Axiom-2 On Its Way to ISS

Axiom-2 On Its Way to ISS

The Axiom-2 private astronaut mission is in orbit and on its way to the International Space Station, beating the weather odds. Liftoff came just as an anvil cloud was closing in on the launch pad. Much closer and they would have had to scrub for the day. Instead they lifted off on time and the two Americans and two Saudi Arabians will dock with the ISS tomorrow morning. [Update: the crew docked on May 22 at 9:12 am ET.]

Axiom-2 is the second privately funded space mission to the ISS arranged by Axiom Space. The four crew members — Commander Peggy Whitson, Pilot John Shoffner, and Mission Specialists Ali Alqarni and Rayyanah Barnawi — launched from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket inside SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Freedom capsule at 5:37 pm ET.

SpaceX reuses the first stages of the Falcon 9 rockets. They land either on an autonomous droneship at sea or back on land at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, adjacent to KSC. Previously the first stages for crewed spaceflights landed on a droneship, but for the first time today the first stage landed at CCSFS.

Axiom, SpaceX and NASA have a very close working relationship as exemplified by the top personnel involved in this mission. Axiom was co-founded by former NASA ISS program manager Mike Suffredini. Axiom buys crew transportation services from SpaceX, whose Chief Engineer, Bill Gerstenmaier, headed NASA’s entire human spaceflight program for more than a decade. The commander of this mission, Peggy Whitson, is a record-breaking former NASA astronaut who is now Axiom’s Director of Human Spaceflight.

After the spacecraft entered orbit, Gerstenmaier said “welcome home to zero-g, Peggy.”

Indeed. Whitson has accumulated more time in space than any other American astronaut, 665 days over three missions. She commanded the ISS twice and made 10 spacewalks during her NASA career totalling about 60 hours. Now she’s in the next phase of her spaceflight career commanding a mission of astronauts who paid for their trips individually or via their governments.

Pilot John Shoffner is an adventurer and space enthusiast. Well known as a race car driver, he also is a pilot, competitive skydiver, investor, and fiber optics pioneer. Born in Fairbanks, Axiom says he is the first Alaskan in space.

The two mission specialists represent the Saudi government. Ali Alqarni, a fighter pilot, is a Captain in the Royal Saudi Air Force. Rayyanah Barnawi is a stem cell researcher with a master’s degree in biomedical science.

Except for Whitson, all are space rookies.

The Axiom-2 crew, L-R: Ali Alqarni (Saudi Arabia), John Shoffner (U.S.), Peggy Whitson (U.S.), Rayyanah Barnawi (Saudi Arabia). Credit: Axiom Space

They will dock at the ISS at 9:16 am ET tomorrow morning and spend 8 days conducting experiments and experiencing life in orbit.

Barnawi and Alqarni are the second and third Saudi Arabians in space. Sultan bin Salman al Saud was the first on a 1985 space shuttle flight.

Barnawi is the first Saudi woman in space and the first Arab woman in orbit (Egyptian Sara Sabry was the first Arab woman in space on a Blue Origin suborbital spaceflight last year).

The crew will conduct more than 20 experiments during their stay on the ISS, but one lesson learned from the Axiom-1 mission is allowing sufficient time for them to experience the joy of spaceflight itself.

They will be joining the seven-person Expedition 69 crew already aboard the ISS: Americans Frank Rubio, Stephen Bowen and Woody Hoburg, Russians Sergey Prokopyev, Dmitri Petelin and Andrey Fedyaev, and UAE astronaut Sultan AlNeyadi.

Expedition 69 crew, L-R: Frank Rubio (NASA), Dmitri Petelin (Roscosmos), Sultan AlNeyadi (UAE), Woody Hoburg (NASA), Stephen Bowen (NASA), Andrey Fedyaev (Roscosmos), Sergey Prokopyev (Roscosmos).

Rubio, Prokopyev and Petelin are on an extended mission that will last about a year because the Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft that brought them to ISS and was supposed to take them home in March experienced a coolant leak. It’s been replaced by Soyuz MS-23 that will return them to Earth in September. Bowen, Hoburg, Fedyaev and AlNeyadi — Crew-6 — arrived on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endeavour in March and will return after a roughly 6-month stay this fall.

The Axiom-2 crew has a comparatively short mission. They are scheduled to undock on May 30 although weather has to cooperate then as well. Crew Dragon splashes down near Florida in the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico. The Axiom-1 crew spent an extra five days on the ISS because the weather was not conducive for splashdown. NASA is hoping that’s not the case this time as it readies a SpaceX cargo flight for launch to the ISS on June 3.

SpaceX’s Benji Reed said yesterday during a pre-launch press conference that engineers noticed a panel on the Crew Dragon capsule with nine fasteners did not have sufficient thermal protection fill material and more was being added last night. At a post-launch press conference today he said that was accomplished and there is no concern for reentry.

Companies sending private astronauts to the ISS reimburse NASA for use of onboard resources pursuant to NASA’s pricing policy.

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