX is the only company authorized to transport astronauts to the ISS.
Commercial space companies must submit their proposals to NASA by October 27 should they want to cash in on the growing market for low Earth orbital trips.