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Private Astronauts

Season 1Episode 237Mar 25, 2022

Angela Hart and Camille Alleyne of NASA’s Commercial Low-Earth Orbit Development program describe the agency's efforts to build a robust commercial economy by enabling private astronaut missions to the International Space Station. HWHAP Episode 237.

Houston We Have a Podcast Ep. 237 Private Astronauts

Houston We Have a Podcast Ep. 237 Private Astronauts

From Earth orbit to the Moon and Mars, explore the world of human spaceflight with NASA each week on the official podcast of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Listen to in-depth conversations with the astronauts, scientists and engineers who make it possible.

On Episode 237, Angela Hart and Camille Alleyne of NASA’s Commercial Low-Earth Orbit Development program describe the agency’s efforts to build a robust commercial economy by enabling private astronaut missions to the International Space Station. This episode was recorded on September 2, 2021, and the updates on March 15, 2022.

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Gary Jordan (Host): Houston, we have a podcast! Welcome to the official podcast of the NASA Johnson Space Center, Episode 237: Private Astronauts. I’m Gary Jordan and I’ll be your host today. On this podcast we bring in the experts: scientists, engineers, and astronauts, all to let you know what’s going on in the world of human spaceflight. The first private astronaut mission to the International Space Station is right around the corner. We’re talking about the first time that an entirely private crew is taking a trip to the space station on a commercial spacecraft. And this mission, Axiom Mission 1 or Ax-1, is a big milestone in the new era of space exploration. Ax-1 truly is a commercial mission, with its own goals, objectives, and responsibilities, with NASA as the enabler. And NASA’s goal is to see more of these kinds of flights to build a robust commercial economy in low-Earth orbit, and NASA can be a customer of this commercial industry. Ahead of this mission, for the first time we’re going to replay a previous episode: Episode 212, Private Astronauts. Ax-1 is a Private Astronaut Mission, and this episode does a good job of laying out why and how NASA is enabling these types of missions to fly to the International Space Station as part of a grander commercialization strategy. Joining the podcast is Angela Hart and Dr. Camille Alleyne. Angela is the manager of the Commercial Low-Earth Orbit Development program here at the Johnson Space Center. Her previous role was with the Commercial Crew Program. Camille is returning to the podcast. She was on episode 158 to discuss the commercial lunar payload services efforts at NASA, and she’s since taken on the role of deputy manager of the Commercial Low-Earth Orbit Development program. Stay tuned ’til the end of the episode to go over some updates since I last chatted with Angela and Camille in September 2021. Let’s get right into it. Enjoy.

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Host: Angela and Camille, thanks so much for coming on Houston We Have a Podcast. Very excited to talk to you both about some of the upcoming work we have for, for developing a low-Earth orbit economy. There’s a lot of work that’s being done, and I think it’s a great time to talk about it with, with all these missions going up into space. Both of you have history in working in some capacity with commercial companies, so I think you both have, have the background to help you with your roles in the management positions of this particular organization. Angela, I want to start with you. Tell us a little bit more about your previous roles that helped you to, to become the manager of the Commercial Low-Earth Orbit Development program.

Angela Hart: Yeah. We’re really excited to be here and talk about commercialization of LEO (low-Earth orbit). So, I started this new role in June of 2020, when HEO (Human Exploration and Operations [Mission Directorate]) decided to create a dedicated program to the commercialization of LEO. I’m coming from the Commercial Crew Program. I was the mission integration manager for that program, responsible for integration of all their commercial crew missions. I was the lead for both Demo-2 and Crew-1 and ensuring that those — the vehicle integration and mission integration, CoFR (Certification of Flight Readiness), and all of that work associated with those missions was successful. As part of that and my past history with the Commercial Resupply Program, I’ve had about 12 years working directly with commercial companies in industry and really trying to integrate this government industry partnership to ensure that we have success. I have a long history of developing win-win processes between industry and the government in order for NASA to be able to purchase services, but yet allowing those commercial companies to follow their overall goals and objectives as well. And so, I think that is really key as we move into commercial LEO destinations. NASA wants to ensure competition, but we really want to make sure that we can buy the services that we can without overbearing the industry. So, I’m really excited.

Host: Very good. And I like that, the phrase you use, “win-win,” right? This is for the benefit of, it seems like for the industry and the government. I’m very excited to get into exactly how we’re making that work. Camille, welcome back. I know you’ve been on the podcast before to talk about some of your other previous work with commercial companies again. And so, can you describe a little bit about, you know, from that transition, from your previous role over to the world of commercial low-Earth orbit?

Camille Alleyne: Well, thank you so much for having me, Gary. It’s great to be here again. As you said, I was here before talking about CLPS, Commercial Lunar Payload Services, and I was the deputy manager for that program prior to coming over to join Angela as her deputy for Commercial Low-Earth Orbit Development. So, it’s been a whirlwind of a few years of really supporting commercialization and the direction that the agency continues to go in, in this area. So, it’s great to be here. Thank you for having me.

Host: Yeah, of course. Camille, I want to build off of that comment. You know, you mentioned there’s a lot of other work when it comes to commercialization, right? This is not a new thing. We have several programs, including CLPS was one of them. What is so good, what is the government, you know, why are we pursuing something like commercialization? What’s so good about it?

Camille Alleyne: Well, what’s exciting about commercialization is that it opens up access to space for everyone, right? Traditionally, it was only governments that had access to space, and now we are able to provide and enable commercial companies to build businesses in space while also establishing this new space economy. And we know that companies, you know, bring more innovative solutions to the table. They’re more nimble. They’re more agile. And with competition it drives down costs, and that is always great for the government. And so, we’ve had these programs in place, starting with the COTS (Commercial Orbital Transportation Services) program that was kind of an enabler of a transport, of cargo transport capability, right, back in the early 2000s. We were trying to, we didn’t have the space shuttle, you know, it was decommissioned at that time, and we needed to be able to launch cargo to the International Space Station. So, we needed this capability. And so NASA invested in commercial companies to develop a capability to deliver and return cargo to and from the space station. And then we followed that up with commercial crew, the Commercial Crew Program, which does the same thing. And so, in the beginning, we enable the capability because the capability is not usually there. And then once we are comfortable with the maturation of that capability, then we start buying services, right? So, we’re buying commercial cargo services with the CRS (Commercial Resupply Services) program, and we’re buying commercial crew services with the CCP program. And now, we are starting to kick off the enabling and investing in commercial companies to develop a capability for destinations, what we think is the third in the trifecta of commercial LEO development. And then in a few years we’ll be procuring services as those capabilities develop. But then we had CLPS, right, which was the Commercial Lunar Payload Services, and that was a little different because we went directly to buying services from these commercial companies to deliver our science instruments to the Moon, but all enabling this commercial space economy.

Host: So, it sounds like, Camille, based on what you described, right, you talked about some of the programs of the past, Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, that’s the cargo, you talked about crew, right, Commercial Crew, and then you’re talking about some programs looking beyond. From what it sounds like, Camille, it sounds like some of those commercial efforts, with commercial cargo and commercial crew transportation, it sounds like that’s a good model to continue. Is that what we found, and is that why we’re continuing it?

Camille Alleyne: Absolutely. We have found that it drives down cost for the government. So, what we would spend traditionally and historically on developing these capabilities are far greater than what we’re able to buy these services for from these commercial companies. So, it’s — it really does benefit the government to promote and enable these commercial capabilities.

Host: Very interesting. Now, a lot of these services, Camille, that you’re talking about are specifically for low-Earth orbit, right? So, you’ve got Commercial Crew, those are low-Earth orbit transportation. The cargo resupply missions that we’re seeing today with Northrop Grumman and with SpaceX, they are delivering cargo to low-Earth orbit. There’s something about this place, right? There’s something about low-Earth orbit that is special and that is part of the needs of, of what NASA is trying to do, build a robust economy here, in low-Earth orbit. So, Angela, what’s so great about low-Earth orbit? Why are we focusing here?

Angela Hart: So just to add on to a lot of the words that Camille had noted. So, we have been in low-Earth orbit for a number of years, the government have — in fact, I think we’re about to celebrate our 21st anniversary of the International Space Station, and obviously we were in low-Earth orbit before that. And so, the government has been working in low-Earth orbit for a really long time, and we understand low-Earth orbit. We understand how to get there. We understand the environment. We have a lot of history. But it’s still a very important place for us because we can get to low-Earth orbit in a day — actually, within a couple hours, honestly, depending on the trajectory, and so it’s a place that we can use as a science platform. And you can see that in the success that we’ve had with the International Space Station and all the years of being an ISS, a national, a U.S. national lab and all the science and research that goes on there and continues to go on there. And so, we’re at a perfect time. And because of the successes of the Commercial Crew Program and the Commercial Resupply Program, and now moving into CLPS and some of these other programs she talked about, we’re at a very perfect time where it, this industry, this area, is ready to be turned over, you know, to the private industry. And Commercial Crew and Commercial Resupply were kind of those first test cases to see, can commercial industry step up and fill this area that only the government could do before? And the answer has been yes, and very successfully. You know, we’ve had the successful relaunch of U.S. astronauts into space by a U.S. company, and it was not done by a government vehicle. And so that’s super exciting. But we still need low-Earth orbit. We want to go on beyond, we want to go back to the Moon, we want to go to Mars. And there’s still a lot of equipment to be developed and test cases and things that we need to test out. And it’s not really cost-effective, necessarily, to go all the way to the Gateway or to the Moon to do those test cases to Mars, where we can do a very quick test in low-Earth orbit and buy down risk for those longer journeys. So that’s why low-Earth orbit is still very important to the U.S. The other reason it’s very important is we want to continue continuous U.S. presence in space. This is a national policy. We want to continue to be the leader in innovation and technology and the space economy. And we want to keep that U.S. presence in low-Earth orbit. We also want to keep our international partners working with us strongly. And so, even though we want to turn over low-Earth orbit to the commercial industry where we can buy services from them, we still want to keep some of that going. So, it’s really important to us that we keep this partnership. But, as Camille mentioned, turning this area of space over to commercialization, we absolutely expect the cost to drastically decrease. Opening up the markets of things that can be done in low-Earth orbit is going to drive down transportation costs. The more people that want to go to space, the more commercial ideas and things that happen in space, is going to drive down those transportation costs, and that is the key to making low-Earth orbit and space accessible in the future, you know, to many, many more people. And so, each one of these is steppingstones to getting into where people are living and working in space. And it’s just one step toward that, that larger goal, with NASA still maintaining the key requirements that we have for low-Earth orbit that support our exploration needs. Another example of one of these steppingstones is the suborbital flights. I mean, we’ve been very excited to see the successful Blue [Origin] and Virgin Galactic flights. NASA’s looking into how we can also use suborbital flights in our research. This is, we’re really in a very exciting time where I feel comfortable, you know, predicting that we’re going to see a skyrocketing of activities, especially as we start to see commercial LEO destinations.

Host: Angela, that’s super exciting. What I’m hearing from you is that, you know, it seems like it’s very apparent that there are a lot of exciting things that NASA needs, and NASA has, you know, wants to be one of many customers, and that’s why we’re helping to build this up and maybe drive down costs. I wonder what the market shows, though, right? Is this a shared perspective by commercial industry? Are they also predicting that there will be customers and services and that it will be a vibrant economy? I understand that there was a study conducted to, to pulse industry and see, you know, what their needs are and what their predictions are. Camille, can you tell us a little bit about that study?

CamilleAlleyne: Yes, absolutely. We had commissioned some market research done by the Bryce company [Bryce Space and Technology] that showed that there are potential markets for a LEO economy. Things like accommodations, right, for private astronauts or for tourism, really; education and entertainment, being able to maybe do movies in space or do education and outreach, something we do from the International Space Station, but really from a private citizen perspective; things like marketing. But particularly what we were interested in, in terms of what we want, we as NASA want to do in enabling economies, is focus on those markets that are scalable and that use the microgravity environment, you know, for building a business case. And that area specifically was in the area of marketing, I mean manufacturing, and production. And so, they showed that we have things like exotic fiberoptics that use, because they’re using the microgravity environment, the quality of that product increases, and there may be a business case in that area. High-quality machine parts, for example, or bio-printed materials. All of those areas in terms of manufacturing and production are really high potential market areas for space economy. But the research also showed the barriers to enabling an economy. Things like the transportation cost that Angela talked about: you know, they’re really high now, and that’s the number one barrier to enabling a vibrant and robust space economy in low-Earth orbit is the cost of transportation. So, we really have to work hard at bringing that down. But also, can companies get enough financing to invest in their business model that they can make a profit? Is there enough foundation for regulation and laws that would enable companies to make — close their business model in low-Earth orbit? So, these are some of the barriers, not just the, the markets that they identified, but the barriers to — that will prevent a robust economy. And so those are the things that we need to go to work on.

Angela Hart: Just to add on to what Camille said. I think one of the exciting parts about it is, though, we have done some market research. There actually was another study done in 2018. But what’s important, though, is the kind of things that NASA and the ideas that some of these market researchers will dream up that they think the commercial industry will do, is really just a small, in my opinion, a small amount of the ideas that will actually come out as commercial companies really start thinking about how they can use low-Earth orbit. NASA started a program back in 2019 to actually stimulate demand using the International Space Station as an early platform. It took a while to kind of get that idea out into industry and get that kicked off. We started to see some really interesting ideas, and we’re continuing to see interesting ideas as companies really learn more and more about, oh, I actually can do this, and this is what’s it’s going to cost. And not thinking that only the NASA research or the NASA current normal partners can do this. We’re really starting to see a lot more companies very, very interested in low-Earth orbit. And so, that’s one of the importances of commercializing low-Earth orbit and getting commercial destinations out there is because the government is very limited on the things that we can do on the International Space Station. It is a government platform. You kind of could think of it as a government building, right, that’s on the ground. There’s limited, you can imagine, there are limited things that the government’s going to allow to happen in the walls of their building that would be very different outside in a public arena. And so, creating these other opportunities, I really think you’re going to see markets that we never even envisioned as the ability to be able to go to a place becomes realized.

Host: So, Angela, it sounds like that’s the long-term plan, right? It sounds like the International Space Station, a lot of the examples that Camille was pointing to, some of the, you know, like fiberoptic cables, are stemmed from experiments that we’ve seen on the space station. Space station proving that, you know, there can be a market, that there’s a lot of cool stuff that microgravity can offer. But it sounds like, from what you’re saying, what you’re talking about here, all of this is more of a long-term effort thinking about, the space station will not last forever, so what comes next? Because as you’ve mentioned, we do have continued needs in low-Earth orbit. So, is that the idea here, that this, that this is really the next step after the space station and we’re planting that now?

Angela Hart: Absolutely. The, as you mentioned, the International Space Station is an amazing research platform that has been used for a number of years. And every year, new and more novel ideas come up, and we do just more and more exciting things there. But it wasn’t built to last forever. It has been up a long time. And even though we continue to evaluate the ability to keep it running longer, it will have a finite life. And so, there are two main goals. One, we want continuous presence in low-Earth orbit. And so, we do not want to have a gap similar to what happened on the shuttle program of being able to launch U.S. astronauts into space on a U.S. vehicle. And so, you can’t wait until the International Space Station is no longer viable to start thinking about building a replacement. And so that’s why we are starting today, and actually started a couple years ago, in developing this commercial LEO ideas of a commercial LEO destination that is partnered with NASA and commercial companies, where NASA can buy services and be a customer, but also other commercial companies can be a customer. So, we are starting that now. We actually, I say we’ve started that a few years ago. And so, we actually kicked off the commercial LEO strategy back in 2019. Part of that strategy and the overall goal of that strategy is get to commercial LEO destinations, commercial destinations that are owned and operated by a commercial company where multiple people can buy services. We kicked off a contract with Axiom Space for a commercial destination on ISS. This is an idea of where Axiom would build their initial portions of their space station attached to the International Space Station, and then at some point they would detach and become a free-flying commercial destination. And then at the same time, we are working partnerships with industry to build free-flying destinations. And we’re actually actively in a solicitation right now for free-flying destinations. And we’ve had a lot of interest from industry and really excited about that as well. And so, at some point as those companies start to build and realize their dream of having a commercial destination, NASA will be putting out a services contract to purchase services. And as we start to realize all of these things, then we will really be starting to think about how do we transition that work from the ISS to these commercial platforms.

Host: Very interesting. Now, there’s a lot of different efforts, and I think this is the perfect time to dive deeper into each of those. Starting with, Angela, it sounds like a lot of the efforts to, to take this next step, to transition over to commercial low-Earth orbit economy, is a lot of the activities are taking place on board the space station. You mentioned a commercial destination being tested there, and I know there are a couple of other things. So how is the International Space Station folded into the plan to be eventually handed over to commercial industry?

Angela Hart: Yeah. I appreciate your asking that question in, in total because I think we have talked about a few things here and there. But as you can imagine, asking somebody to go straight out and replace the ISS, you know, without testing the waters is a difficult thing to do. There is a lot of concern about is there market out there that can sustain this if the government’s not going to foot the whole bill, etc., etc. And so, as part of that commercial LEO strategy we have identified ways to use the ISS as a destination to develop those markets, to understand, you know, what that market demand is out there. And so, there are a couple different ways that we do that. The one item that I mentioned earlier, that was NASA created a NASA interim directive where we are allowed to do a limited set of commercial activities on the ISS. As I mentioned before, you know, there are certain restrictions of using a government facility. There was a very specific area carved out to kind of stimulate that demand, as we talked about, and that is under our commercial use policy. This allows NASA to enter into Reimbursable Space Act Agreements with industry to purchase upmass, crew time, and other activities in order for them to test out those markets and to use the ISS as a commercial platform. We’ve had some examples of that in campaigns that you may have started to see in the media. Estée Lauder did a campaign. We also have other outreach activities that are ongoing. We have folks that are looking at are there products, you know, that increase their value when they’re in microgravity. And that’s what I was talking about when I said we just kind of hit the tip of the iceberg. So, we’re starting to get companies that are really starting to think out of the box. We’re getting some very interesting ideas, some of which we are moving forward with, some of which don’t quite fit that criteria for a government installation, but absolutely could be done on a commercial destination. And so, that’s a really exciting area that we’ve been working. We did have a change in the policy back in April. When we started this program back in 2019, NASA was highly subsidizing the cost to go to orbit. As we mentioned, that is a big barrier, and we did do a couple test cases. We have since increased, changed our pricing policy, and the policy today is in order to do commercial activities they do have to foot the full cost of that bill. And so that pricing structure changed back in April. And we saw a little bit of a decline as those commercial companies had to really readjust their models. But actually, as I attended the 36th Space Symposium last week, I talked to a lot of our customers and partners and they are very excited. They have readjusted to the pricing policy, and I’m expecting to get a number of new ideas in, in the near future from these companies as they, you know, had to readjust with that hiccup. But there still is actively a number of folks very interested now that we’re getting a lot of press with the, the positive results of Commercial Crew, Virgin Galactic, Blue [Origin]. Everybody’s getting excited about space. And similarly, the commercial companies are getting excited.

Host: That’s all fantastic to hear, Angela, because that’s all part of the, these efforts that are ongoing aboard the International Space Station that you said is helping to sort of kickstart this and get industry charged, get them excited, and come up with some creative ideas. So, one of the things you mentioned, Angela, was a commercial destination. Now, I want to kind of expand on that. Camille, I’ll toss it to you. What exactly is this? What’s the idea here?

Camille Alleyne: So, you know, when we talk about building economies, we talk about the supply side of the equation and the demand side of the equation. And Angela eloquently talked about parts of the demand that we are stimulating. Well, commercial destinations is the supply side of that economy equation, right? It’s us enabling this capability beyond ISS. When ISS gets to end of life, that we, NASA, will no longer own and operate a space station or a space destination in LEO, but we will enable a capability for commercial companies to own and operate this destination, or destinations, where we can be one, we NASA, can be one of many customers and — our ability to buy services, right, to meet our needs. And we still have needs. We’re still, you know, maturing technologies that we need for future exploration, for example, or still learning how the human body adapts to space and doing human research. So, some of those needs we are still going to have in low-Earth orbit. And so, enabling this commercial capability allows us to meet that need. Now, the commercial destinations, we just put out an announcement for a request for proposals for these commercial destinations that will be free-flying orbiting stations, right? Angela talked about the Axiom port contract, which is the commercial destination on ISS. So, their architecture enables them to build a capability attached to ISS first, and then deploy it as a free-flyer. What this commercial destination solicitation does is request proposals for architectures that are not attached to ISS, that are free-flying from the beginning. And so, we are going to enable those capabilities by investing in companies and helping them to mature their capability to a certain point where we feel comfortable that we can certify that capability, and then, in the future, procure services to meet our needs. So that’s what, in essence, commercial destinations is all about.

Host: It’s a place to go, right? So, you have the transportation —

Camille Alleyne: It’s a place to go. [Laughter]

Host: Yeah. The transportation is on these commercial crew vehicles. It seems like we already have an infrastructure to support some of this, right? You got resupply vehicles that can resupply the different commercial destinations. But I think a key part here, and I think, you know, this is sort of the core of today’s episode is, you know, the customers, the private astronauts. You want people going to these different places. And so, I know NASA has a foot in this whole, you know, commercial effort and flying private astronauts. So, what are the over, what are the overall missions here, Camille, for, and really, what is a private astronaut mission?

Camille Alleyne: Well, the private astronaut mission, Gary, is the demand, it’s part of the demand side of the equation, right?

Host: There you go.

Camille Alleyne: So, it all comes back to that, like, how do you build an economy, right? And so, for us enabling this LEO economy, one of the ways we want to do that is offer ISS as a destination for private astronaut missions. One, to demonstrate and stimulate the demand for future commercial destinations, right? We are starting to lay that groundwork, we are enabling the destination. But you also want to stimulate the demand so when the destination is in place, they have customers, right? And part of that customer base would be private astronauts. But we also want to increase the U.S. capability transportation customer base, right, to potentially decrease transportation costs for the future. And we talked about that being one of the barriers to a robust LEO economy. So private astronauts is a way to decrease the costs so that down the road it’s more affordable to maintain destinations. So overall, really, the philosophy behind the private astronaut missions is really us, NASA, balancing requirements that we levy on these, what we call PAM, private astronaut mission, providers, mainly to protect the ISS vehicle and our crew, while allowing them to manage their unique cost and risk, and also allowing them to create a business model, right, and close their business case. And so, we have structured this private astronaut mission around, around that, around enabling companies to build a business case providing access to the International Space Station for private astronauts while we still protect our vehicle and our crew.

Angela Hart: So, it is important, I just want the listener to understand the importance of this. These are completely private, commercially funded missions to space. And I would use the analogy, I mean, they’re really, we’re just providing them a place to go. They are responsible for their training, their outfitting, the purchase of the launch and transportation vehicle. These are — which they have to be commercially licensed through the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and the FCC (Federal Communications Commission). None of that is being done with any assistance necessarily from NASA. We are providing some reimbursable products to them as they are starting to develop new supply chains on the ground related to training and related to supply purchases, but in general they are completely handling these missions on their own. And as Camille mentioned, where we get involved is, we are just ensuring that as part of that mission planning and development that they have a component that ensures ISS crew and ISS safety. And so we have levied requirements on these missions that ensure the safety of the ISS vehicle, and they have to provide, just as we do for our current transportation vehicles, all of the relevant analysis and information to ensure that they safely can come and dock to station. And then they also have to get a certain amount of training, and they have medical requirements to ensure that they can safely, that these private astronauts can safely operate on the ISS. So, we do levy a set of requirements, as Camille mentioned, that ensure safety. But the general, what they do when they get on station and all of the work that takes to putting and planning a mission and making it successful, is being done by these companies completely commercially. And again, I just want to stress we’re providing them a place to go because there is no other place to go at this time. And, one, so that we can show that there’s a market out there, and also because we’re learning. The private companies are learning what they need to do to be successful, and we’re learning as well. And so, we’re really excited about the upcoming private astronaut mission to the ISS. But I just wanted to point out that this is truly, truly commercial. That NASA is really only levying requirements and assisting in ensuring that we maintain the ISS as a safe place to work and be. But they are completely doing this on their own, and it’s really exciting to see.

Host: That’s great that, you know, a model like that exists. And Angela, you pointed out that there is an upcoming mission, so this is not just all talk, right? This is something that there’s forward progress that’s already been made. So, Camille, what is this upcoming private astronaut mission?

Camille Alleyne: So, it’s called Axiom 1. And it will be a crew of four private astronauts. One, the commander, is a former NASA astronaut, but he is the professional astronaut, and the other three are private citizens. And they are slated to launch January or February of 2022. And, you know, primarily they would like to do research and education and outreach on board the space station and, you know, support some of their charitable and philanthropic endeavors. So that’s really what this mission coming up is about.

Host: Very good. And it’s not, you know, the idea is you have the, I guess, you know, as Angela pointed out, there’s nowhere else to go, but the idea is that these commercial destinations that you were talking about that are important for us to build is when, you know, NASA wants to continue low-Earth orbit presence, and we want to go there to do cool stuff like, like research and these kinds of capabilities. With the space station being one of those, the only current platform right now that is opened up for, for these kinds of efforts, it’s a great place to demonstrate, you know, not only that we can get customers there, you know, just their presence, but it sounds like, you know, the idea is here’s what’s possible when you’re in low-Earth orbit. So, you know, it sounds like there’s a lot of forward progress made to enable this mission. Angela, what’s there left to do until we get to this early, we’re looking at as early as January to get this off the pad?

Angela Hart: So, there’s a lot of work, as you can imagine, to be successful in that. The first private astronaut mission to ISS is scheduled for no earlier than January, which is not that far away. As you can imagine, there’s a lot of work that’s ongoing. The crew is actually in training. They kicked off training at SpaceX a while back, and they are also training in the NASA facilities, you know, on the ISS systems. That is ongoing. There’s a lot of analysis and verification work that has to be done between the companies to ensure, as I mentioned, those safety requirements are met. And so that is ongoing as well. Additionally, there’s a lot of planning of that mission. Even though this is a short mission, we do have to figure out how to plan these private astronauts’ day-to-day activities into the ISS activities. We don’t want to impact the research that’s going on on station, so the flight planners, the Axiom flight planners and the NASA ops planners are working to integrate daily activities for that crew into our overall ISS timeline. It’s essential to have an integrated timeline for all crew on board to ensure we have proper allocation of resources, we prevent conflicts with payload facilities, etc., etc., and so that is, we are adding four more people to the ISS which, you know, becomes a pretty crowded facility. So, there’s a lot of planning that’s ongoing, and that’s happening as well. We have a lot of milestones that are coming up. We’re actually doing a milestone today with Axiom to ensure their readiness for the mission, and they’re finalizing a lot of their details about the kind of activities they’re going to do on orbit. They’re finalizing their commercial activities and anything they’d like to do while they’re there. And so lots and lots happening to get ready. Both teams are super-excited, and I feel like we will all see a really successful mission when that goes up early next year.

Host: What’s exciting, Angela, is, you know, we’re talking about this private astronaut mission, we’re talking about the overall efforts here, and it’s part of a grander strategy. You both so, so beautifully described supply and demand and the overall strategy to make this not only just an early effort, right, but just it’s setting the foundation to be an ongoing thing. And Angela, you mentioned, you know, starting as early as 2019 to, to launch these efforts, right, and already it’s just so much is happening, right? You’ve got all these proposals coming in, all these efforts. The space station has already been, you know, used for commercial purposes, for these commercial activities. We’ve got private astronaut missions. It’s just so much is happening in just a short amount of time. Thinking about that and thinking about the job that you guys are doing and just some of the upcoming things, what excites you most about just the rapid pace and this shift to set a foundation for what will be the future of low-Earth orbit?

Angela Hart: So, the exciting piece to me, talking to folks last week and actually every day in my job, is what you just mentioned. You know, we kicked this off in 2019, which seems like it was a couple years ago. But it was, you know, late ’19, it took a while for industry to really understand that NASA had opened the doors and were really embracing commercialization on ISS as well as other activities. That’s not that long ago, right? And now, look at all that we’ve seen in just this year. We’ve seen two successful commercial crew launches where we launched crew to the ISS. We’ve seen two suborbital flights. We’ve seen a bevy of items, as I’ve mentioned, that have flown on ISS. We have gotten back optical fibers that are being analyzed. The list goes on and on. And now we’re about to do the first private astronaut mission to the ISS where private citizens, not professional [astronauts], are going to go all the way up to the ISS and work and live in space for, you know, over a week. I think you’re going to see more and more of these firsts very quickly taking off over the next year, and it’s, it’s really going to be exciting as we move forward. We have huge industry inputs, both on private astronaut missions and commercial LEO destinations, and so it’s just one of those areas where you’re really seeing the technology and the interest skyrocketing. And to be, you know, really closely part of it is super-exciting.

Host: Incredible. Camille, same question posed to you: how exciting is this?

Camille Alleyne: It’s extremely exciting, Gary. I mean, the prospect of opening up space, right, to everyone, I mean, that is really the future. It may not happen right away, but we’re laying the groundwork for that, right? In an area traditionally that government were only — the only ones able to do that. And so being at the forefront of that, really blazing a trail and setting up these, you know, processes and policies and pathways to enable commercialization in low-Earth orbit is really, really exciting. And I mean, we are at the forefront. We’re at the forefront of this. And so, you know, a lot, a lot of work ahead of us, but it’s, it’s very exciting to be on the cutting edge like this.

Host: Absolutely.

Camille Alleyne: So, thank you.

Host: Yeah. I was so excited to talk to both of you today. You know, this is sort of where I’m focusing a lot of my current work is helping to, to work with both of you, and I’m absolutely loving it. And I think it’s because of this, right, because it’s so imminent, because it’s so fast-paced, and because it’s, it’s building a future and we’re starting from the beginning, and it’s very, very cool. So, to both of you, to Angela and to Camille, thank you so much for coming on to describe in detail all these great ongoing efforts. I can’t wait. I feel like we can do this in a year, and we can talk about a whole new set of things, right, because it will just be, it’ll just be a whole new and exciting and fast-paced environment. So, thanks to you both. I appreciate your time.

Camille Alleyne: We look forward to coming back, Gary. Thank you so much for having us.

Angela Hart: Yeah. We’re super-excited. And I would tell you we could probably come back in a couple months and we could tell you even more because things are moving so fast.

Host: [Laughter] Awesome. I’m going to hold you to it!

[ Music]

Host: Hey, thanks for sticking around; hope you enjoyed this episode, learning with Angela and Camille about the overall efforts of what ti takes to build a robust low-Earth orbit economy. You could check out all of our efforts in even more detail at Now, a few updates that you may have noticed in this episode, and some progress that we’ve made for commercializing low-Earth orbit since September of 2021. Of course, we’re now past 21 years of continuous human presence on the International Space Station, that was a big milestone that we’ve passed since this episode. Angela and Camille also pointed to January or February ’22 for the launch of Ax-1; you can of course check out for the latest now that we’re in 2022. And I think some of the biggest updates is all of the additional strides we’ve made in the push for commercializing low-Earth orbit since that time. Since September of last year, we’ve selected Blue Origin, Nanoracks, and Northrup Grumman to develop free-flying commercial destinations, we’ve selected Axiom Space to negotiate for the second private astronaut mission, we’ve solicited for another round of in-space manufacturing research proposals, and the Ax-1 crew has been approved by NASA and its international partners ahead of the Ax-1 launch. Lots of progress in just a short amount of time. We’ll, of course, be covering the Ax-1 mission, so check out the latest at for the latest schedule on how you can follow along. I Hope you are enjoying Houston, We Have a Podcast: we have a huge collection of episodes now, and luckily you can listen to them in no particular order. Go to to find the latest with us, and then there are also many other shows, many other podcasts across the agency that you can tune in to from that link. If you want to talk to us at Houston, We Have a Podcast, we’re on the NASA Johnson Space Center pages of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—use #askNASA on your favorite platform to submit an idea or ask a question, just make sure to note that it’s for Houston, We Have a Podcast. This episode was recorded on September 2, 2021, and the updates on March 15, 2022. Thanks to Alex Perryman, Pat Ryan, Heidi Lavelle and Belinda Pulido. And of course, thanks again to Angela Hart and Camille Alleyne for taking the time to come on the show. Give us a rating and feedback on whatever platform you’re listening to us on, and tell us what you think of our podcast. We’ll be back next week.