SpaceX and Axiom launch private astronaut crew on space station

On Friday, a retired NASA astronaut and three paid customers set sail for the International Space Station.

The mission is the first to go to the space station where the passengers are all private citizens and this is the first time that NASA has collaborated to arrange a space tour. The flight marked a significant milestone in efforts by commercial enterprises to encourage space travel, NASA officials said.

“This is a really big milestone in our overall campaign to try to stimulate a commercial low-Earth-Orbit economy,” Dana Weigel, deputy program manager for NASA’s space station, told a news conference later. Getting Started.

However, the mission further highlights that most customers will soon be very rich for orbital travel. Axiom, a Houston-based space tour operator, sells seats for a 10-day trip, including eight days at 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., the Axiom-1 mission soared into the clear blue sky after a smooth countdown from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“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 the Falcon 9. You guys enjoy your trip to that wonderful space station in the sky.”

The clients of the Axiom-1 mission are Lary Connor, managing partner of Connor Group, a firm in Dayton, Ohio that owns and operates luxury apartments; Mark Pathi, CEO of Mavrik Corporation, a Canadian investment company; And Eytan Stibbe, an investor and former pilot in the Israeli Air Force.

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

“What a journey!” Mr Lopez-Alegria reported on Twitter from the orbit.

They are scheduled to dock at the space station on Saturday morning.

Although the Kennedy Space Center was part of NASA, NASA had almost no role in the launch or orbital journey. Agency officials were happy because they were looking to the future when they would only be able to buy services from commercial vendors, such as the space station.

The International Space Station, almost like a football field, is a technological marvel, but it costs NASA about $ 1.3 billion a year to operate it. Although NASA plans to extend the lifespan of the current station by 2030, it expects much less expensive commercial space stations to remain in orbit until then.

For NASA, this means figuring out how to collaborate with private enterprises in orbit, including hosting astronauts, and how Axiom and other organizations need to build a profitable off-planet business.

Axiom is planning four or five such missions on the space station, and has since struck a deal with NASA to connect several modules built into the space station. When the International Space Station finally retires, those modules need to be separated to form the core of an Axiom station.

“This is the first mission in our effort to build a commercial space station,” said Michael T. Suffredini, president and chief executive of Axiom, a former ISS operative who worked at NASA.

Space tourism has increased in the last year. Blue Origin, a company founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, has begun taking customers on a short suborbital trip to the edge of space. Virgin Galactic flew its founder, Richard Branson, on a short flight and started selling tickets for future flights.

In September, a SpaceX Crew Dragon launch chartered by billionaire entrepreneur Jared Isaacman was the first voyage in orbit with none of the passengers being professional astronauts. For that mission, whose name is Inspiration4, Mr. Isaacman decided to give the opportunity to three people who would never be able to carry out this trip on their own. That trip did not go to the space station, and the four spent three days floating in orbit before returning to Earth.

In contrast, each of Axiom’s space travelers is paying in their own way and the experience is different. Private travelers before the space station – most recently Yusaku Maizwa, a Japanese billionaire – traveled on a Russian Soyuz rocket 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 news conference last month, Mr. Connor objected to being called a space tourist.

“Astronauts, they will spend 10 or 15 hours training in space, five to 10 minutes,” he said. “And by the way, it’s okay. In our case, depending on our role, we’ve spent over 750 to 1,000 hours of training. “

At least theoretically, this is the future that NASA has been working on for decades.

In 1984, during the Reagan administration, the law established by NASA was amended to encourage private enterprise outside the world. But after losing the Challenger in 1986, plans to privatize NASA’s space shuttle were scrapped.

Instead, in the fading years of communism it was the Soviet space program that was ahead of NASA in selling access to space. When the International Space Station opened, Dennis Tito, an American entrepreneur, was the first Russian-hosted tourist in 2001. Russia has stopped taking private travelers since 2009; With the upcoming retirement of space shuttles, NASA had to buy seats available on Russian rockets to get its astronauts to and from the space station.

In the last few years, NASA has opened up to the concept of space tourism. Jim Brydenstein, NASA’s administrator during the Trump administration, often talked about being one of NASA’s many customers and how it would drastically reduce costs for NASA.

But for NASA to have one customer for many, there must be other customers. Ultimately, other applications, such as pharmaceutical research or zero-gravity manufacturing, may ultimately be fruitful.

For now, the most promising market is rich people who pay for spaceflight themselves.

Although Axiom Space now refuses to comment when asked how much it charges to fly to the International Space Station, the company paid a ticket a few years ago: $ 55 million per passenger.

Most of the cost of rockets and spacecraft needed to go into orbit is fixed. And once there, customers must pay for accommodation and amenities.

In 2019, NASA created a price list for the use of space stations by private companies. For space travelers, NASA says it will charge companies like Axiom Space 35,000 per night, including sleeping space and amenities, including air, water, internet and toilets. Last year, NASA said it had raised prices for future trips to the station.

In some areas, Axiom-1 crew members have received similar training as NASA astronauts, especially for safety procedures and daily life in orbit. Mrs. Weigel gave the example of the toilet. They had to learn how their space station toilets work, but, as guests, did not need training on how to repair their toilets if they were defective.

When they board the space station, Axiom visitors will get an adaptation of what to do in different emergencies and how to use the facilities. “It simply came to our notice then what our crew did for the first day and a half,” said Mrs. Weigel.

After that, Axiom astronauts will depart and conduct their own activities, including 25 scientific experiments that they plan to conduct on the space station in eight days. The experiments include planned medical work with organizations such as the Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic and Montreal Children’s Hospital. Axiom astronauts will also showcase some of the technology, such as self-assembled robots, that could be used to create future spacecraft in space.

Axiom visitors’ activities are integrated with the other crew members 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 together,” said Mrs. Weigel.

Due to overcrowding in the US segment, some sleeping quarters are temporary in different parts of the station. One person would sleep in the crew dragon, Mrs. 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 Lopez-Allegria said last month.

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