A veteran astronaut adjusts to a new era of private spaceflight


Peggy Whitson spent 665 days in space on three long-duration missions to the ISS before a much shorter visit in May to command private astronaut mission Ax-2. (credit: Axiom Space)

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Peggy Whitson is America’s most experienced astronaut, having spent 665 days in space on three long-duration missions to the International Space Station in 2002, 2008 and 2016-2017. But returning to the station as a private astronaut, commanding Axiom Space’s Ax-2 mission in May, still required some adjustments.

“The short time was the hardest part,” she said of the mission, which spent eight days docked to the ISS, during an interview a couple of weeks after landing in a Crew Dragon spacecraft with her three crewmates. on May 30th.

“The big change is really going back to short-duration missions, more like a shuttle flight,” he said of training for Ax-2.

“When you’re on a long-running mission you think, I have time, can I relax now, because I can grow up and start moving later and do more and more,” he explained. “But we didn’t have that flexibility. It was a very focused effort.

Ax-2 was the second in a series of private astronaut missions by Axiom to the station as the company develops commercial modules to be installed on the station within this decade, which will later form the core of a self-contained commercial station. Ax-1, which went to the station in April 2022, was something of a learning experience for both the company and the agency, especially how to plan all the experiments and outreach activities the crew wanted realize.

One of the most important lessons has been the optimization of training for the mission. “The big change is really going back to short-duration missions, more like a shuttle flight,” she said. “Instead of generic skills training, which is typically how we train station personnel, we were much more task-oriented. So, we focused on the tasks we knew we needed to do and the hardware we knew we were interfacing with. This made our crew quick to respond and ready to perform once in orbit.

While Ax-1 got a schedule curtailment when its ten-day mission was extended by a week pending favorable splashdown conditions, Ax-2 had its mission shortened from ten days to eight days due to the effects a cascade of launch delays and a desire by NASA to keep a Dragon cargo mission scheduled for launch in early June.

“It was a compressed schedule,” he said, but the focus on specific training he helped meet that time, along with keeping his schedule open in the early days of the mission to assist his crewmates, helped. “I think it was very effective.”

Whitson had been training with John Shoffner, a private astronaut who served as Axe-2 pilot, since 2021, when the two were named as backups for Axe-1. Shoffner used that time to get extra training on ISS systems, including obtaining a specialist assessment, NASA’s highest qualification, on station maintenance. “He wanted more experience of what it’s like to train as a NASA astronaut,” he said, “so we were able to give him that extra training.”

They began training with the other two Ax-2 crew members, Saudi astronauts Ali Alqarni and Rayyanah Barnawi, in September. In addition to various ISS and Crew Dragon systems training, they also did an exercise with the National Outdoor Leadership School, learning what she called “expedition skills” in the wilderness, and spent time in the Human Exploration Research Analog (HERA) , a simulated space habitat at Johnson Space Center.

Whitson and Barnawi

Peggy Whitson and Rayyanah Barnawi research the ISS during Axe-2. (credit: Axiom Space)

Training overall went well, Whitson said, and his crewmates adjusted well to the station and research schedules. He chose Barnawi, a cancer researcher, for her dedication to experimenting in a “glovebox” on the station, spending so much time that others worried about her.

“I go check on her and say, ‘Everyone’s really worried about you and I want to know how you feel about being here?’ She loves it,” she recalled. “I basically have to fight her to get her out of there so I can get in there.”

“It was a lot of fun flying in a new vehicle,” he said. “Falcon 9 and the Dragon has been quite a ride.”

There are lessons learned and other training adjustments that he wants to incorporate into future Axiom missions on the station. “I want to try and then more intense mission-specific training,” she said. The five days the Ax-2 crew spent in HERA were especially helpful, she said, given their experience in a simulated space environment, including learning how to work on a timeline and communicate with controllers.

Visiting the ISS as a private astronaut for the first time, after long stays as a NASA astronaut, wasn’t as big of a change for Whitson as the short duration of the mission. He likened it to visits to shuttle crews during his previous long stays there. “He looked familiar in that sense. I was just in the other on the other side. I was the visiting crew rather than the resident crew.

The Ax-2 crew got along well with the long-duration station crew. Whitson said he didn’t get a chance to meet with NASA’s Frank Rubio and Roscosmos’ Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin before the flight, since the three were scheduled to return in March before the Ax-2. A coolant leak in their Soyuz spacecraft, however, prompted the launch of a replacement that had been earmarked for the next crew, keeping the three on the station through September. “Frank is an amazing leader and everyone has a pretty good attitude about being there another six months,” he said.

Whitson, who had previously traveled to the station in shuttles and Soyuz vehicles, enjoyed flying Crew Dragon. “It was a lot of fun flying in a new vehicle,” he said. “Falcon 9 and the Dragon has been quite a ride.”

A highlight of the Crew Dragon is the touchscreen interface. “It’s very integrated with procedures and data. You seem to be very situationally aware as you are going through steps and taking actions,” he said. “I find it to be a great interface, much more intuitive for operators and for astronauts.”

Even the splashes in the ocean, he added, were better than the Soyuz landings. “But landing the shuttle on the runways is the best way to get home.”

“Now I think we’ve shown that we have it,” he said.

Whitson estimated that Axiom has incorporated approximately 80% of the lessons learned from Ax-1 into Ax-2, with the remaining 20% ​​to be processed in Ax-3, currently scheduled for no earlier than later this year. Axiom did not announce the crew for that mission but, during the Ax-2 splashdown webcast, the hosts said Michael López-Alegría, who commanded the Ax-1, would lead the Ax-3 .

These training plans will change again in the next few years as Axiom installs its modules on the ISS – the first is scheduled for launch in late 2025 – and moves on to longer missions. “But I think to be successful now we really need to go back to that short mission and optimize it,” she said.

“Now I think we’ve shown that we have it,” he said. “The next stage will be the continuation and expansion of that.”

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