SpaceX and Axiom Launch Private Astronaut Crew to Space Station

On Friday, a retired NASA astronaut and three paying customers set out on a trip to the International Space Station.

The mission is the first to go to the space station where all passengers are private citizens, and it’s the first time NASA has cooperated in arranging a space tourism visit. The flight was a pivotal moment in commercial ventures’ efforts to boost space travel, NASA officials said.

“This is a really, really big milestone for us in our overall campaign to try to advance a low-Earth orbit commercial economy,” Dana Weigel, deputy program manager for the space station at NASA, said at a press conference afterwards. the launch.

But the mission also emphasized that most of the customers for trips to orbit will soon be the very wealthy. Houston-based Axiom Space acted as a tour operator, selling seats for the 10-day trip, including eight days aboard the station, for $55 million each. Axiom hired SpaceX to provide the transportation — a Falcon 9 rocket with a Crew Dragon capsule, the same system that takes NASA astronauts to and from the station.

At 11:17 a.m. GMT, the mission, dubbed Axiom-1, lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to a clear blue sky after a smooth countdown.

“Welcome to space,” a SpaceX official told the crew of the Axiom-1 shortly after the capsule was detached from the rocket’s second stage. “Thank you for flying Falcon 9. Enjoy your trip to that beautiful space station in the sky.”

The clients on the Axiom-1 mission are Larry Connor, managing partner of the Connor Group, a Dayton, Ohio-based company that owns and operates luxury condominiums; Mark Pathy, chief executive of Mavrik Corporation, a Canadian investment company; and Eytan Stibbe, an investor and former Israeli Air Force pilot.

They will be led to the space station by Michael López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut who is now vice president at Axiom and the commander of the Ax-1 mission.

“What a ride!” Mr López-Alegría reported on Twitter from Earth orbit.

They will dock at the space station early Saturday.

Although the Kennedy Space Center is part of NASA, NASA had almost no role in the launch or orbital ride. The agency officials were happy about that, as they look to a future where they can easily purchase services such as a room aboard a space station from commercial vendors.

About the length of a football field, the International Space Station is a technological marvel, but it costs NASA about $1.3 billion a year to operate. While NASA wants to extend the life of the current station to 2030, it hopes that by then many cheaper commercial space stations will be in orbit.

For NASA, that means learning to partner with private companies in orbit, including hosting space tourists, while Axiom and other companies must figure out how to build a profitable business off-planet.

Axiom plans four or five such missions to the space station and then has an agreement with NASA to attach various modules it is building to the space station. When the International Space Station finally retires, those modules will have to be detached to form the core of an Axiom station.

“This is the first mission in our effort to build a commercial space station,” said Michael T. Suffredini, the president and chief executive of Axiom who previously worked at NASA and managed the ISS.

Space tourism has soared last year. Blue Origin, the company founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, began transporting paying customers on short suborbital trips to the edge of space. Virgin Galactic flew its founder, Richard Branson, on a short flight and began selling tickets for future flights.

In September, a SpaceX Crew Dragon launch chartered by billionaire entrepreneur Jared Isaacman was the first trip to orbit where none of the passengers were a professional astronaut. For that mission, called Inspiration4, Mr. Isaacman to give opportunities to three people who could never afford the trip themselves. That trip didn’t go to the space station, and the four spent three days in orbit before returning to Earth.

In contrast, each of Axiom’s space travelers pays their own way, and the experience is different. Previous private travelers to the space station — most recently Yusaku Maezwa, a Japanese billionaire — traveled on Russian Soyuz rockets and were accompanied by professional Russian astronauts. For this flight, Axiom and SpaceX will be in charge of the mission from launch until the capsule approaches the space station.

At a press conference last month, Mr. Connor objected to being called a space tourist.

“The space tourists will train for 10 or 15 hours, five to 10 minutes in space,” he said. “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.”

At least in theory, this is the future that NASA has been working on for decades.

In 1984, during the Reagan administration, the law that created NASA was amended to encourage private ventures beyond Earth. But plans to privatize NASA’s space shuttle operations were shelved after the loss of Challenger in 1986.

Instead, it was the Soviet space program in the fading years of communism that got ahead of NASA in selling access to space. When the International Space Station opened, Dennis Tito, an American entrepreneur, was the first Russian-hosted tourist to visit, in 2001. Russia stopped hiring private travelers after 2009; with the approaching retirement of the space shuttles, NASA had to buy available seats on Russian rockets so the astronauts could get to and from the space station.

In recent years, NASA has opened up to the idea of ​​space tourism. Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator during the Trump administration, often spoke of NASA being one of the many customers that would significantly reduce costs for NASA.

But for NASA to be one of many customers, there must be other customers. Eventually, other applications, such as pharmaceutical research or zero-gravity manufacturing, may finally come to fruition.

Right now, the most promising market is wealthy people who pay to visit the space themselves.

While Axiom Space now declines to comment on how much it charges to take people to the International Space Station, a few years ago the company did give a ticket price: $55 million per passenger.

Much of the prize is tied up in the rocket and spacecraft needed to get into orbit. And once there, customers also have to pay for accommodation and amenities.

In 2019, NASA prepared a price list for the use of the space station by private companies. For space tourists, NASA said it would charge companies like Axiom Space $35,000 per night per person to use sleeping quarters and amenities, including air, water, internet and the toilet. Last year, NASA said it was raising prices for future trips to the station.

In some areas, the Axiom-1 crew members underwent much of the same training as NASA astronauts, especially for safety procedures and everyday life in orbit. Mrs. Weigel gave the toilet as an example. They had to learn how the space station’s toilets work, but as guests, they didn’t have to learn how to fix the toilet if it wasn’t working properly.

When they board the space station, Axiom visitors are taught what to do in various emergencies and how to use the facilities. “That’s basically what our crews do for the first day and a half,” Ms Weigel said.

After that, the Axiom astronauts go out and do their own activities, including 25 science experiments they plan to conduct during the eight days on the space station. The experiments include medical work planned with institutions such as the Mayo Clinic, the Cleveland Clinic and the Montreal Children’s Hospital. The Axiom astronauts will also provide some technology demonstrations, such as self-assembling robots that could be used to build future spacecraft in space.

The activities of the Axiom visitors are aligned with those of the other crew members on the space station, so that people don’t try to use the same facility at the same time.

“It’s more than a 1000 piece puzzle, I’ll put it this way, to put it all together,” said Mrs. Weigel.

With a higher-than-normal number of people staying in the US segment, some sleeping quarters have been improvised in different parts of the station. One person will sleep in the Crew Dragon, Ms Weigel said.

But the Axiom passengers said they will make sure they don’t get in the way of other crew members.

“We know very well that we will be guests on board the ISS,” said Mr López-Alegría last month.

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