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Axiom’s All-Private Spaceflight to the ISS Preps for Launch

In another milestone for commercial spaceflight, the world’s first fully privately-funded crew to the International Space Station is about to blast off, with their launch window opening on Friday. A habitat that traditionally hosts mostly space agency astronauts will now welcome four civilians arriving on a company-owned spacecraft.

On April 8 at 11:17 am Eastern time, the crew is slated to launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Axiom Space’s 10-day mission, which will include eight days of living and working in orbit. They’ll travel to the ISS aboard the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour, lifted by a Falcon 9 rocket.

Axiom’s mission, known as Ax-1, is intended to help the Houston-based company learn the ropes before its planned ISS crew module, dubbed Axiom Hub One, launches in a few years. When the ISS retires, Axiom aims to separate the module, which can host as many as eight astronauts, so that it can become the world’s first free-flying commercial space station. “It became clear we need to practice this a little bit at a smaller scale before our module shows up and we need to house that many people,” says Michael Suffredini, Axiom’s president and CEO. “It also provides opportunities to satisfy some of the latent demand out there to fly to the ISS.”

This won’t be the first time a privately owned spacecraft has docked with the space station. Since 2020, SpaceX has ferried crews to the ISS—but so far all of them have been space agency astronauts. Meanwhile, SpaceX, Northrop Grumman, and Sierra Nevada Corp. all have contracts with NASA to make uncrewed supply deliveries to the ISS.

It won’t be the first time a space tourist has visited, either. Since American businessman Dennis Tito spent $20 million for a spot on the ISS in 2001, about a dozen others have followed—but they’ve had to get there on government-owned vehicles, mostly Soyuz spacecraft from Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency.

But this will be the first time that civilian astronauts will show up at the space station in a privately owned craft. “This mission represents a significant milestone for NASA’s goals to build a robust commercial economy in low Earth orbit. It helps stimulate demand as part of NASA’s overall vision of long-term sustainable commercial presence in low Earth orbit with NASA astronauts able to work side by side with private and international astronauts,” said Angela Hart, program manager of NASA’s Commercial Low Earth Orbit Program, speaking at a media teleconference on March 25.Michael López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut and Axiom’s vice president of business development, will lead a crew of three businessmen. Larry Connor, an American real estate investor, will have the title of pilot. (The Dragon’s flight will actually be autonomous.) The other two are mission specialists on Ax-1: Mark Pathy and Eytan Stibbe, investors and philanthropists from Canada and Israel, respectively.

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“The first crewed SpaceX flight to the station [in 2020] itself was a major turning point, the first time we had a craft built by a commercial company taking astronauts there. Ax-1 is another important step along that path,” says Matthew Weinzeirl, an economist at Harvard whose expertise includes the space industry. “I think the development of the space economy will only really get going in some of the big ways that people had dreamed when we get more people in space for more time, more often.”

Ax-1 will be the second all-private spaceflight to orbit, following SpaceX’s Inspiration4 last September. And over the past year, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin have ramped up their suborbital space tourism flights, including the latter’s latest one on March 31. These suborbital jaunts don’t venture as high as Inspiration4 did or Ax-1 will, though they’re still high enough for passengers to experience zero-g and a spectacular global view.

López-Alegría argues that Ax-1 is a different kind of trip. “I think there’s an important role for space tourism, but that’s not what Axiom is about. My crewmates worked hard to focus on this, and it’s definitely not a vacation for them,” he said at a virtual press briefing on February 28.

Other than López-Alegría, none of the crew have spaceflight or scientific backgrounds. So Connor, Pathy, and Stibbe went through a substantial 16-week training course at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, going through NASA’s astronaut syllabus while learning how the equipment works in the Crew Dragon and on the ISS. They completed some research training, too, so they can help conduct about 25 planned experiments, developed in collaboration with health and medical institutions.

Axiom offered only a few details about the research and how it will be conducted. Connor will collaborate with the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic to collect data used to study space travel’s effects on aging cells and heart health. Pathy will assist with experiments by researchers at Canadian universities and the Montreal Children’s Hospital involving the effects of microgravity on sleep and chronic pain. (Neither he nor Connor will be performing specific experiments on themselves, though they will all conduct standard monitoring of their heart and breathing rates, and take vision tests.) Stibbe will be bringing other experiments aboard on behalf of Israel’s Ramon Foundation.

The crew come from four different countries, and the Ax-1 patch designed for their spacesuits highlights their multinationality, showing the ISS with the four nation’s flags in place of solar panels. But the crew members are nonetheless mostly rich white men, people who can afford ticket prices on the order of tens of millions of dollars. (Suffredini declined to disclose the exact cost.) That ticket buys them one luxury other astronauts don’t have: Chef José Andrés’ company, ThinkFoodGroup, will be preparing a fancy space menu for the Ax-1 crew, including a pork dish called Secreto de Cerdo With Pisto, and chicken and mushroom paella. The meals are portioned in pouches, and the crew will be able to heat them up in a food warmer.

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On future missions, the Virginia-based company SpaceLink will work with Axiom to conduct a demo of its space data relay service, which will aid communications for mostly commercial customers with spacecraft in low Earth orbit. These kinds of agreements are signs of a growing space economy, Weinzierl says.

Nevertheless, it’s not yet clear how much costs will come down for future space voyages, a situation that raises concerns about unequal access to space. While Adler Planetarium astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz is glad to see more options to fly to the ISS, they criticize the concept of a crew “whose primary qualification is that they have a great deal of wealth.” Walkowicz, cofounder of the JustSpace Alliance, authored a piece in Scientific American last year arguing that the privately funded spaceflight industry perpetuates inequities. They point out that while the Ax-1 passengers are bringing potentially useful experiments onboard, the people who actually designed the research aren’t the ones going to space. “The Axiom website uses this high-flying language about the revolutionary nature of the mission, but it’s still a crew of wealthy men who kind of get to play house, who get to play astronaut and scientist,” Walkowicz says.

Others have also been drawing attention to inequities in spaceflight. Women make up just 20 percent of the space industry workforce and only 12 percent of the more than 600 astronauts who have gone to space, says Kim Macharia, executive director of the Space Prize Foundation and chair of the board of directors of the Space Frontier Foundation, both nonprofit organizations. The latter just released a diversity, equity, and inclusion analysis of the space sector.

Macharia says it’s not surprising that rich people make up the majority of the first space tourists, but more can be done to make the situation fairer. “As someone who’s a big fan of the commercialization of space, I do think that this is something we’re naturally going to encounter over the next few years, given the cost of spaceflight. That's why I think it’s so important for people who can afford these trips to support initiatives that are going to empower others from more marginalized backgrounds to follow in their paths,” she says. The Space Prize Foundation is kicking off a global competition in June that will award prizes to girls ages 15 to 18, including mentorships with women who are leaders in space science and engineering, and a trip to the edge of space on a Space Perspective balloon.

The Ax-1 astronauts will be arriving during an unusual moment in international space relations. Russia’s war in Ukraine has had ripple effects in space. Russia’s space program has been subjected to sanctions, and it has pulled out of the European Space Agency’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, as well as from the ExoMars mission. But despite rhetoric from the head of Roscosmos that appeared to threaten cooperation on the ISS, so far operations there, and preparations for the Ax-1 crew, have been mostly unaffected. “The relationship between Roscosmos and NASA on the ISS has stayed together even when things got bad. Both countries seem very purposeful about not screwing that up, despite everything else going on. I have pretty high confidence that we’ll continue to operate that way,” says Suffredini. (Before coming to Axiom, Suffredini served as NASA’s ISS program manager between 2005 and 2015.)

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On March 25, NASA, Axiom, and ISS officials completed a successful flight readiness review giving the Ax-1 spaceflight a green light for the launch, which will be webcast at AxiomSpace.com.Ax-1’s liftoff was originally scheduled for last Sunday but was pushed back twice to avoid a spacecraft traffic jam at Kennedy Space Center, where NASA was also working to complete tests of the Space Launch System rocket at the neighboring launch complex.

NASA also wants a two-day buffer between Ax-1’s splashdown after the ISS visit and the subsequent launch of the Crew-4 mission on April 19, when NASA and European Space Agency astronauts will head to the ISS aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon. Since Ax-1 is departing later than originally planned, the Crew-4 launch will now be delayed as well.

Axiom has three more flights planned for the ISS, with Ax-2 launching in early 2023, led by former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson. And in 2024, Axiom plans to launch its first commercial crew module. (More commercial stations are also to come from other space companies.)

Ax-1’s launch will mark the beginning of this new era, Suffredini says. “This is a much bigger thing than just private astronauts,” he says. “This flight is a very meaningful way to get started growing the low-Earth-orbit economy.”

Updated 4/7/2022 5:40 pm ET: This story was updated to distinguish between the Space Prize Foundation and the Space Frontier Foundation.


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