Whitson to command planned commercial flight to space station


Peggy Whitson and John Shoffner will fly on the AX-2 mission. Credit: Axiom Space

Peggy Whitson, America’s most experienced astronaut, and veteran GT3-class race car driver John Shoffner, a long-time pilot, will anchor a four-person crew launching to the International Space Station aboard Axiom Space’s second commercial trip to orbit, the company announced Tuesday.

The flight, if approved by NASA, marks the latest milestone in an emerging commercial space market using private-sector rockets and spacecraft to launch private citizens to space in purely commercial missions.

Whitson, 61, holds a doctorate in biochemistry and ranks ninth in the world for most time in space, logging nearly 666 days in orbit during three long-duration stays aboard the International Space Station. A veteran of 10 spacewalks, she retired from NASA in 2018 and said in an interview she is thrilled with the opportunity to fly again.

“The first thing you do when you get down back on the ground is try and figure out when your next flight is,” she told CBS News. “So when this opportunity came up, I was jumping up and down for it.”

Shoffner, 65, now retired from the fiber optics firm he founded, races high-performance GT3 cars with his wife Janine and is an experienced pilot, logging more than 8,500 hours flying time in multiple aircraft and helicopters since he first took to the sky at age 17.

“I’ve been a pilot since I was a teenager,” he said. “But to go to space, I want to go as a pilot. I want to do something when I’m there. Training at NASA with Peggy, I couldn’t think of anyone better to show me how to become an astronaut, the right way.”

Axiom Space, led by former space station program manager Mike Suffredini, has already booked a commercial flight to the space station early next year under a new NASA program that allows for up to two Private Astronaut Missions, or PAMs, per year on a non-interference basis with the lab’s professional crews.

Axiom’s first mission, known as AX-1, will be commanded by former astronaut and company vice president Michael Lopez-Alegria. He’ll be accompanied aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule by three wealthy investors for a planned 10-day mission tentatively scheduled for launch in January.

Axiom does not discuss how much its flights cost, but Crew Dragon seats are generally thought to run well above $50 million each, and that’s on top of the multi-million-dollar fees NASA charges for space station training, use of the lab’s equipment and facilities and support from professional astronauts.

If approved, Axiom’s second mission — AX-2 — will be commanded by Whitson with Shoffner serving as co-pilot.

Astronaut Peggy Whitson on-board the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

The flight is not yet on the space station schedule. Axiom Space will have to compete for a flight opportunity whenever NASA announces the next “window” for a private visit to the station. But a launch opportunity is expected to open up in the fall 2022 timeframe.

Likewise, it’s not yet known who will fill out the four-member crew. But at least one of them, presumably, will be the winner of a Discovery Channel competition that will be showcased in a reality TV show called “Who Wants To Be An Astronaut?”

While civilian space fliers are new to NASA, the Russian space agency Roscosmos has launched 10 wealthy space tourists to the station since 2001, charging tens of millions per seat.

With SpaceX now carrying NASA astronauts to and from the station, ending the agency’s routine purchase of seats aboard Russian spacecraft, Roscosmos has stepped up its own commercial efforts, filling four upcoming Soyuz seats with private citizens.

In October, a Russian actress and a filmmaker will join a cosmonaut for launch aboard a Soyuz spacecraft to shoot scenes for an upcoming science fiction movie aboard the space station. Then, in December, a Japanese billionaire and his assistant will be ferried to the station aboard another Soyuz for a similar 10-day visit.

Along with NASA-approved space station visits by non professionals, SpaceX also is gearing up to launch a purely commercial Crew Dragon flight in September purchased by billionaire Jared Isaacman to benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Isaacman and his crewmates, including a former St. Jude patient who is now a physician’s assistant at the hospital, are not visiting the station but instead will simply orbit the Earth for several days. More commercial space flights are expected using SpaceX Crew Dragons and Boeing CST-100 Starliner capsules.

Asked about the level of training civilian crew members will be required to undergo for commercial space flights, Whitson said she and Shoffner, and their future crewmates, will be well prepared. But the training will vary depending on the crew member’s role and destination.

“John, for instance, wants more training, and so we’re going to torture him with some more,” Whitson said. “The level varies depending on the objectives that you want to achieve during the mission, which I think is great because people go for different reasons. And we need to try and find the optimal training level for that.

“And of course, there’s a minimum level required of everyone to be safe in that environment. We can’t trivialize that in any way. … There are risks associated with being in space, and I think it’s incumbent on every agency (that) is providing that capability to be up front about that.”

Shoffner said commercial space pilots need additional training because “we’re not just up there riding in an automated vehicle with nothing to do, we have to monitor systems and verify operations.”

“There are those conditions where you can lose comm, lose data links or, you know, things go offline, so you have to be able to step in. … You need a fully functioning and capable crew for for all phases of flight.”

Training aside, Whitson said the attraction of AX-2 to her is the chance to get in on the ground floor of what she believes is a new era in spaceflight. She says Axiom, which plans to attach modules to the International Space Station and eventually operate its own station, will be providing a useful service to a wide range of customers.

“What Axiom has in mind is that they would allow NASA astronauts to come and fly, maybe get a short-duration experience before they go out on their lunar or Mars mission,” she said. “They would have international astronauts training, we will have space industry with maybe specialists going up and manufacturing products.

“I have always said how important I think it is for more and more people to have access to space. And I think establishing a commercial platform in space is going to offer that and enable it.”

She likened the emerging commercial space market to commercial aviation in its infancy.

“It was something that very few people could do, but it had to get started somewhere,” she said. “And that’s where we are, we are making that transition. And it’s fun to be part of that new change.”

For the AX-2 mission, Whitson and Shoffner plan to test hardware built by 10X Genomics, a biotechnology company that builds equipment for gene sequencing.

“Researchers have been wanting to have this capability on orbit,” Shoffner said. “They currently orbit and test samples and bring them down and then run them on 10X Genomics equipment on Earth. But the sample fidelity can shift between the launch and the recovery. So researchers want this.”

Commercial spaceflight offers companies like 10X Genomics offer a faster way to get results, he said, and “we’re really happy to be able to enable that.” He and Whitson plan hands-on training with the equipment “so that when we’re on orbit, we’ll conduct a set of experiments and trials that demonstrate, hopefully, that their products and processes can be made to work there.”