Axiom and SpaceX Agree to Send Four Private Astronauts to ISS Next Year

Axiom and SpaceX Agree to Send Four Private Astronauts to ISS Next Year

SpaceX and Axiom Space announced an agreement today to send four private astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) by the end of 2021.  SpaceX is developing the Crew Dragon spacecraft to ferry government astronauts to and from the ISS, but the goal is for the government to be just one of many customers for such flights. Axiom wants to commercialize low Earth orbit.

Co-founded by former NASA ISS program manager Mike Suffredini, Axiom was recently selected by NASA to build a commercial module to attach to the ISS as a step towards commercialization of low Earth orbit (LEO). That module will not launch until 2024, but Axiom is not waiting to open its commercial LEO business.

SpaceX is just as eager.  It announced a deal with Space Adventures last month to fly tourists into space on a free-flying Crew Dragon mission that will not dock with the ISS, but orbit the Earth for up to five days at an altitude higher than ISS.  Both companies stressed that the flight, envisioned for late 2021 or 2022, would take place “if” customers were found.  Space Adventures has brokered contracts with Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, to fly a total of seven tourists (one of whom flew twice, for a total of eight tourist flights) to the ISS over the past two decades.  The prices for those flights have not been made public, but are rumored to be in the $20-35 million range.

NASA pays Russia more than $80 million per seat to fly on Soyuz spacecraft.  A 2019 NASA Inspector General report calculated that NASA will be paying SpaceX $55 million per seat to fly on Crew Dragon and $90 million to fly on Boeing’s Starliner.

No price was mentioned in the SpaceX agreements with Space Adventures or Axiom.  Skeptics are not convinced there are enough individuals who want to fly into orbit who have sufficient means to make space tourism a profitable business. But that is not deterring companies from trying.

Axiom said today that the four-person crew on its flight would consist of a commander professionally trained by Axiom plus three private astronauts. They would launch “as soon as” the second half of 2021 for an excursion of two days in transit and “at least” eight days living aboard the ISS with “views of Earth that can only be fully appreciated in the large, venerable station.”  Axiom will provide training, mission planning, hardware development, life support, medical support, crew provisions, hardware and safety certifications, on-orbit operations and overall mission management.

Suffredini said this would be the first of many missions to ISS that will be “completely crewed and managed by Axiom Space — a first for a commercial entity.”  The company plans to offer “professional and private astronaut flights to ISS at at a rate of up to two per year” while it builds its own commercial space station.

That is a reference to the module Axiom is building to attach to the ISS, Axiom Segment.  It will separate from the ISS once the ISS is retired and operate independently.

SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell said “thanks to Axiom and their support from NASA, privately crewed missions will have unprecedented access to the space station, furthering the commercialization of space and helping usher in a new era of human exploration.”

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is being developed as a public-private partnership with NASA.  SpaceX, not NASA, owns the spacecraft.  NASA purchases services from SpaceX to transport crews to and from ISS.  From the beginning, the goal was for SpaceX and Boeing, the other commercial crew competitor, to turn these capabilities into profitable businesses where NASA was just one of many customers, with the expectation that costs will go down as demand increases.

SpaceX successfully completed an uncrewed Crew Dragon test flight to ISS one year ago.  It is getting ready to launch a crewed flight test, Demo-2, in the next few months.  If successful, it will open the door to operational crew flights to ISS.

Although NASA resisted the idea of tourists visiting ISS when Russia first proposed it 20 years ago, the agency now has embraced it and issued a pricing policy last summer spelling out how much it will charge companies like Axiom for lodging — $35,000 per person per night.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.