First All-Private Astronaut Mission to ISS Begins

First All-Private Astronaut Mission to ISS Begins

The first crew to visit the International Space Station composed entirely of private citizens is on its way. Axiom-1 lifted off from Kennedy Space Center this morning on a 10-day mission. The four men will spend eight of those days on the ISS conducting experiments and seeing the sights, joining an international crew of seven professional astronauts already there. All together, the 11 astronauts and cosmonauts represent the United States, Russia, Germany, Israel, Canada and Spain.

The Axiom-1 mission was arranged by Axiom Space, a U.S. company that offers trips to the ISS aboard SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and also is building a commercial space station. The first Axiom Station modules will attach to the ISS, but eventually separate and become a free-flying facility as the ISS comes to the end of its life later this decade.

Axiom hired two former NASA astronauts, Michael López-Alegria and Peggy Whitson, both spaceflight record holders, to command the private astronaut flights. López-Alegria is in command of this mission. Whitson will command the next, Ax-2, planned for next year.

Axiom-1 Crew (L-R): Larry Connor (U.S.), Mark Pathy (Canada), Michael López-Alegria (U.S./Spain), Eytan Stibbe (Israel).

Joining López-Alegria (U.S./Spain) are three wealthy passengers who are paying for the trip: Larry Connor (U.S.), Mark Pathy (Canada) and Eytan Stibbe (Israel). The price they are paying has not been disclosed, but is rumored to be about $55 million each. Liftoff was at 11:17 am ET from KSC’s Launch Complex 39-A on a SpaceX Falcon 9.

Liftoff of Axiom-1 from Kennedy Space Center, FL. April 8, 2022. Screengrab.

SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft are reusable and this is the third flight for this one, Endeavour. It is the same capsule that sent the first NASA crew to ISS on a commercial vehicle, the Demo-2 mission in 2020. That two-person crew, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, gave it the name Endeavour largely in tribute to NASA’s space shuttle orbiter by that name, which in turn was named after Captain James Cook’s ship, the HMS Endeavour. Both made their first spaceflights on that orbiter. Like Crew Dragon, the space shuttle orbiters were reusable and Endeavour made 25 flights before the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011. Demo-2 was the flight that restored the ability of the United States to launch people to orbit after nine years of dependence on Russia.

Crew Dragon Endeavour also delivered NASA’s Crew-2 to the ISS in April 2021 and returned them home on November 9. Almost exactly five months later, it is back in space again.

SpaceX has three other Crew Dragons, all named by their first crews: Resilience, Endurance, and Freedom. Endurance is currently docked at the ISS. It brought NASA’s Crew-3 there in November 2021 and will bring them home at the end of this month.

Crew-3’s four astronauts — Raja Chari (U.S.), Tom Marshburn (U.S.), Kayla Barron (U.S.), and Matthias Maurer (ESA/Germany) — are currently on board with three Russian cosmonauts who arrived on Soyuz MS-21 two weeks ago — Oleg Artemyev, Denis Matveev and Sergei Korsakov.

Credit: NASA

The Axiom-1 crew is scheduled to dock at ISS tomorrow morning at 7:45 am ET.  Hatches will open at 9:30 am ET, followed by a traditional welcome ceremony with all 11 ISS crew members. Axiom Space, SpaceX and NASA will livestream it on their websites beginning at 5:30 am ET.

Russia has launched private astronauts, sometimes called space tourists, to the ISS since 2001, but this is the first U.S.-sponsored mission. SpaceX launched another private astronaut mission last year, Inspiration4, but it did not visit the ISS.

NASA was slow to embrace the idea of private astronauts on the ISS, but changed its mind in 2019. Visitors must reimburse NASA for use of the ISS according to a price list.

Axiom stressed that the crew members are not tourists, and in fact will be conducting a wide variety of scientific experiments during their time on ISS. Pathy’s research includes projects for The Montreal Children’s Hospital, which contributed the traditional “zero gravity indicator” for this mission. Crews are strapped into their seats during launch and orbital insertion and often take a small, harmless object along that begins floating freely around the cabin to indicate they are now in weightlessness. In this case it is the hospital’s mascot, a plush toy, Caramel the Dog.

Credit: Axiom Space

Scientific research is not all they are doing, however.  Soon after reaching orbit, Axiom announced that it is opening a “custom NFT marketplace” featuring digital artwork by the crew created while they are on their journey.

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