SpaceX aimed to send the first private crew to the International Space Station for Axiom Space

SpaceX aimed to send the first private crew to the International Space Station for Axiom Space

Tomorrow morning, SpaceX will launch another crew of four to the International Space Station from Florida, but unlike most of the company’s passenger flights, this new crop of flyers won’t include any current NASA astronauts. All four crew members are civilians, flying with a commercial aerospace company called Axiom Space. Their flight will mark the first time that a fully private crew will visit the ISS.

It is a new type of human spaceflight mission and has a high price for its participants. Three of the four passengers each paid $ 55 million for their seats on SpaceX’s crew capsule, called the Crew Dragon. The fledgling space traveler trio includes Canadian investor Mark Pathy, American real estate investor Larry Connor, and former Israeli Air Force pilot Eytan Stibbe. The commander of the trip is a space flight veteran: Michael López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut who has flown four missions in space and is now vice president of Axiom.

Their mission, called Ax-1, is the latest in an emerging trend of flying into orbit by completely private astronauts. For most of the history of space flight, human space missions have been conducted almost exclusively by government-run space programs. Things are changing as the commercial space industry has taken a leap forward in the past few decades. Leading the group is SpaceX, which has proven it can safely send people to and from low earth orbit on its Crew Dragon. While SpaceX primarily launches NASA astronauts, the company has begun flexing its muscles lately and has begun conducting civilian manned flights without NASA’s input.

Civilian flights like these will become increasingly common. Axiom, which strives to create a fleet of commercial space stations, has organized three additional private crew missions to the ISS, just like the Ax-1, to prepare for the creation of its first station. The company’s goal is “to make the space more accessible to everyone”.

“This really represents the first step in which a group of people who want to do something meaningful in low Earth orbit – who are not members of a government – can seize this opportunity,” Mike Suffredini, CEO of Axiom and the former Lo program. the ISS manager told NASA during a press conference. However, until costs decrease, such individuals will need a fat wallet.

A new paradigm

Axiom is tapping into some crucial timing as SpaceX moves into a new operational phase with the Crew Dragon. SpaceX originally developed the Crew Dragon for NASA to transport the agency’s astronauts to and from the International Space Station. With an original contract worth $ 2.6 billion and after more than six years of development, SpaceX successfully launched its first crew on the Crew Dragon in May 2020, sending two NASA astronauts to the ISS.

The ultimate goal for NASA was to offload transport to the ISS to the private sector, but a secondary goal was for SpaceX to eventually use the capsule to conduct manned missions. With Axiom missions, this is exactly what SpaceX is doing: using the protocols and technology it developed for NASA to build a completely separate commercial business for human spaceflight.

SpaceX Crew Dragon with the Axiom logo emblazoned on the side.
Image: SpaceX

Coinciding with the development of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon was a major policy change at NASA. In 2019, NASA announced that it would open the International Space Station facilities to more commercial opportunities and encourage private astronauts to visit the ISS aboard US spacecraft. Such activities were discouraged, and although wealthy space tourists have already visited the station, they all flew in Russian Soyuz vehicles. Now, with this new change, people who booked a flight the ISS in US spacecraft could potentially use the station facilities for commercial activities, such as shooting movies or commercials.

Of course, using the various systems of the ISS will cost you, just as if you were using the luxury services of a hotel. According to the agency’s announcement, NASA planned to charge $ 11,250 per day per person to use the station’s life support system and restrooms. Providing supplies such as food, medical supplies and exercise equipment would cost a total of $ 22,500 per person per day.

With all these changes, Axiom saw an opportunity. Currently, the company is working to build its first commercial space station, called Axiom Station, with plans to connect the first orbiting outpost module to the ISS as early as 2024. They plan to test the module on the ISS. before breaking away and creating the company’s own free flight station. To prepare for this big step, Axiom turned to SpaceX to conduct a series of precursor missions to the ISS, essentially a series of dress rehearsals for when Axiom will one day send people to its own space station.

“This precursor mission is important, because not only are we developing the techniques we will use to communicate with the earth in space here in mission control at Axiom, but we are also developing all the procedures and processes that make spaceflight possible,” he said. Peggy Whitson, former NASA astronaut and director of human space flight at Axiom, Whitson will serve as commander of Axiom’s next mission, Ax-2.

Ax-1 in orbit

The Ax-1 crew will join many others rich paying private flyers their way to space. In addition to the handful of space tourists who have already visited the station, wealthy space travelers have also begun buying expensive tickets for rides in suborbital vehicles operated by companies such as Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, allowing them to spend only a few minutes on the edge of the station. space.

The Ax-1 mission, however, will have a much broader scope than those missions. “Our feeling is that space tourists will spend 10 to 15 hours training, 5 to 10 minutes in space,” said crew member Larry Connor. “Anyway, it’s fine. In our case, depending on our role, we spent between 750 and over 1,000 hours of training. “

Another private SpaceX launch last year, called Inspiration4, sent a private crew of four into orbit inside a Crew Dragon for about three days, where they enjoyed the view out the window and conducted a handful of experiments. Ax-1 will be at the station for eight days, and the crew is planning a whole series of space experiments. Together, the four leaflets will conduct a total of 25 different science experiments, which will take approximately 100 hours to complete. These include human physiology experiments for the Mayo Clinic, as well as a two-way 3D hologram demonstration using Microsoft HoloLens.

The Ax-1 astronauts will live and work mainly in the US side of the ISS, although they will enter the Russian side of the station at the invitation of the cosmonauts on board. Despite the tensions between Russia and the United States, the two countries continued to work together to maintain the day-to-day operations of the ISS. Currently, there are three Russian cosmonauts living on the ISS, three NASA astronauts and one German astronaut with the European Space Agency.

The International Space Station as seen by a Crew Dragon in 2021.
Image: NASA

Axiom has not given concrete details on how much this mission will cost, only that they will pay NASA some amount of money for the use of the ISS. “We have to compensate NASA for the use of the ISS and other services, and we did,” Suffredini said. He also noted that NASA could bring down some costs in exchange for Axiom’s services. “There are some things we’re doing on this flight that help NASA, which we get credit for.” Suffredini also wouldn’t say if Axiom is making a profit on this mission, simply that Ax-1 aligns with the company’s original vision for the mission.

However, the Ax-1 is still something of a watershed for the space station, given how it’s funded and who’s aboard. “We are taking the first step in a next-generation platform initiative that will bring work, life and research in space to a much wider and international audience,” said Commander López-Alegría.

Obviously to participate that audience still has about $ 55 million to spare for a seat. So while Axiom might open up room for more flyers than before, it’s still a relatively small pool to choose from.

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