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

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

The mission is the first to go to the space station, where all passengers are private citizens, and this is the first time NASA has cooperated 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 really, really big milestone for us in our overall campaign to try to help promote a low-Earth commercial economy,” said Dana Weigel, NASA’s deputy program manager for the space station, during a news conference. after startup.

But the mission also stressed that most of the orbiting customers will be very wealthy in the short term. Axiom Space of Houston operates as a tour operator, selling seats for the 10-day trip, including eight days on board the station, for $ 55 million each. Axiom has hired SpaceX to provide transport – a Falcon 9 rocket with a Crew Dragon capsule, the same system that takes NASA astronauts to and from the station.

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

“Welcome to space,” a SpaceX employee of the Axiom-1 crew said shortly after the capsule detached from the second stage of the rocket. “Thank you for flying the Falcon 9. Enjoy your trip to this beautiful space station in the sky.”

The clients of the Axiom-1 mission are Larry Connor, managing partner of Connor Group, a company in Dayton, Ohio, which owns and operates luxury apartments; Mark Patty, CEO of Mavrik Corporation, a Canadian investment company; and Eitan Stibe, an investor and former pilot in the Israeli Air Force.

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

“What a ride!” Mr Lopez-Allegria announced on Twitter from orbit.

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

Although the Kennedy Space Center is part of NASA, NASA has almost no role in launch or orbital travel. The agency’s staff was pleased with this, as they look to the future when they can simply buy services such as a room on board a space station from commercial vendors.

The International Space Station, about the length of a football field, is a technological marvel, but it 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 much cheaper commercial space stations are in orbit by then.

For NASA, this means learning how to collaborate 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 attach several modules it is building to the space station. When the International Space Station is finally withdrawn, these modules must be separated to form the core of the Axiom station.

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

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

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

In contrast, each of Axiom’s space passengers pays in their own way and the experience is different. Earlier, private passengers to the space station – most recently Yusaku Maezwa, a Japanese billionaire – traveled with Russian Soyuz rockets and were accompanied by professional Russian astronauts. For this flight, Axiom and SpaceX are responsible for 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, 5 to 10 minutes in space,” he said. “By the way, that’s good. In our case, depending on our role, we have spent 750 to over 1,000 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, a law created by NASA was amended to encourage private entrepreneurship outside of Earth. But plans to privatize NASA’s space shuttle operations were postponed after the Challenger was lost in 1986.

Instead, the Soviet space program in the fading years of communism overtook NASA in selling access to space. When the International Space Station opened, Denis 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 free space in Russian rockets so that astronauts could reach from the space station.

In the last few years, NASA has opened up to the idea of ​​space tourism. Jim Braidenstein, the NASA administrator during the Trump administration, often talks about NASA being one of many customers and how that would significantly reduce NASA’s costs.

But for NASA to be one customer out of many, there must be other customers. Ultimately, other applications such as pharmaceutical research or zero-gravity manufacturing may finally be realized.

So far, the most promising market is rich people who pay to visit space.

While Axiom Space now declined to comment when asked how much it costs to take 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, customers also have to pay for accommodation and amenities.

In 2019, NASA created a price list for the use of the space station by private companies. For space tourists, NASA said it would charge companies such as Axiom Space $ 35,000 a night per person to use dormitories and amenities, including air, water, internet and toilets. Last year, NASA said it was raising prices for future trips to the station.

In some areas, Axiom-1 crew members have received almost the same training as NASA astronauts, especially for safety procedures and daily life in orbit. Mrs. Weigel gave the toilet as an example. They had to learn how the toilets on the space station work, but as guests they didn’t have to learn how to repair the toilet if it didn’t work.

When they board the space station, visitors to the Axiom will get an idea of ​​what to do in various emergencies and how to use the facilities. “It actually looks a lot like what our crews do on the first day and a half,” Ms. Weigel said.

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

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

“It’s more than a puzzle of 1,000 pieces, so I’ll say it to put it all together,” Ms Weigel said.

With more than the usual number of people staying in the US segment, some of the dormitories 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 disturb other crew members.

“We are very aware that we will be guests on board the ISS,” Mr Lopez-Allegria said last month.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.