Michael López-Alegría: “I will carry the Spanish flag into space with great pride and enthusiasm”
From a father from Badajoz and an Italian-American mother, Miguel Eladio Lopez Alegria was born in May 58 in Madrid. Just two years later, his family moved to California. There, renamed ‘Michael’ to his peers, he grew up and graduated from the US Naval Academy with a degree in systems engineering, later specializing in aerospace engineering. In the early 1990s, he was chosen as a NASA astronaut. In his facilities he coincided and ‘made friends’ with a young Peter Duke, who was training at the time for the European Space Agency (ESA). Both would go up a few years later to the International Space Station (ISS), but López-Alegría would go two years ahead, becoming the first astronaut of Spanish origin to reach space.
It was not the only one: he returned up to four times until his last trip, in 2006. Now retired from the US space agency, he has created his own company, Axiom Space, with which he will return to the ISS almost two decades later on the 21st of February on the first totally private mission to the largest space laboratory created by mankind. And this time he will proudly wear the Spanish flag that he could not carry on his other space trips, he says in a videoconference chat with ABC from his company’s “headquarters” in Los Angeles.
“NASA just approved the crew for Axiom Mission 1, with you as commander.” How does it feel?
—Another step forward among the many that are necessary. We have been pursuing this goal for months and even years. Training, medical tests, physical… We are finally getting closer to the release date.
—Is it a different feeling than the other times you have traveled to space?
“There are many differences. First, the station is bigger. The last time I went there was a crew of three on board. Now there are seven astronauts there and, with us, we will add a total of eleven. In other words, it is much larger, more complex, much more focused on scientific experiments, unlike my time, which was a time of construction. When I went there were three or four modules and now there are more than double. It is almost like a city. Also, with this private crew my role is a bit different: I don’t just have to take care of my things, but also theirs and make sure that everything is safe but also that they enjoy the experience. Because that is very important. Lastly, when I was a NASA astronaut, I had expectations of what my job would be like; but now that I am separated from that life, I am more excited because I recognize more how special and how magnificent this experience is. I’m enjoying it a bit more. It will be very interesting to experience how it has changed and how it has expanded in volume and scientific facilities. I really want to.
—Who are the crew and what will they do during their eight days on the ISS?
“I am the commander. The second on board is the pilot, Larry Connor. He lives in Ohio and collaborates with two very important medical institutions, the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic, with which he will carry out experiments with stem cells to measure how space impacts aging. The mission specialist is an Israeli named Eytan Stibbe, Israeli Air Force pilot and partner of the other pilot who died in the Columbia accident in 2003, Ilan Ramon. After his passing, the Ilan Ramon Foundation was created and Eytan is collaborating with this organization to carry out physical medical experiments. The third astronaut is called Mark Pathy, a Canadian from Montreal who collaborates with the Montreal Childhood Hospital and the Canadian Geographical Society to do other different tests and show that you can create a two-way communication with holograms to, for example, be able to operate in space with support on the ground. Actually, this mission is very similar to those of NASA, except that the initiative is entirely private and the experiments are supervised by these institutions.
—It is evident that we are facing a new space race, with private companies getting involved and space tourism as a claim for the general public. Or, at least, the wealthiest. Do you think so?
“I don’t know if it’s a race, but it’s certainly a new phase of manned missions. In the last sixty years we have taken into space, almost without exception, employees of the state of the government. However, now the time of private astronauts begins. And we are already seeing that they can be suborbital flights or further away, to the ISS, which is what we do. The difference between one and the other is that in order to reach the space station, greater preparation, training and dedication are necessary. Besides, it is a new opportunity to explore and exploit the field of microgravity, and to be able to carry out the same research but from the private sector.
“So we’re in another space age?”
“It’s a turning point in human exploration in space. I am super proud to be part of this crew because since I left NASA more than ten years ago I have always been committed to the idea of democratizing the experience. And now, after so many years saying it, it’s my turn to do it. For me it is a dream. Above all bearing the ties I have with Spain. I am very excited.
—Do you feel like the first Spaniard to go up into space? There was some controversy here…
—Pedro is a friend and we don’t have any friction between us because of that. I was born in Spain, I have always had Spanish nationality, what happens is that I did not carry the flag on my shoulder because I went as a member of NASA. He, however, represented Spain when he came up with ESA. On this occasion, I will go with the two flags, because since it is not a state space agency I can claim my two nationalities. I will proudly carry the Spanish flag.
—What is your relationship with Spain? Are you aware of current events in the sector here or related to Spanish companies and engineers?
—I don’t have much to do with the space sector. Almost all my links with Spain are family. I have two families, my father’s, who was from Badajoz. He had three sisters and his children, my cousins, are very close, we talk very regularly. Later he married a Spanish woman and most of them are in Madrid, so it is almost a mandatory visit every time I go to Spain. I see her almost more than the other one, because you don’t go to Badajoz unless you go to Badajoz -laughs-. I love everyone there. And not only that, but also the culture, the cuisine, the wine… I feel very Spanish in blood, although my mind may be very American.
—Going back to the democratization of space. Do you think that space travel will become available to everyone?
“That’s going to take time because, at the moment, the prices are astronomical,” he laughs. But I think it will happen like with commercial aviation, when in the twenties or thirties tickets were very expensive and only rich people could afford to fly. Today anyone does it to go to a party. Prices have been reduced because of the increase in supply, the volume of operations, experience… I am convinced that, at some point, everyone will be able to go up into space just as they are up on a plane today.
—Can we talk about prices for boarding the ISS? Some media point to about 55 million dollars (48 million euros).
“We can’t talk about what they’ve paid, but it’s tens of millions of dollars, I have to admit. The cost is so expensive because a large part goes on transportation.
Will there be new missions?
—A second mission has just been approved for the end of this year. The commander will be Peggy Watson, a very experienced ex-astronaut who is now my deputy for my mission; Three more crew members who have already begun to prepare will be added. The intention is to carry out two missions a year, but it is NASA and the other agencies that have to decide if we can do them, because having four more astronauts on board the ISS complicates things a little more. However, when we have our own modules, we will be able to take trips on a more regular basis.
—In fact, I wanted to ask you about precisely that, the great project of your company to build the first private space station. How’s it going?
—The plan is to build, launch and attach three modules to the ISS. This is easier than building from scratch. Of the first module, the ‘shell’ is being built in Italy. When it is ready, it will be sent to Houston to integrate all the electronics. We hope to launch the module in September 2024. Six months later the second one will take off, and another six months after that the next one. We will operate alongside the ISS until its end. At that time we will upload a fourth module that will have solar panels, which will provide energy to the entire infrastructure. At that time we will do the same thing that the ISS does but in private. We also want to have these same government agencies as clients, such as NASA or ESA, that can send their astronauts to carry out experiments in microgravity; but also private companies that do their own tests.
—There are many projects in the ‘air’ in the field of space: there has been talk of building hotels, lunar bases… What is different about this project?
—The most important thing for me is that there is demand. The space agencies that make up the ISS have almost all said they want to have a presence in Earth orbit; but they have no plans for when the current space station retires. NASA has already opted for us, allowing us to attach our modules. And this is a great sign. They have confidence in who we are, in our engineering and operations capacity and I think that gives clues to what the future may be. It is true that many companies have said that they can do this or that in space. But, as we say, our company is already ‘cutting metal’. This is indeed a project that is going to be carried out. In addition, we have been successful in raising funds. When I started with the company there were five of us and now we are almost 400. And we are growing impressively. This is all very serious.
—NASA bets a lot on private companies like Axiom or SpaceX. What is the atmosphere among private space companies?
—We are a group of few companies but we depend a lot on each other: for example, we are not a space transportation company, but a destination; and in our case we use SpaceX for the trip. But in the future there will be at least one or two more companies with which we can collaborate. Competition is always good for an industry in a new sector, and here too there is collaboration. In addition, agencies are interested in our activity. For example, today NASA spends 3.5 billion dollars a year on the ISS, which is ridiculous money. And we can offer the same access for much less cost. And that’s interesting for them. They can focus on exploring the Moon or Mars while an economy is already established in Earth orbit. And we want to be one of the pioneers in building the hotel or the laboratory, depending on your interest. But Earth orbit will be quite an interesting domain and one that will grow during this decade.