SpaceX and Axiom launch a private crew of astronauts to the space station

On Friday, a retired NASA astronaut and three paying clients set off on their way to the International Space Station.

The mission is the first to go to a space station where all passengers are private, and this is the first time that NASA has cooperated in organizing a visit to space tourism. The flight marked a key moment in efforts to encourage commercial companies to travel to space, NASA officials said.

“This is a really, really big milestone for us in our entire campaign to try to help boost the commercial economy in low orbits,” said Dana Weigel, deputy program manager for NASA’s space station during a post-launch press conference.

But the mission also stressed that most buyers for orbit travel will be very wealthy in the near future. Axiom Space of Houston was the organizer of the trip, selling seats for a 10-day trip, including eight days at the station, for $ 55 million each. Axiom hired SpaceX to provide transportation – a Falcon 9 rocket with a Crew Dragon capsule, the same system that guides NASA astronauts to and from the station.

At 11:17 a.m. Eastern Time, a mission, dubbed Axiom-1, took off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida into clear blue skies after a smooth countdown.

“Welcome to space,” a SpaceX official told the Axiom-1 crew shortly after the capsule detached from the second stage of the rocket. “Thanks for flying Falcon 9. You guys are enjoying your trip to that beautiful space station in the sky.”

Customers in the Axiom-1 mission include Larry Connor, executive partner of the Connor Group, a firm in Dayton, Ohio, that owns and operates luxury apartments; Mark Pathy, CEO of Mavrik Corporation, a Canadian investment company; and Eytan Stibbe, an investor and former pilot of the Israeli Air Force.

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

“What a ride!” Mr López-Alegria reported on Twitter from orbit.

They are scheduled to land at the space station early Saturday.

Although the Kennedy Space Center is part of NASA, NASA has played almost no role in launch or orbital travel. Agency officials were happy because they are looking to the future when they can simply buy services like a space station room from commercial suppliers.

The International Space Station, about as long as a 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 life of the current station until 2030, it hopes that by then there will already be much cheaper commercial space stations in orbit.

For NASA, this means learning how to work with private companies in orbit, including hosting space tourists, while Axiom and other companies need to figure out how to build a profitable business off the planet.

Axiom plans four or five such missions to the space station, and then has an agreement with NASA to connect several modules it is building to the space station. When the International Space Station finally withdraws, these modules will separate to form the core of the Axiom station.

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

Space tourism increased last year. Blue Origin, a company founded by Jeff Bezos of Amazon, has begun transporting customers who pay for short suborbital trips to the edge of space. Virgin Galactic brought its founder, Richard Branson, on a short flight and started selling tickets for future flights.

In September, the launch of SpaceX Crew Dragon, hired by Jared Isaacman, a billionaire entrepreneur, was the first trip into orbit in which none of the passengers were professional astronauts. For this mission, called Inspiration4, Mr. Isaacman decided to give a chance to three people who could never afford a trip on their own. That trip did not go to the space station, and the four of them spent three days floating in orbit before returning to Earth.

In contrast, every Axiom space traveler pays for their trip, and the experience is different. Earlier private travelers to the space station – most recently Yusaku Maezwa, a Japanese billionaire – traveled on Russian Soyuz rockets and were accompanied by professional Russian astronauts. For this flight, Axiom and SpaceX are in charge of the mission from launch to the entry of the capsule near the space station.

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

“Space tourists will spend 10 or 15 hours training, five to 10 minutes in space,” he said. “It simply came to our notice then. In our case, depending on our role, we spent from 750 to over 1000 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 entrepreneurship outside the Earth. But plans to privatize NASA’s space shuttles were thwarted after the 1986 Challenger was lost.

Instead, the Soviet space program during the communist years was ahead of NASA in selling access to space. When the International Space Station opened, Dennis Tito, an American entrepreneur, was the first tourist to visit Russia, in 2001. Russia stopped accepting private passengers after 2009; with the impending withdrawal of space shuttles, NASA had to buy available space on Russian rockets for its astronauts to reach the space station.

In recent years, NASA has opened up to the idea of ​​space tourism. Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator during the Trump administration, has often said that NASA is one of many customers and that this would greatly reduce NASA’s costs.

But for NASA to be one of many customers, there must be other customers. Finally, other applications such as pharmaceutical research or gravity-free manufacturing can finally be realized.

The most promising market for now are rich people who pay to visit space on their own.

While Axiom Space now refuses to comment when asked how much it costs to take people to the International Space Station, the company gave the ticket price a few years ago: $ 55 million per passenger.

Much of the price is tied to the rocket and spacecraft needed to get into orbit. And when they arrive, customers also have to pay for accommodation and benefits.

In 2019, NASA set a price list for the use of the space station by private companies. For space tourists, NASA said it would charge companies like Axiom Space $ 35,000 per night per person to use bedrooms and amenities, including air, water, internet and toilets. Last year, NASA announced that it would raise prices for future trips to the station.

In some areas, Axiom-1 crew members have undergone substantially the same training as NASA astronauts, especially for safety procedures and daily life in orbit. Ms. Weigel cited the toilet as an example. They had to learn how space station toilets work, but, as guests, they didn’t have to train how to fix a toilet if it broke down.

When boarding the space station, Axiom visitors will get an orientation on what to do in various emergencies and how to use the facilities. “It actually looks pretty similar to what our teams do the first day and a half,” Ms. Weigel said.

After that, Axioma astronauts will embark on their own activities, which include 25 scientific experiments they plan to conduct over eight days on the space station. Experiments include medical work planned with institutions such as the Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic and Montreal Children’s Hospital. Axioma astronauts will also conduct some technological demonstrations such as self-assembling robots that could be used to build future spacecraft in space.

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

“It’s more than 1,000 pieces of the puzzle, so to speak, to fit it all together,” Ms. Weigel said.

With more people than usual staying in the American segment, some of the bedrooms are improvised in different parts of the station. One person will sleep in Crew Dragon, Ms. Weigel said.

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

“We are very aware that we will be guests at the ISS,” Mr. López-Alegria said last month.

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