Return to Space

An interview with former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría as he prepares for a return to the final frontier.
Jack Maxwell

Former NASA astronaut and chair of the committee on commercial spaceflight (F47) Michael López-Alegría is preparing for his first spaceflight in more than 14 years.

Nearly 600 men and women have shared the unique experience of venturing beyond the “surly bonds of Earth.” Michael López-Alegría is one. In fact, he has lifted off four times, spent a total of 257 days in space, and holds two current NASA records: Most EVA (extravehicular activity) spacewalks (10, shared with Peggy Whitson) and most cumulative EVA time (67 hours and 40 minutes).

As López-Alegría approaches an exciting new milestone, we asked him to share some thoughts on commercial spaceflight, the value of standards, and what it’s like to float freely in space.

Q: Where do you see the commercial space industry in five years? 20 years?

A: I believe you’ll see commercial cargo and crew transport to the ISS [International Space Station], you’ll see the establishment of one or more commercial destinations in low-earth orbit [LEO], and there will be a growing economic ecosystem around those destinations that, in 20 years, I think, will manifest itself as a fairly robust economy in LEO. Probably no ISS at that point, so all the presence in LEO will be commercial.

In 20 years, I think you’ll see a similar kind of activity on the surface of the moon. Probably not quite to that same extent, but definitely there will be commercial participation in cargo, maybe crew, transport to the moon and to lunar orbit, and maybe some commercial destinations in either of those
two places.

Q: You mentioned commercial destinations in LEO within five years. Are we talking about a kind of hotel, for lack of a better word, where a flight would go and drop people off for a certain amount of time before they head back down?

A: Well, you need a transport vehicle to get you to LEO and back, while the destinations, they stay in orbit. It’s kind of like the difference between renting a car or taking a plane to get to a resort and staying at the resort; that’s a kind of tourist analogy. These destinations would be built for the purposes of, I guess I’d call it tourism, but probably more for companies and individuals to do some research while they’re up there.

Q: Earlier you alluded to the fact that the International Space Station won’t be around forever. Can you elaborate?

A: There is no schedule yet, but ISS is a machine, and it has kind of a 30-year warranty, and the warranty period started in 1998. It’s not like the warranty couldn’t be extended, but it gets more and more expensive and, like any machine, trickier to maintain the older it gets. And at some point, if there are commercial destinations that NASA and other agencies could use, then it doesn’t really make sense for them to hold onto this older building and pay all the maintenance costs when they can just “rent a room,” so to speak.

Q: In terms of standards, what will help commercial spaceflight move forward? 

A: I think the industry is still young, and what has helped is that, when it comes to regulation, the approach in place is a pretty light touch. The rationale for doing that was to allow companies to experiment. And while we have started to see some real increase in the frequency of launches and things like that, it’s still early to be creating regulations. So it is important that the industry demonstrate to the government the ability to self-regulate, and that is a big part of what we are trying to do with developing industry consensus standards.

Q: Could you comment on the two new standards under development for passenger medical qualifications?

A: Those two happen to be really interesting ways to demonstrate that the industry is serious about weighty things that are in some ways difficult for people with disparate vehicles and concepts of operations to agree on. And the fact that we’re able to do that in the ASTM framework, I think, is very telling.

Q: As an astronaut, you have a personal appreciation for flight safety. In what ways does this inform your work with ASTM?

A: It’s really good to have operational experience as well as technical and academic knowledge involved in these standards. That’s another nice feature of ASTM — it brings everybody together to kind of cherry-pick the best of those worlds.

Q: What surprised you most about your time in space?

A: Well, if I can be honest, what surprised me is how little surprised me. The training is so good that it really does feel like you’ve been there before. Now obviously, the sensation of floating, looking out the window, all those things, are impossible to experience in any kind of training, and those are probably the ones that are most surprising because you just can’t do a very good job of simulating them. But in terms of day-to-day procedures, the routine, by the time you get ready to fly, you’re quite familiar with them. It’s a testimony to how good the training is.

I think the difficulty for the private astronauts is that there is so much sensory overload because of those two things — floating in space and the view out the window — not to mention the launch experience, which is quite dynamic and also very difficult to replicate in a simulator. They’re living this amazingly unique and magnificent experience, and so being able to absorb that is, I think, probably going to be their biggest challenge. One of the things I really want to share with them is to truly sit back and let it soak in, because it’s so magnificent that you really need to make an effort to do it.

Q: You’re preparing to return to space for the first time in more than 14 years. Please tell us about it.

A: I’m going to be leading the first fully private mission to the ISS. It will happen the beginning of next year. It’s called Ax-1, with Axiom Space as the integrator of the mission. We’ll be purchasing the launch service from SpaceX and riding on the Crew Dragon with a Falcon 9 booster. We’ll be spending 10 days total, about eight docked to the ISS. Of the three private astronauts, one of them is American, another Canadian, and another Israeli. All have their own programs that they’ll be executing, so they’re really making the best of their time to try and improve life on earth by advancing a little bit of science.

The philanthropic outreach will be important as well. The idea is that people who have the means to be able to afford this flight — which unfortunately is still very, very expensive — also have a lot of influence, and they can leverage that influence and those means to spread that good will that I think imbues everybody when they fly in space.

Q: Any final thoughts?

A: When you think about commercial space, including satellite operations and launches of cargo, they’ve been going pretty strong for quite a while. Commercial human spaceflight is really starting to tick up. I think within the year you’ll see two sub-orbital companies, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, fly paying customers to sub-orbital space. So this is a time to celebrate, but also to be vigilant, and to think about safety. There’s nothing that will be more dampening to that growth curve than an accident, and the role that standards and ASTM play in all of that is important. 

Industry Sectors

Issue Month
Issue Year