SpaceX poised to send first private crew to the International Space Station for Axiom Space

Tomorrow morning, SpaceX will launch another crew of four to the International Space Station from Florida — but unlike most of the company’s passenger flights, this new crop of flyers won’t feature current NASA astronauts. All four crew members are civilians and fly a commercial space company called Axiom Space. Their flight will be the first time an entirely private crew has visited the ISS.

It is a new type of manned spaceflight mission and one that carries a hefty price tag for the participants. Three of the four flyers have reportedly paid $55 million each for their seats on SpaceX’s crew capsule, the Crew Dragon. The trio of aerospace fledglings includes Canadian investor Mark Pathy, American real estate investor Larry Connor and former Israeli Air Force pilot Eytan Stibbe. The commander of the trip is a spaceflight veteran: Michael López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut who has flown four missions to space and now serves as Axiom’s vice president.

Their mission, called Ax-1, is the latest in an emerging trend of completely private astronaut flights to Earth orbit. For most of space history, manned spaceflight missions have been conducted almost exclusively by government-run space programs. That is changing now that the commercial space industry has made a leap forward in recent decades. Leading the pack is SpaceX, which has proven it can safely send humans to and from low Earth orbit on its Crew Dragon. While SpaceX primarily launches NASA astronauts, lately the company has begun flexing its muscles and has begun to conduct civilian crew flights without NASA’s input.

These types of civilian flights will only become more common. Axiom — which aims to create a fleet of commercial space stations — has provided: three additional private crew missions to the ISS, like Ax-1, to prepare for the establishment of the first station. The company’s goal is to “make space more accessible to everyone”.

“This is really the first step for a bunch of individuals who want to do something meaningful in low-Earth orbit – who are not members of any government – ​​can seize this opportunity,” Mike Suffredini, Axiom CEO and the former program manager of the ISS at NASA, said at a news conference. But until the costs come down, such individuals need a fat wallet.

A new paradigm

Axiom benefits from a crucial timing as SpaceX enters a new operational phase with the Crew Dragon. Originally, SpaceX developed the Crew Dragon for NASA to transport the agency’s astronauts to and from the International Space Station. With an original contract worth $2.6 billion and after more than six years of development, SpaceX successfully launched its first crew on the Crew Dragon in May 2020, sending two NASA astronauts to the ISS.

NASA’s ultimate goal was to turn over transportation to the ISS to the private sector, but a secondary goal was for SpaceX to eventually use the capsule to conduct its own manned missions. With the Axiom missions, that’s exactly what SpaceX is doing: using the protocols and technology it developed for NASA to build an entirely separate commercial human spaceflight company.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon with Axiom’s logo on the side.
Image: SpaceX

Coinciding with SpaceX’s Crew Dragon development was a major policy change at NASA. In 2019, NASA announced it would open facilities on the International Space Station for more commercial opportunities and encourage private astronauts to visit the ISS on US spacecraft. Such activities used to be discouraged, and although wealthy space tourists have visited the station before, they all flew on Russian Soyuz vehicles. Now, with this new change, folks who has booked a flight? to the ISS on US spacecraft could potentially use the station’s facilities for commercial activities, such as making movies or advertising.

Of course, using the various systems of the ISS will cost you money, just like using the luxurious amenities in a hotel. According to the agency’s announcement, NASA planned to charge $11,250 per day per person for use of the station’s life support system and restroom. Providing amenities such as food, medical supplies and fitness equipment would cost a total of $22,500 per person per day.

With all these changes, Axiom saw an opportunity. The company is currently building its first commercial space station, called Axiom Station, with plans to eventually attach the first module of the orbiting outpost to the ISS as early as 2024† They plan to test the module on the ISS before breaking free and creating the company’s own free-flying station. To prepare for this big move, Axiom turned to SpaceX to conduct a series of precursor missions to the ISS — essentially a series of dress rehearsals for when Axiom will one day send people to its own space station.

“This precursor mission is important because we are not only developing the techniques that we will use to communicate with the ground to space here in mission control at Axiom, but we are also developing all the procedures and processes that would enable spaceflight,” said Peggy Whitson, former NASA astronaut and director of human spaceflight at Axiom. Whitson will serve as commander of Axiom’s next mission, Ax-2.

Ax-1 in orbit

The Ax-1 crew will join a number of others pay rich private fliers their way to space. Aside from the handful of space tourists who have already visited the station, wealthy space travelers have also started buying expensive tickets for rides in sub-orbital vehicles from companies like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, leaving them just a few minutes on the edge of space.

However, the Ax-1 mission will be much larger in scope than those missions. “Our feeling is with the space tourists, they will train for 10 or 15 hours, 5 to 10 minutes in space,” said crew member Larry Connor. “And by the way, that’s fine. In our case, depending on our role, we spent anywhere from 750 to over 1,000 hours on training.”

Another private SpaceX launch last year, called Inspiration4, sent a private crew of four people into orbit in a Crew Dragon for about three days — enjoying the view out the window and performing a handful of experiments. Ax-1 will be at the station for eight days and the crew has a slew of space experiments planned. Together, the four flyers will conduct a total of 25 different science experiments, which will take approximately 100 hours to complete. These include human physiology experiments for the Mayo Clinic, as well as a two-way 3D hologram demonstration using a Microsoft HoloLens.

The Ax-1 astronauts will primarily live and work in the American portion of the ISS, although they will enter the Russian portion of the station at the invitation of the cosmonauts on board. Despite tensions between Russia and the United States, the two countries have continued to work together to maintain the daily operations of the ISS. There are currently three Russian cosmonauts living on the ISS, three NASA astronauts and one German astronaut with the European Space Agency.

The International Space Station seen from a Crew Dragon in 2021.
Image: NASA

Axiom has not given any concrete details on how much this mission will cost, only that they will pay NASA some amount of money for the use of the ISS. “We need to compensate NASA for using the ISS and other services, and we did,” Suffredini said. He also noted that NASA may discount some fees in exchange for Axiom’s services. “There are a number of things that we do on this flight that help NASA, which we get credit for.” Suffredini also wouldn’t say whether Axiom is making a profit from this mission, just that Ax-1 is in line with the company’s original vision of the mission.

However, Ax-1 is still a turning point for the space station, given how it’s funded and who’s on board. “We are taking the first step in a next-generation platform initiative that will bring working, living and space research to a much wider and more international audience,” said Commander López-Alegría.

To participate of course that audience should have about $55 million left for a seat. So while Axiom may be opening up room for more flyers than before, it’s still a relatively small pool to choose from.


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