SpaceX and Axiom Launch Private Astronaut Crew to Space Station

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

The mission is the first to land on a space station where all the passengers are private citizens, and it is the first time that NASA has collaborated in arranging a space tour. The flight marked a key moment in efforts by commercial enterprises to promote space travel, NASA officials said.

Dana Weigel, deputy program manager for the space station at NASA, said during a news conference, “This is indeed a major milestone for us in our overall mission to promote the commercial low-earth orbiting economy.” Launch

But the mission also highlights that most customers for orbital travel will be very wealthy in the near future. Houston’s Axiom Space worked as a tour operator, selling seats, including eight days at the station, for 10 55 million each, for a 10-day trip. Axiom hired SpaceX to provide 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. Eastern time, a mission called Axiom-1 took off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida into the clear blue sky after a simple countdown.

“Welcome to space,” a SpaceX official told the Axiom-1 crew shortly after the capsule detached from the second phase of the rocket. “Thank you for flying the Falcon 9. You guys enjoy your trip to that wonderful space station in the sky.”

Clients on the Axiom-1 mission are Larry Connor, Connor Group’s managing partner, a firm based in Dayton, Ohio, who owns and operates luxury apartments; Mark Pethy, chief executive of the Canadian investment company Maverick Corporation; And Eytan Stibbe, investor and former Israel Air Force pilot.

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

“What a ride!” Mr. Lopez-Allegria reported on Twitter from the orbit.

They are due to dock at the space station early Saturday morning.

Although the Kennedy Space Center was part of NASA, NASA had almost no role in the launch or orbit. Agency officials were happy about it as they looked to the future when they could purchase services such as rooms on the space station from commercial vendors.

The International Space Station, almost as long as the football field, is a technological marvel, but one that costs NASA about $ 1.3 billion a year to operate. Although NASA wants to extend the lifespan of the current station by 2030, it hopes that by then many less expensive commercial space stations will be in orbit.

For NASA, that means learning how to collaborate with a private enterprise in orbit, including hosting space travelers, while Axiom and other companies explore how to build a profitable off-planet business.

Axiom is planning four or five such missions on the space station, and then contracts with NASA to connect some of the modules it is building with the space station. When the International Space Station finally retires, those modules are separated to form the core of the Axiom station.

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

There was an increase in space tourism last year. Blue Origin, a company founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, began taking paid customers on short suburban trips to the shores of space. Virgin Galactic flew a short flight to its founder Richard Branson and began selling tickets for future flights.

In September, the SpaceX Crew Dragon launch, chartered by billionaire entrepreneur Jared Isaacman, was the first voyage in orbit, with none of the passengers being professional astronauts. For that mission, whose name is Inspiration4, Mr. Isaacman decided to give a chance to three people who could never afford a trip on their own. The voyage did not take place on the space station, and the four spent three days in orbit before returning to Earth.

In contrast, each of Axiom’s space travelers is paying their own way, and the experience is different. Former private astronauts on the space station – most recently a Japanese billionaire, Yusaku Maezwa – were traveling on a Russian Soyuz rocket, accompanied by professional Russian astronauts. For this flight, Axiom and SpaceX are responsible for the mission from the launch to the time the capsule enters the area around the space station.

During a news conference last month, Mr. Connor objected to being called a space tourist.

“Space travelers, they will spend 10 or 15 hours training, five to 10 minutes in space,” he said. “And by the way, that’s fine. In our case, depending on our role, we’ve spent anywhere from 750 to 1,000 hours of 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 establishing NASA was amended to encourage private enterprise on Earth. But plans to privatize the operation of NASA’s space shuttle were postponed in 1986 following the loss of the Challenger.

Instead, it was the Soviet space program in the fading years of communism that was ahead of NASA in selling space entry. When the International Space Station opened, Dennis Tito, an American entrepreneur, was the first Russian-planned traveler to visit in 2001. Russia stopped taking private tourists after 2009; With the retirement of the space shuttle imminent, NASA needed to purchase seats available for its astronauts from the space station and on the Russian rocket to get there.

In the last few years, NASA has pushed the idea of ​​space tourism. During the Trump administration, NASA manager Jim Bridenstein often talked about being one of NASA’s many customers and how it would greatly reduce costs for NASA.

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

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

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

Most of the cost is attached to the rocket and spacecraft required to go into orbit. And once they get there, customers will also have to pay for accommodation and amenities.

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

In some areas, Axiom-1 crew members undergo the same training as NASA astronauts, especially for safety procedures and everyday life in orbit. Ms. Weisel gave the example of the toilet. They needed to learn how the space station’s toilet works, but, as guests, did not need to be trained on how to repair a defect in the toilet.

As they ascend to the space station, Axiom visitors will receive an orientation on what to do in various emergencies and how to use the facilities. “It simply came to our notice then. Weisel said.

After that, Axiom astronauts will go and do their own activities, including 25 scientific experiments that they plan to do during the eight days on the space station. Experiments include planned medical work with organizations such as the Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, and Montreal Children’s Hospital. Axiom astronauts will also showcase some of the technology, such as self-assembling robots, that can be used to build future spacecraft in space.

The activities of Axiom visitors are coordinated with other crew members on the space station so that people do not try to use the same feature at the same time.

“It’s more than a 1,000-piece puzzle, I’ll put it that way, to fit it all together,” Ms. Weisel said.

U.S. Due to the larger number of people living in the segment than usual, some sleeping quarters are temporary in different parts of the station. One person will be sleeping in the crew dragon, Ms. Weisel said.

But Axiom passengers said they would be careful not to get in the way of other crew members.

Mr. Lopez-Allegria said last month.

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