Astronaut Mission: First private astronaut mission to space station ready for launch

The International Space Station (ISS) is expected to get busier than usual this week when its crew welcomes on board four new colleagues from Houston-based startup Axiom Space, the first all-private team of astronauts to ever fly to the orbiting outpost.

The launch is being hailed by the company, NASA and other industry players as a turning point in the recent expansion of commercial space ventures, collectively referred to by insiders as the low-earth orbit economy, or “LEO economy” for short.

Weather permitting, the Axiom team of four was scheduled to lift off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Wednesday, sitting atop a Falcon 9 rocket outfitted and flown by Elon Musk’s commercial space launch company, SpaceX.

If all goes well, the quartet, led by retired NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, will arrive at the space station 28 hours later when their SpaceX-supplied Crew Dragon capsule docks with the ISS some 400 km above Earth.

Lopez-Alegria, 63, is the Spanish-born mission commander and vice president of business development at Axiom. He is assisted by Larry Connor, an Ohio real estate and technology entrepreneur and aerobatic flyer who has been designated as a mission pilot. Connor is in his 70s, but the company hasn’t revealed his exact age.

Rounding out the Ax-1 team are investor-philanthropist and former Israeli fighter pilot Eytan Stibbe, 64, and Canadian businessman and philanthropist Mark Pathy, 52, both serving as mission specialists. Stibbe will become the second Israeli in space after Ilan Ramon, who died with six NASA crew members in the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster.

The Ax-1 crew appear to have much in common with many of the wealthy passengers who have been taking suborbital journeys aboard the Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic services of late, run by billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, respectively. But Axiom executives said their mission was more substantive.

“We are not space tourists,” Lopez-Alegria said during a recent press conference, adding that the Axiom team has undergone extensive astronaut training at both NASA and SpaceX and will conduct significant biomedical research.

“Many Beginnings”

“This is the beginning of many beginnings for the commercialization of low-Earth orbit,” Kam Ghaffarian, co-founder and chief executive officer of Axiom, told Reuters in an interview. “We’re like in the early days of the internet, and we didn’t even imagine all the possibilities, all the capabilities that we’re going to offer in space.”

The so-called Ax-1 team will transport equipment and supplies for 26 scientific and technological experiments to be carried out before they leave orbit and return to Earth 10 days after launch. These include research on brain health, cardiac stem cells, cancer and aging, as well as a technology demonstration of making optics using the surface tension of liquids in microgravity, company executives said.

Launched into orbit in 1998, the ISS has been manned continuously since 2000 under a US-Russia-led partnership that includes Canada, Japan and 11 European countries.

While the space station has hosted visits from civilian visitors from time to time, the Ax-1 mission will be the first purely commercial team of astronauts to use the ISS for its intended purpose as an orbiting laboratory.

They share the weightless working space with seven regular crew members of the ISS – three US astronauts, one German astronaut and three Russian cosmonauts.

Axiom said it has a deal with SpaceX to fly three more missions into orbit over the next two years. NASA selected Axiom in 2020 to design and develop a new commercial wing for the space station, currently roughly the size of a soccer field. Flight hardware for the first Axiom module is currently being manufactured, the company said.

The plan is to eventually separate the Axiom modules from the rest of the outpost when the ISS retires around 2030, leaving the smaller Axiom station in orbit as a purely commercial platform, Ghaffarian said.

Other private operators are expected to place their own stations in orbit once the ISS is decommissioned.

Kathy Lueders, NASA Assistant Administrator for Space Operations, described Axiom’s role on a recent conference call with reporters: “This will be an important partnership going forward.” Astronaut Mission: First private astronaut mission to space station ready for launch

Russell Falcon

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