SpaceX and Axiom launch a private astronaut crew into the space station

On Friday, a retired NASA astronaut and three paying customers set off on a trip to the International Space Station.

The mission is the first to go to the space station where all passengers are private citizens, and is the first time NASA is collaborating in organizing a space tourism visit. The flight marked a key moment in efforts to stimulate space travel by commercial companies, NASA officials said.

“This is a very, very big milestone for us in our overall campaign to try to help foster a low-earth commercial economy,” said Dana Weigel, NASA’s deputy director of space station programs. during a post-launch press conference.

But the mission also stressed that most of the customers of the orbit trips will be the very rich in the short term. Houston’s Axiom Space acted as a tour operator, selling seats for the 10-day trip, including eight days aboard the station, for $ 55 million each. Axiom hired SpaceX to provide the transport: a Falcon 9 rocket with a Crew Dragon capsule, the same system that carries NASA astronauts to and from the station.

At 11:17 a.m. Eastern Time, the mission, called Axiom-1, left Florida’s Kennedy Space Center for a clear, blue sky after a gentle countdown.

“Welcome to space,” a SpaceX official told the Axiom-1 crew shortly after the capsule came off the second stage of the rocket. “Thank you for flying Falcon 9. Enjoy your trip to this wonderful space station in the sky.”

Clients on the Axiom-1 mission are Larry Connor, a managing partner of the Connor Group, a Dayton, Ohio-based company that owns and operates luxury apartments; Mark Pathy, CEO of Mavrik Corporation, a Canadian investment company; and Eytan Stibbe, an investor and former Israeli Air Force pilot.

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

“What a trip!” Mr. López-Alegría reported on Twitter from the orbit.

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

Although the Kennedy Space Center is part of NASA, NASA played almost no role in the launch or orbital journey. Agency officials were happy with this as they look to a future where they can simply buy services such as room aboard a space station from commercial vendors.

The International Space Station, about as long as a football field, is a technological marvel, but it costs NASA about $ 1.3 billion a year to operate. While NASA wants to extend the life of the current station until 2030, it expects much less expensive commercial space stations to be in orbit by then.

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

Axiom is planning four or five such missions on 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 is finally removed, these modules must be separated to form the core of an Axiom station.

“This is the first mission really in our effort 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, the company founded by Jeff Bezos of Amazon, began bringing paid customers on short suborbital trips to the edge of space. Virgin Galactic flew its founder, Richard Branson, on a short flight and began selling tickets for future flights.

In September, a SpaceX Crew Dragon launch hired by Jared Isaacman, a billionaire businessman, was the first trip into orbit where none of the passengers were professional astronauts. For that mission, called Inspiration4, Mr. Isaacman decided to give opportunities to three people who would never have been able to afford the trip themselves. That trip did not go to the space station, and the four spent three days floating in orbit before returning to Earth.

By contrast, each of Axiom’s space travelers pays in their own way, and the experience is different. Private travelers before the space station, the last Yusaku Maezwa, a Japanese billionaire, traveled with Soyuz Russian rockets and were accompanied by professional Russian astronauts. For this flight, Axiom and SpaceX are in charge of the mission from launch until the capsule enters the vicinity of the space station.

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

“Space tourists will spend 10 to 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 between 750 and more than 1,000 hours training. “

At least in theory, this is the future for which NASA has been working for decades.

In 1984, during the Reagan administration, the law established by NASA to encourage private business outside of Earth was amended. But plans to privatize NASA’s space shuttle operation were suspended after the loss of the Challenger in 1986.

Instead, it was the Soviet space program in the fading years of communism that was ahead of NASA in the sale of access to space. When the International Space Station opened, Dennis Tito, an American businessman, was the first Russian-hosted tourist to visit in 2001. Russia stopped accepting private travelers after 2009; with the imminent withdrawal of space shuttles, NASA needed to buy seats available from Russian rockets so that their astronauts could reach and from the space station.

In recent years, NASA has opened up to the idea of ​​space tourism. Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator during the Trump administration, often talked about NASA being a customer among many and how this would greatly reduce NASA’s costs.

But for NASA to be a customer of many, there must be other customers. Finally, other applications such as pharmaceutical research or zero gravity manufacturing may come to fruition.

At the moment, the most promising market is the rich who pay to visit the space themselves.

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

Much of the price is tied to the rocket and spacecraft needed to reach orbit. And once there, guests also have to pay for accommodation and amenities.

In 2019, NASA established 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 for the use of bedrooms and amenities such as air, water, Internet and toilet. Last year, NASA said it was raising prices for future trips to the station.

In some areas, Axiom-1 crew members received much of the same training as NASA astronauts, especially for security procedures and orbiting daily life. Mrs. Weigel cited the toilet as an example. They needed to learn how the space station toilets work, but as guests, they didn’t need to be trained on how to repair the toilet if it malfunctioned.

As they board the space station, visitors to the Axiom will receive guidance on what to do in various emergencies and how to use the facilities. “This is very similar to what our teams do during the first day and a half,” Ms. Weigel.

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

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

“It’s more than a 1,000-piece puzzle, I’ll put it that way, to fit it all together,” Ms. Weigel.

With a larger-than-usual number of people staying in the U.S. segment, some of the bedrooms are improvised in various parts of the resort. One person will sleep in the Dragon Crew, said Ms. Weigel.

But Axiom passengers said they will be careful not to obstruct other crew members.

“We are very aware that we will be invited aboard the ISS,” Mr. López-Alegría last month.

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