Q&A with Dr. Janet Kavandi on Sierra Space’s New Human Spaceflight Center and Astronaut Training Academy

Dr. Janet Kavandi - Courtesy NASA

Sierra Space President, Dr. Janet Kavandi, a veteran NASA Astronaut and inductee into the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame, recently announced the company’s plans to launch an office and training center dedicated to human spaceflight. Dr. Kavandi will personally lead the Sierra Space Human Spaceflight Center and Astronaut Training Academy from the company’s offices at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the company’s Dream Chaser® spaceplane is set to launch in 2023 on a series of cargo resupply missions to the International Space Station. We sat down with Dr. Kavandi to hear more about her new role and Sierra Space’s ambitious plans to build platforms in space to benefit life on Earth.


Why is Sierra Space establishing a Human Spaceflight Center and Astronaut Training Academy?

Dr. Kavandi:
Our first Dream Chaser spaceplane, Tenacity®, is set to launch early next year on a series of cargo missions to the International Space Station. By 2026, we will be flying astronauts and other crew to Orbital Reef, the world’s first commercial space station that we are building with our partner, Blue Origin. To be ready for that, we need to assemble a group of the best and brightest to serve as astronauts and position Sierra Space at the forefront of a new commercial generation of spaceflight. We will make an announcement closer to when we are ready to engage in astronaut selection. Every Monday, we have orientation for new hires, and I make it clear whenever I speak to new team members that we will be taking at least some people from within the company to help us staff on-orbit destinations.

Janet, you are a former NASA astronaut who experienced years of robust training and strict NASA protocols. What are some of the considerations when you think about training astronauts outside the wall of NASA as a purely commercial entity?

Dr. Kavandi:
That’s a really good question. So what I am envisioning right now are essentially three categories: professional, specialist and experiential astronauts. Our professional is the equivalent of what a member of the NASA astronaut corps does today. Being an astronaut is your profession. You fly on a vehicle up to a space station and you know how to operate everything on that orbiting platform. You know how to repair everything on it. You can go do a spacewalk if needed to repair something on the outside of the space station, replace batteries or perform other maintenance. You can work on the science, conducting experiments if you are asked to do so. You can engage in things like photography, earth observation and really anything the modern day astronaut is expected to do. We will train our professionals to do the same thing. 

How long would that sort of professional training take?

Dr. Kavandi:
Typically a year to a year-and-a-half to get proficient in all of those kinds of technologies and to be safe performing duties. Our training process will be comprehensive. First, we will train internally, so our own mission control team will be trained with our own astronauts in our own simulators and in our own mission control center as one team. For special training, like in neutral buoyancy labs – the big pools where we train for EVA or extra-vehicular activity – or in aircraft on microgravity flights, we will seek outside support from the best in the industry.  

What are the other categories of astronauts you are considering?

Dr. Kavandi:
The second category of astronauts would be, in my mind, people who lease space on our space station. Specialist astronauts are professionals in another field. Let’s say they are medical researchers who are doing cancer research in microgravity. A pharmaceutical company may want to send its own researchers up there to work because of their specific expertise or perhaps the research contains intellectual property that they wish to safeguard. We could train them how to work and live on a space station safely – how to use the lab, how to take care of hygiene and food preparation, how to use exercise equipment, all while being safe – in about three to six months. The last category would be an experiential astronaut, someone who wants to experience what it’s like to live and work in space. NASA calls this category “spaceflight participants.” These people don’t necessarily have a defined technical role when they go to station, although they would still need to perform duties in support of the crew. This would require more modest training. Like anyone on board, they would of course need to pass physical examinations to ensure their own personal safety and also undertake detailed safety training so they don’t endanger themselves or their crewmates. However, they would be offered additional training if they decided to take on certain tasks such as an EVA.

It sounds like to be in the first category of astronauts, you really have to be multi-disciplined, right? It’s not like you can watch a YouTube video to learn how to repair a solar panel. 

Dr. Kavandi:
That’s a really good point. I did training for crews quite a bit when I was a payload branch chief at NASA and we actually supplemented our training guides with video clips. We had written procedures when I was on the ISS, but when they were 27 pages long and you’re floating and everything is upside down – and you’re trying to keep track of your tool… We found that a short video clip was far more effective than all of those words! You’re replacing an air filter and have to rotate the rack and then disconnect a certain cable next, we found that video was so much easier. You thought the YouTube reference was funny but it’s actually real!

So when does Sierra Space expect to start hiring?

Dr. Kavandi:
Our initial selection process will start next year. By the end of 2023, we should have our first cadre of astronauts selected and we will start training in early 2024. This keeps us on track to start flying astronauts by 2026, supporting the start of Orbital Reef construction.

Who do you expect will apply? Former NASA astronauts? Former astronaut candidates who were not selected? Perhaps people who have trained astronauts but never went to space themselves?   

Dr. Kavandi:
I would expect applications from all of those categories and we welcome them all! We have people who are already contacting us. I expect it to be very similar to a NASA astronaut selection process with probably tens of thousands of applicants at the outset that we will then diligently work through to select the optimal candidates for the mission.

How will you approach – outside the walls of NASA – things like physical and psychological screening?

Dr. Kavandi:
Our first step, which is already well underway, is to stand up a medical advisory board. This board will start the evaluation of our Dream Chaser vehicle for human factors. We will also have our own chief medical officer with a primary aerospace physician to lead that function. We will then have a staff consisting of aerospace doctors, physicians and psychologists, so that we can do the same types of evaluations. And you bring up a good point. The psychological health of people in orbit is every bit as important as their medical health. So it is very important to ensure that we are taking care of the whole person. 

What are some considerations in taking care of the whole person?

Dr. Kavandi:
Three key areas that are important on Earth of course but even more accentuated in space are exercise, nutrition and connection. You have to get exercise in space to fight muscle atrophy and bone loss. It’s also great for your mental wellbeing. So we want to make sure you have exercise equipment on station and that you know how to use it. Proper nutrition when you are in space is critical. You have to have good, nutritious food but also variety. Variety is really important to an astronaut. That’s why we’re also planning to bring up our own vegetable habitat. When you have a garden growing up there, it’s not only good nutritionally but also psychologically. It’s very healthy to see fresh greens and something growing up there. And then of course there is human connection to your loved ones back on Earth. We will have robust video conferencing available at all times so astronauts and guests can communicate with their friends and families. So all of those things combined create a great emotional, psychological as well as physical environment.

These are all new jobs at Sierra Space, but they are also new kinds of jobs for a burgeoning commercial economy in low Earth orbit. This could change a lot of things on Earth, including the kind of education that prepares people for these new jobs, right? 

Dr. Kavandi:
Absolutely. School curriculum and education focus is undergoing change from elementary school on up. In our industry alone, universities are offering more varied degrees in aerospace engineering, manufacturing in microgravity and space communications. Schools are starting to stand up brand new departments for the skillsets of tomorrow. When you consider the new space economy, there will be a raft or new industries. Think about on-orbit manufacturing, whether it’s a new cancer drug or producing organs in space because you can 3-D print them with bio-printers up there. You don’t have to wait for donors to get a lung transplant or a kidney transplant. We don’t even know what the next big thing is going to be yet. This new economy opens up entirely new markets and it’s all in service to benefit life on Earth. And that’s our mission here at Sierra Space.

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