[Note: I’m almost positive this isn’t a new idea, but I figured I would share it, just in case.]
One of the many concerns with deep-space human spaceflight missions, is that all of NASA’s experience has been with missions close enough to Earth that mission control could be in direct and nearly instantaneous communication with astronauts. Worst case round-trip speed-of-light delays for the Apollo missions were on the order of 2.5-3s or less. But for missions even to NEOs, let alone Mars, you quickly end up with round-trip speed-of-light delays on the order of tens of minutes, to over 3/4 of an hour worst-case at Mars. It is a legitimate concern that NASA’s practical experience in mission ops has been so used to mission control being able to provide almost instantaneous feedback when problems crop up.
One very cheap way to fix this might be to intentionally start simulating speed-of-light delays between ISS astronauts and mission control (and visa versa). There are very few problems on ISS that really need real-time mission control help, and getting used to dealing even with problems with a built-in time lag would be useful experience for deeper space mission. If NASA can’t stomach the risk of doing this with a big space station like ISS, I can’t imagine they’ll ever have the intestinal fortitude to really do a crewed deep-space mission.
If desired, NASA could theoretically start with only a small delay, and then gradually build to longer times. For instance, once commercial crew starts flying, maybe they intentionally swap the whole USOS team out at once (instead of staggering the replacements like they do right now). Then start initially with no lag, but adding lag little by little, at about the rate that it would build up for a mission to an asteroid or Mars. You might make some exceptions for communication between astronauts performing research on the ISS and the ground subject matter experts they’re working with (since ISS isn’t just about preparing for deep space, but also about performing useful research), but make sure that they’re not allowed to talk with other NASA folks except via the speed-of-light delay simulated communications link. Also keep communication with friends and family on the ground routed through that delayed link as well.
My guess is that if they started performing this experiment on a regular basis, they’d likely learn all sorts of new things. Some things they’ve done in the past may translate fairly well to a delayed environment, while large parts of how they do things now may have to change. But really, if NASA wants to prepare for deep-space missions, why not start now when the risks are low? Not only would the mission control people learn better how to interact with crews at long distances, but those crews will also be gaining experience with interacting with mission control at long distances. My guess is even if a commercial deep space mission isn’t done exactly as NASA would (fairly likely), that there’ll still be all sorts of useful lessons learned that could be passed on.
And really this experiment wouldn’t cost hardly to add to the ISS manifest.
Does anyone know if NASA has thought of doing something like this? Any suggestions on how to run the experiment better?