Axiom signs deal with SpaceX for three more private crew missions

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft approaches the International Space Station in April. Credit: NASA

SpaceX has signed a deal with Axiom Space, a Houston company that arranges private astronaut expeditions, for three more fully commercial Crew Dragon missions to the International Space Station beyond Axiom’s first Dragon flight in early 2022.

Axiom announced the deal for the three new missions June 2, meaning the company has agreements with SpaceX for four Crew Dragon flights, each carrying up to four astronauts to the space station.

In a statement, Axiom said the new deal with SpaceX was a sign that “the commercialization of low Earth orbit is in full swing.”

“We are beyond excited to build upon our partnership with Axiom to help make human spaceflight more accessible for more people,” said Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, in a statement. “A new era in human spaceflight is here.”

Axiom and SpaceX did not disclosed financial details of the deal.

SpaceX now has 10 confirmed Crew Dragon missions scheduled for launch in the next few years, following liftoff of the company’s first three astronaut missions under a multibillion-dollar NASA contract.

The first Crew Dragon flight with astronauts, a demonstration mission known as Demo-2, launched to the space station in May 2020 and returned to Earth last August. SpaceX’s first operational crew flight, Crew-1, launched last November and returned to Earth on May 2 with a four-person crew.

And Crew-2, the second regular Crew Dragon mission, launched April 23 with NASA commander Shane Kimbrough, pilot Megan McArthur, and mission specialists Akihiko Hoshide and Thomas Pesquet, from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency and the European Space Agency, respectively. They are due to leave the space station and come home Oct. 31.

SpaceX has four more Crew Dragon missions reserved by NASA, but that contract is likely to be extended. Along with Axiom’s four Crew Dragon flights, SpaceX has a deal with Space Adventures, a space tourism company, for a standalone Crew Dragon mission.

The first fully commercial human spaceflight to low Earth orbit will be the Inspiration4 mission, which will carry four private citizens on a three-day trip to space without going to the International Space Station. The Inspiration4 mission, led by billionaire entrepreneur and civilian pilot Jared Isaacman, is a charity-focused project designed in part to raise money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

Isaacman, 38, will be joined on the mission by Sian Proctor, a private pilot and science educator with a master’s degree in geology, Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old physician assistant at St. Jude, and Chris Sembroski, a data engineer from the Seattle area.

Proctor and Sembroski got their seats through a competition and a lottery. Arceneaux, a survivor of childhood cancer, was named to the crew to represent “hope.”

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft docked at the International Space Station. Credit: NASA/ESA

Axiom’s first Crew Dragon mission is scheduled to launch no earlier than January 2022. That flight, designated Ax-1, will be commanded by veteran NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría, who retired from the space agency in 2012 after nearly 258 days in orbit on four missions.

Three wealthy businessmen will join López-Alegría for an eight-day stay on the space station.

NASA announced in 2019 it would support up to two so-called “private astronaut missions” to the space station per year. NASA and Axiom confirmed last month that the Ax-1 mission next year will be the first private astronaut mission to visit the orbiting research complex.

Crew Dragon seats sell for about $55 million, according to NASA, which also charges private spaceflight operators for commercial astronauts for space station training and use of space station equipment.

Axiom’s second mission, Ax-2, could launch in late 2022, pending NASA approval. Retired NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson and John Shoffner, an experienced race car driver and pilot, will fly on the Ax-2 mission with up to two unnamed civilian crewmates.

Officials have not announced crew members for the Ax-3 and Ax-4 missions, which will serve as precursors to the launch of an Axiom-owned module to link up with the International Space Station. Axiom eventually intends to build its own commercial space station, somewhat smaller but cheaper to operate than the ISS.

Space tourists, government astronauts, and research experiments could fly to the commercial Axiom space station, which the company says it aims to deploy in low Earth orbit by 2028.

“Axiom was founded on a vision of lasting commercial development of space,” said Michael Suffredini, Axiom’s president and CEO. “We are on track to enable that future by managing the first-ever private missions to the ISS as a precursor to our development of the world’s first commercial space station.

“SpaceX has blazed the trail with reliable, commercial human launch capability and we are thrilled to partner with them on a truly historic moment,” Suffredini said in a press release.

SpaceX has two operational Crew Dragon spaceships — named “Endeavour” and “Resilience” — that are each designed to fly in space at least five times. A third reusable Crew Dragon will debut on the next NASA crew mission set for launch in October.

The Crew Dragon Endeavour capsule is currently docked at the space station, and Crew Dragon Resilience returned to Earth last month to be refurbished for the Inspiration4 mission scheduled for launch in September.

All of SpaceX’s planned Crew Dragon flights will blast off from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on top of Falcon 9 rockets. The capsule is designed to splash down under four parachutes off the coast of Florida.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.