NASA Learns How To Handle Space Tourists – and Novel Situations

By Keith Cowing
September 25, 2006
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NASA Learns How To Handle Space Tourists – and Novel Situations

Editor’s note: Just before the launch of STS-115, NASA held a press opportunity. Among the participants was Mike Suffredini, NASA’s Space Station Program Manager. I asked Suffredini a question related to the decisons being made by Russia with regard to delays it was willing to make in the launch of the Expedition 14 crew aboard a Soyuz – and how this affected the dates on which NASA could try and launch Atlantis.

If you look at the NASA Space Station On-Orbit Status 23 September 2006 you’ll see that space tourists are quite welcome in the U.S. portion of the ISS: “Ansari attended to her daily email ops and a private family conference using the IP (Internet Protocol) phone. She also added another installment in her eminently readable Space Blog (http://spaceblog.xprize.org/).”

This is a rather stark contrast with the flight of the first space tourist, Dennis Tito (an American taxpayer) who (initially) was all but shunned by large parts of NASA.

Keith Cowing, NASAWatch.com: You have said that this is not a Russian decision – but that it is a programmatic one. What has changed since the Dennis Tito times when Russia pretty much dictated what was going to happen? And even more recently, when the Russians said that they were going to knock a golf ball off of their segment and didn’t even bother to get prior approval from the U.S. Does Russia not have the final say so on the use of their vehicles? Same question about the U.S.? Obviously it is a Russian decision when it comes down to the final point.

Mike Suffredini: We have learned a lot from that – but let’s back up. One of the things we learned a lot in an international program is how to work together (which we have). Each nation has their own requirements and things they want to accomplish. Of course, we are a bunch of individual nations – and we have those requirements which we bring to the program. So, as long as we are working within our agreement we hope that all nations are off doing what is a unique [ garbled ] for them. So, we end up having these discussions about things that one certain country may want to do. We sit down and talk about it

I wouldn’t argue that back with Tito – who was the first tourist – that was kind of a unique thought process for the U.S. – for NASA as an agency – and it was a challenging time. I will also tell you that we were relatively young as a program (operationally) we had spent quite a bit of time with our partners in the design phase, and getting ready to launch, but operationally we were relatively young.

We have learned a lot about how to introduce new ideas. We have also learned how to gauge each other about what a big change to a program is, agency to agency. That is a big part of it. We spend a lot of time within your own agency before you put it on the table. And when you put it on the table, depending upon how interesting or dramatic that change appears to your partner, it might take them more time [garbled ]

So, we have learned along the way – and in some cases the hard way – how to work together – when we need to let them know about changes in our program. I would tell you, operationally; that there is no fuzz – no disagreement – about the primary responsibility – the primary job – is to keep our crews safe.

We do not have a lot of arguments about crew safety. In the case of the Soyuz flights, they are like a Shuttle flight: the Russian program has to say that I feel like this is an [un]safe thing to do because they are ultimately responsible for who flies on a Soyuz – as we are responsible for our crews on the shuttle.

So that does have weight. That does play a role in our decision process.

But we are not the same international program that we were when Tito flew; we are not the same international program we were two years ago. Every day that goes by we learn more about working together, respecting each other’s needs, environment, national priorities. We have learned a lot about when things are big changes or minor changes, changes that we need to involve our partners – and that we need to sort it out among ourselves. I expect to go over a few more things where we think that some things are relatively easy for our partners to endorse and then learn later that it wasn’t.

But I would tell you that in this case that we are having very good communications, that we are in a group decision process, and that you have to come and argue with me about landing a crew at night before you go and talk with the Russians. So, this is not a Russian decision. This is an international decision. Yes we are learning every day how to work together and we probably had little bumpier road back when Tito flew than we do today.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.