NASA, Axiom Get Ready for Private Astronaut Flights to ISS

NASA, Axiom Get Ready for Private Astronaut Flights to ISS

NASA and Axiom Space today revealed some of the details of their agreement for the first private astronaut flight to the International Space Station (ISS). It is a new era for NASA, which barely tolerated so-called space tourists visiting the orbiting facility in the past on Russian spacecraft. The agency changed its mind and embraced such commercial activities two years ago and they are close to reaching fruition.

Mike Suffredini, President and CEO, Axiom Space. Credit: Axiom.

Axiom was co-founded by former NASA ISS program manager Mike Suffredini.  At a press conference today, he said in 2015 it appeared as though no one, not the U.S. government or the private sector, would build a successor to the ISS.  He left NASA and along with Kam Ghaffarian established Axiom to do just that.

The company is building a module that initially will attach to the ISS, but eventually separate and become a free-flying platform. In the meantime, Axiom is arranging flights to ISS for people who have the means to pay tens of millions of dollars per seat.

The first Axiom crew flight, Ax-1, will be on a SpaceX Crew Dragon currently scheduled for launch in January 2022. Media sources report that a seat on a SpaceX Crew Dragon costs about $55 million. Suffredini would not confirm that, but also declined to dispute such reports.

The four-person Ax-1 crew will be commanded by Axiom astronaut Michael López-Alegria, a former NASA astronaut. He made three flights on NASA’s space shuttle and one on Russia’s Soyuz, spending 6-months aboard the ISS. He accumulated almost 258 days in space and made 10 spacewalks before retiring from NASA in 2012.

Joining him on Ax-1 are three wealthy men: American Larry Connor, who will serve as pilot; Canadian Mark Pathy; and Israeli Eytan Stibbe.

Ax-1 Crew (L-R): Michael López-Alegria, Mark Pathy, Larry Connor, Eytan Stibbe. Credit: Axiom.

López-Alegria was aboard the ISS in 2006 when Anousheh Ansari visited on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, one of seven space tourists who have paid Russia for the experience since 2001. Today he admitted he was “less than enthused” about the idea of a private astronaut joining the crew, “but her complete professionalism during training and the mission itself” and her ability to reach out to “everyday people who otherwise wouldn’t have been at all interested in what was going on” at the ISS changed his mind.

Now he is the one bringing private astronauts — formally called spaceflight participants — to the ISS.  His message today was that his three crewmates “are serious individuals” who want to “do their part to improve humankind” and do meaningful, scientific work during their 8-day visit to the ISS.

NASA opened the door to such flights in 2019, releasing a pricing policy for how much it will cost visitors to use ISS facilities. The agency just updated it last week, but it will apply to flights after this one.

What became clear today is that although companies like Axiom may pay NASA for use of the ISS, NASA also may pay the companies for services they offer. Axiom, for example, will provide cold stowage facilities that can return the results of scientific experiments to Earth.

Angela Hart, manager of commercial low Earth orbit development at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, revealed that NASA actually will be paying Axiom $1.69 million for this flight.

NASA officials added there are additional agreements that involve Axiom paying NASA for other mission-related services that were not discussed today.

Axiom announced the four-person crew in January, but NASA refers to them as “proposed” crew members who must be vetted by the other ISS partners and pass NASA medical evaluations before being approved for flight.

These private astronauts will be reviewed by NASA and its international partners, as is standard for any space station crew, and undergo NASA medical qualification testing to be approved for flight. López-Alegría will serve as the mission commander, with Peggy Whitson and John Shoffner as backups. — NASA

Ax-1 will be the first U.S. private astronaut flight to the ISS, but it is not the first U.S. private astronaut flight.  That distinction belongs to the Inspiration4 crew expected to launch in September 2021. They will not dock at the ISS, however.

NASA and Axiom share the goal of creating a commercial low Earth orbit economy with private space stations and routine opportunities for people to experience space for themselves.  Suffredini conceded that for now only people with “a bit of liquid capital” will be able to fly, and in the near-term he thinks prices will go up, but eventually come down. “You have to start somewhere,” but “we’re probably a decade away before it really gets dramatically cheaper.”

The ISS is a busy place, with crew and cargo flights coming and going all the time. NASA has decided only two private astronaut missions per year can be accommodated though Suffredini thinks demand is higher than that. He said Axiom already has three more private astronaut flights lined up, but NASA has to decide when they can fly.

With Ax-1 and Inspiration4 getting ready to fly private astronauts to orbit, and Blue Origin and Virgin Galatic close to flying people on suborbital flights, NASA’s Director of Commercial Spaceflight Phil McAlister calls this “a renaissance” and an “inflection point” for human spaceflight. He recognizes there will be “hiccups” along the way for this first-time mission, but NASA and Axiom are both focused on “a truly sustainable and operational low Earth orbit economy” and “this mission will facilitate that vision.”

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