Astronauts ready for first, all-European mission to the International Space Station

(Left to right) Ax-3 Mission Specialist Marcus Wandt, Pilot Walter Villadei, Commander Michael López-Alegría, Mission Specialist Alper Gezeravcı. Image: Axiom Space

For the third time, Axiom Space is preparing a charter mission to the International Space Station. The Ax-3 mission carries the distinction of featuring an all-European crew, with Commander Michael López-Alegría being a dual citizen of both the United States and Spain.

Following the Flight Readiness Review on Wednesday, the crew spoke about their upcoming mission amid their ongoing quarantine in Florida, which has been in place for a little over a week. They are set to launch to the ISS, on Wednesday, Jan. 17, at 5:11 p.m. EST (2211 UTC).

“I’m very proud to being leading this mission to the International Space Station. It’s important not just for the scientific research and technology demonstrations and outreach events we will do, but it’s a very important step towards Axiom Space having a commercial space station in orbit before the decade is out,” said López-Alegría.

The commander of the Ax-3 mission is returning to the station for the second time as both a mission commander and a private astronaut. He previously flew as a crew member on three Space Shuttle missions and Expedition 14 via Soyuz TMA-9.

The pilot of the mission, Walter Villadei, a colonel in the Italian Air Force and head of the ItAF’s U.S. office overseeing commercial spaceflight will be making his second flight onboard a U.S. spacecraft. He previously flew onboard the suborbital Virgin Galactic flight dubbed Unity 23.

Villadei will become just the second non-U.S. citizen to pilot a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, following the launch of the Crew-7 mission with European Space Agency astronaut and current ISS commander Andreas Mogensen in the pilot’s chair.

He also served as the backup pilot for John Shoffner on the Ax-2 mission last year and said being able to learn along side him was invaluable.

“He gave me some tips, especially to try to be focused on the screens and enjoy the flight. He’s been very, very professional. His flight was very smooth,” Villadei said. “It’s been a great privilege to be in training with him. So, I look forward to being as good a pilot as he was for Ax-2.”

One of the mission specialists onboard the flight, Alper Gezeravcı, will become the first Turkish astronaut to head to space. He noted that the mission comes during the centennial celebration for Türkiye.

“As the children of this nation, we have always been blocked with the limit of the sky that we could see with our bare eyes and now, this mission is opening that curtain all the way to the end and our path, our journey starting from this moment on,” Gezeravcı said. “This is the beginning of our next centennial future history that we will be really proud of.”

During their 14-day mission on board the space station, they will collectively perform more than 30 scientific experiments and more than 50 outreach events.

ESA astronaut Marcus Wandt stands next to a SpaceX Crew Dragon training capsule amid the preparations for the Ax-3 mission. Image: ESA

Marcus Wandt, an astronaut not only representing Sweden, but also the European Space Agency (ESA), said some of the work he’s most looking forward to includes experiments dealing with stem cells.

“We’re looking at how the stem cells are affected and their proliferation and how they’re diversified after and that effect after being in microgravity,” Wandt said. It’s been tried with sounding rockets in Sweden before and now we’re getting a longer exposure during this mission on the stem cells.”

In addition to the work, the astronauts are also bringing some small items of significance to themselves as well as the countries that they represent. Wandt said among his items will be a Nobel Prize medal.

“It shows the significance of innovation and dedication to science and knowledge progress. That’s an important part for me and that’s something I’m bringing,” Wandt said.

What’s left before launch

Coming up next week on Monday, there will be a static fire test of the Falcon 9 rocket at historic Launch Complex 39. Earlier that day, the crew will do a test run of the launch day process in an event called a dry dress rehearsal.

The next day, leadership from Axiom Space, SpaceX and NASA will gather for the Launch Readiness Review, which will be followed by a pre-launch teleconference tentatively set for 8 p.m. EST (0100 UTC).

Heading into his sixth launch, and reflecting on a nearly 30-year career of spaceflight, López-Alegría said it is still a privilege each and every time he is able to journey into space and that the experience “never gets old.” For the foreseeable future, he and fellow former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson will continue to command these private astronaut missions to the ISS.

“I think I have more appreciation with every launch that approaches. I think you put some of these things in the rear-view mirror and it helps you put them in perspective,” López-Alegría said. “The first time you go, you’re just sort of hanging on for dear life and enjoying the ride, but I think you appreciate each one a little bit more, especially when you realize just how rare an opportunity is.”

“So, I’m happy to keep doing this. Axiom would definitely like to continue doing private astronaut missions. We’ll probably have other commanders in the future, but as long as they ask me to fly, my hand will be raised.”