SpaceX and Axiom Send Special Astronaut Team to Space Station

On Friday, a retired NASA astronaut and three paying customers embarked 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 the first time NASA has collaborated in organizing a space tourism visit. NASA officials said the flight was a pivotal moment in commercial enterprises’ efforts to promote space travel.

“This is a really, really big milestone in our overall campaign to help promote a commercial low-Earth orbit economy,” Dana Weigel, deputy space station program director at NASA, said at a press conference. launch.

But the mission also underlined that most customers traveling to orbit will be very wealthy in the near term. Axiom Space of Houston acted as tour operator, selling seats for $55 million each for 10-day trips, including eight days at the station. Axiom hired SpaceX to provide transportation, a Falcon 9 rocket with a Crew Dragon capsule, the same system that took NASA astronauts to and from the station.

The mission, called Axiom-1, took off at 11:17 a.m., 11:17 a.m. Eastern time from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, into clear blue skies after a gentle countdown.

“Welcome to space,” a SpaceX official said to the Axiom-1 crew shortly after the capsule left the rocket’s second stage. “Thanks for flying Falcon 9. Enjoy your journey to that wonderful space station in the sky.”

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

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

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

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

Although Kennedy Space Center is part of NASA, NASA had virtually no role in launch or orbital travel. The agency’s officials were happy about this as they looked to a future where they could simply purchase services such as rooms on a space station from commercial vendors.

The International Space Station is a technological marvel that is about the size of a football field, but is a technological marvel that costs NASA about $1.3 billion a year. NASA hopes to extend the life of the current station into 2030, though by then much cheaper commercial space stations will be in orbit.

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

Axiom plans four or five such missions to the space station, and then has an agreement with NASA to add several modules it is building to the space station. When the International Space Station finally retires, these modules will separate 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 CEO of Axiom, who previously led the ISS at NASA.

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

In September, a SpaceX Crew Dragon launch chartered by billionaire entrepreneur Jared Isaacman was the first orbital trip 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 the trip. This trip did not go to the space station, and the four spent three days swimming in orbit before returning to Earth.

In contrast, Axiom’s space travelers each pay their own way, and the experience is different. Private travelers have previously traveled to the space station – most recently Yusaku Maezwa, a Japanese billionaire – on Russian Soyuz rockets and were accompanied by professional Russian astronauts. In turn, Axiom and SpaceX are in charge of the mission from launch until the capsule lands near the space station.

At a press conference last month, Mr. Connor objected to being referred to as a space tourist.

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

This is the future that NASA has been working on for decades, at least in theory.

In 1984, during the Reagan administration, the law establishing NASA was amended to encourage private enterprise outside of Earth. But NASA’s plans to customize the operation of the space shuttles were shelved after the loss of Challenger in 1986.

Instead, it was the Soviet space program during the fading years of communism that was ahead of NASA on the sale of access to space. Dennis Tito, an American entrepreneur, was the first tourist to visit Russia in 2001 when the International Space Station opened. Russia stopped receiving private passengers after 2009; With the upcoming retirement of the space shuttles, NASA needed to purchase suitable seats on Russian rockets so that their astronauts could pick up and take off from the space station.

Over the past few years, NASA has opened up to the idea of ​​space tourism. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine during the Trump administrationHe often talked about NASA being one of many customers and how this would drastically reduce NASA’s costs.

But for NASA to be one of many customers, there must be other customers. Eventually, other applications such as pharmaceutical research or zero gravity manufacturing may finally bear fruit.

The most promising market for now is wealthy people who pay to visit space.

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

Much of the price depends on the rocket and spacecraft needed to get into orbit. And once there, customers must also pay for accommodation and amenities.

in 2019 NASA created a price list for the use of the space station by private companies. NASA said it will charge companies like Axiom Space for space tourists $35,000 per night per person for sleeping quarters and use of amenities such as 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 received much of the same training as NASA astronauts, particularly in safety procedures and daily life in orbit. Ms. Weigel gave the toilet as an example. They needed to learn how space station toilets worked, but as guests, they didn’t need to be trained on how to fix the toilet if it malfunctioned.

When Axiom visitors board the space station, they will receive guidance on what to do in various emergencies and how to use the facilities. “Actually, it’s pretty similar to what our teams did during the first day and a half,” said Ms. Weigel.

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

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

“This is a puzzle of over 1,000 pieces, I’m going to put it this way to put it all together,” said Ms. Weigel.

Due to the larger-than-normal number of people staying in the US segment, some sleeping rooms are temporary in various parts of the station. Ms. Weigel said that a person will sleep in Crew Dragon.

Axiom passengers will also be careful not to get in the way of other crew members.

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

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