First-of-its-kind commercial astronaut mission heads for space station

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket climbs away from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center to begin the Ax-1 commercial crew mission. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

Strapped in the seats of a SpaceX crew capsule, a retired NASA astronaut and three wealthy paying passengers rocketed into orbit Friday from the Kennedy Space Center on the first fully commercial mission to the International Space Station.

The commercial crew mission, managed by a Houston-based company named Axiom Space, is slated to last 10 or 11 days. The flight is the first mission to travel to the space station as part of a purely commercial venture. All previous space station missions have been government-led or contracted by a government space agency.

“To say that we are excited is a huge understatement,” said Mike Suffredini, CEO of Axiom. “It’s fantastic to have launched this morning. “The crew is on orbit. They’re very excited (and) happy.”

Michael López-Alegría, commander of the mission, launched on his fifth flight to space. The other crew members for the Axiom mission, known as Ax-1, are pilot Larry Connor and mission specialists Eytan Stibbe and Mark Pathy, three investors and entrepreneurs who paid for their tickets to space.

The four-man team lifted off from pad 39A at the Florida spaceport at 11:17:12 a.m. EDT (1517:12 GMT) Friday, riding inside SpaceX’s Dragon Endeavour spacecraft, making its third trip to the space station. A Falcon 9 rocket powered by nine kerosene-fueled engines guided the Crew Dragon capsule into space, then a second stage engine finished the job of placing the spaceship into a stable orbit around Earth.

The first stage booster, meanwhile, returned to Earth for landing on a floating SpaceX platform in the Atlantic Ocean, completing the reusable rocket’s fifth mission. Then the second stage released the Dragon Endeavour spacecraft to fly on its own in orbit.

“Zero G and we feel fine!” López-Alegría said.

“On behalf of the Falcon 9 team, welcome to space,” radioed Bill Gerstenmaier, SpaceX’s vice president of build and flight reliability, to the Ax-1 crew members. “Thanks for flying Falcon 9. You guys enjoy your trip to that wonderful space station in the sky. Do some great research for us. We look forward to seeing you back here on the ground.”

“That was a hell of a ride,” López-Alegría replied. “We’re looking forward to the next 10 days.”

The Dragon spacecraft opened its nose cone to reveal the ship’s docking mechanism and forward thrusters. The capsule was expected to pulse its maneuvering jets in a series of burns late Friday into Saturday, setting up for a final approach to the space station.

The ship will glide in for docking at 7:45 a.m. EDT (1145 GMT) Saturday, targeting a linkup with the zenith, or space-facing, port of the Harmony module. If all goes according to plan, the rendezvous and docking will be entirely automated, with the Ax-1 crew along for the ride.

Later Saturday morning, the four-man Ax-1 crew will open the hatch and float into the space station to join the seven-person team of astronauts and cosmonauts already living and working on the outpost.

The Ax-1 crew will remain at the station for at least eight days, performing research experiments and participating in public outreach and educational events with organizations on the ground. They will also have a chance to look out the window, observe Earth from space, and float in microgravity, an experience barely 600 people have had since the dawn of the Space Age.

The mission is an all-commercial affair. López-Alegría is an Axiom employee, and his three crewmates are Axiom customers.

Axiom contracted with SpaceX for the Falcon 9 launch and the Dragon flight to the space station. Axiom also has an agreement with NASA, which is providing accommodations for the four-man crew at the station.

The arrangement is the first of its kind. Previous visits by private astronauts, or “space tourists,” to the space station occurred on government-led missions on Russian Soyuz spaceships. Eleven people have traveled to the space station as paying passengers on Soyuz missions, but they all flew with a government cosmonaut commander.

Although López-Alegría is a professional astronaut, he’s no longer a NASA employee. The 63-year-old astronaut, born in Spain and a retired U.S. Navy captain, logged 258 days in orbit on his four prior missions.

Connor, 72, is a native of Ohio, head of a real estate investment firm, and an experienced private pilot. Pathy is a 52-year-old an investor and philanthropist from Canada, and Stibbe, 64, is an entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and a former F-16 fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force.

Axiom has not disclosed the price Connor, Pathy, and Stibbe paid for their flight to the space station. But NASA’s inspector general has said a seat on a Dragon mission costs roughly $55 million.

The Ax-1 crew members trained for the mission in Houston and at SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California.

The first private astronaut mission is a harbinger of a transition from government-led spaceflight operations in low Earth orbit to a future generation of commercial space stations. NASA wants to help steer the space industry through the transition by providing the International Space Station as a testbed for markets that must be developed before companies can take launch and operate a revenue-earning destination in orbit.

A major goal for the U.S. space agency is to rely on commercial industry to develop the next orbiting outpost to replace the International Space Station. The Biden administration recently signaled it will support an extension of station operations though 2030, but by then the research lab’s oldest elements will have been in space 32 years, more than twice their original design lives.

The fraught relationship between the United States and Russia, the two largest ISS partners, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also raised concerns about a replacement for the International Space Station.

“This is opening a new era in human spaceflight,” López-Alegría said. “We are talking a first step in a next-generation platform initiative that’s going bring working, living, and research in space to a much broader and more international audience.”

Axiom is developing its own commercial module in partnership with Thales Alenia Space of Italy for launch to the International Space Station in late 2024. NASA has selected Axiom for to provide a module to occupy an open docking port on the station. The new section will add capacity for experiments and crew accommodations.

“We’ve been working on this together with NASA and SpaceX for something like six years,” said Suffredini, a former space station program manager at NASA. “This is the first mission, really, in our effort to build a commercial space station. This is one of four or five precursor missions before we launch our first module to the ISS in 2024.”

Another Axiom private astronaut mission is scheduled for launch in early 2023 on a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft. That flight is confirmed with NASA, while negotiations with the space agency remain open regarding two later Axiom missions, also booked with SpaceX.

Axiom is paying NASA for access to the space station’s power and life support systems, food, and sleeping berths for the Ax-1 crew, and NASA required Axiom purchase liability insurance for the mission. NASA is paying some of that back to Axiom  for return of government freezers and experiment specimens.

Axiom eventually plans a second pressurized module, then aims to launch a solar power platform to allow the company to detach the new parts of the International Space Station and create a standalone platform by 2028.

Other companies also have plans to develop commercial space stations. In December, NASA selected Blue Origin, Nanoracks, and Northrop Grumman to advance their concepts for a commercial habitat and research facility in low Earth orbit.

The Ax-1 mission is a stepping stone toward that goal.

“This is a really, really big milestone for us in our overall campaign to try to help foster a commercial low Earth orbit economy,” said Dana Weigel, NASA’s deputy space station program manager. “This is a great first step in the execution of the vision that we’ve had for a while.”

López-Alegría said the opportunity to fly in space a fifth time, 15 years after he ended his fourth mission, makes the Ax-1 mission “ever sweeter” to him.

“When I left NASA over 10 years ago, I became a very strong advocate for and believer in commercial spaceflight in general, and commercial human spaceflight in particular,” he said. “This borderlines on storybook for me.”

Mark Pathy, Larry Connor, Michael López-Alegría, and Eytan Stibbe (left to right) inside the Dragon Endeavour spacecraft before launch Friday. Credit: SpaceX

In a time with an increasing pace of crew launches to space, Connor said the Ax-1 mission is different than other private crew missions to space.

“I think it’s important to address the difference between space tourists and private astronauts. Our feeling is with the space tourists, they’ll spend 10 or 15 hours training, 5 to 10 minutes in space,” Connor said in a press conference before the launch. “And by the way that’s fine.

“Depending on our role, we’ve spent anywhere from 750 to over 1,000 hours training,” Connor said. “Additionally, across all of the astronauts here, we’re going to do some 25 different experiments encompassing over 100 hours of research on the eight days we’re on the ISS.”

The experiments will investigate self-assembling technology for future satellites and space habitats, study cancer stem cells, and test a new Japanese air purification device. The crew members will also serve as experiment subjects for scientists to study how spaceflight affects the human body.

“We understand this civilian mission is a big honor and a big opportunity, but with that comes a big responsibility — that is to execute the mission correctly and successfully,” Connor said.

Connor is partnering with Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic on research looking at heart health and brain and spinal tissue. Pathy is working with the Montreal Children’s Hospital, Canadian research universities, and the Royal Canadian Geographic Society on technology demonstrations, a sleep study and chronic pain experiment, an eye health investigation, and Earth observations.

Stibbe is working with the Israel Space Agency, the Israeli Ministry of Innovation, Science, and Technology, and the Ramon Foundation, an organization established to honor the memory of Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut who died on the space shuttle Columbia in 2003.

With the launch of Ax-1, Stibbe became the second Israeli citizen to fly in space. He will conduct experiments and educational outreach programs while on the space station, and carries with him fragments from Ilan Ramon’s diary that survived the searing heat of re-entry after the fatal breakup of the shuttle Columbia over Texas in 2003.

The undocking and landing of the Ax-1 mission was tentatively scheduled for April 18, but a Russian spacewalk is planned the same day, meaning the Axiom flight is likely to be extended by a day.

The Dragon spacecraft will splash down under parachutes off the coast of Florida.

SpaceX will then launch the next long-duration crew to the space station no earlier than April 21 on the company’s brand new Crew Dragon Freedom spacecraft. That mission, called Crew-4 and under contract to NASA, will ferry three U.S. astronauts and an Italian-born European Space Agency astronaut to the space station for a mission set to last nearly five months.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endurance spacecraft will then depart the station in late April to bring home the astronauts on the Crew-3 mission, who have lived and worked on the outpost since November.

Following the Dragon arrivals and departures this month, NASA will turn its attention toward an unpiloted test flight of Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule tentatively set for liftoff from Cape Canaveral on May 20 aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket.

The Starliner spacecraft is flying on its second orbital test flight after software problems cut short a demonstration mission in 2019. Engineers discovered faulty valves on the Starliner service module just before it was supposed to launch last August, forcing another nine-month launch delay to troubleshoot the valve problem and replace the suspect service module with a new one.

NASA wants the Starliner spacecraft certified to carry astronauts as soon as possible. When the Starliner is operational, there will be two U.S. spaceships simultaneously capable of ferrying crews to and from low Earth orbit for the first time in history.

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