CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Four private astronauts left Earth this morning (April 8) and boarded a SpaceX capsule toward the International Space Station in a history-making launch that wowed observers.
“Wow! It was a beautiful, beautiful launch,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s assistant administrator for space operations, during a post-launch press conference today. “It never gets old.”
At 11:17 a.m. EDT (1517 GMT) today, a retired NASA astronaut and three spacemen who had paid for their seats departed from Pad 39A here at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center for a historic journey to the International Space Station (ISS).
Dubbed Ax-1, the mission is the first manned launch organized by Texas-based aerospace company Axiom Space, as well as the first fully private manned mission to the space station in history.
The mission will be commanded by Michael López-Alegría, an Axiom associate who is a former NASA astronaut and former ISS commander. His Ax-1 crewmates are Mission Pilot Larry Connor and Mission Specialists Eytan Stibbe and Mark Pathy.
Live Updates: Private Ax-1 mission to the space station
After the successful start this morning, the crew is now safely on the way to the station. After launch, the crew members “did off their suits and begin their first meal,” Benjamin Reed, senior director of human spaceflight programs at SpaceX, said during the post-launch press conference, adding that the astronauts were “healthy and well.”
Reed added that the SpaceX Dragon capsule they are flying is “healthy” and “looking great”.
The Ax-1 crew is scheduled to dock with the space station at approximately 7:45 a.m. EDT (1145 GMT) tomorrow morning (April 9). After docking, the hatch between the Dragon capsule and the station will open at around 9:30 am EDT (1330 GMT).
You can follow docking activity with a live webcast starting tomorrow at 5:30 am EDT (0930 GMT) which can be found here on Space.com or directly through Axiom Space (opens in new tab).
Once the hatch between the capsule and the station opens, the Ax-1 crew will be greeted by the astronauts who already live and work aboard the space station. The station crew will also traditionally perform a welcome ceremony with the newcomers.
Ax-1 is a 10-day mission that will take approximately eight days aboard the space station.
López-Alegría did not have to pay for his seat on the flight as he helps the three other crew members and guides them through the mission. Connor, Stibbe and Pathy are fare-paying passengers and are said to have paid about $55 million each for their seats.
“I know the world is watching this historic event,” Dana Weigel, deputy program manager for the International Space Station for NASA, said during today’s news conference. To make the most of this incredible endeavor, the crew will have a “packed schedule of mission objectives,” she added.
These objectives include conducting 25 scientific experiments and a range of commercial and media activities for which the crew has been trained in orbit. Some of the science experiments Ax-1 conducts come with Stibbe on behalf of the Ramon Foundation, a non-profit organization he founded with the family of Ilan Ramon, an astronaut and friend of Stibbe’s who died in 2003 during the space shuttle tragedy Columbia died.
Ramon was the first Israeli to reach space, and Stibbe just became the second. (Connor is American and Pathy is from Canada.)
Ax-1 will be followed by Axiom Space’s second manned mission to the station, Ax-2, which is scheduled for launch in 2023.
Ax-2 is commanded by another former NASA astronaut, Peggy Whitson, who also commanded the space station and broke a number of records during her time in space. Like López-Alegría, Whitson is an Axiom associate and serves as the company’s director of human spaceflight. (López-Alegría is the vice president of business development.)
“We think it’s critical that there is always a professional astronaut flying to the station,” Michael Suffredini, President and CEO of Axiom Space, told Space.com in the post-launch briefing. “Obviously, Peggy and Mike have been on and commanded the ISS before, so they’re great for those first two missions.”
“We train crews to be professional astronauts, so we have the opportunity to turn the professional astronaut into a paying customer as well. But for the first few flights or so, it will be an Axiom astronaut who has been in command of the ISS. and we think this is the right way to fly these flights,” added Suffredini.
Members of the mission team, both before and after today’s launch, have said that Ax-1 is Axiom’s first major step towards its ultimate goal of building the first fully commercial space station in orbit. The first module of this future free-flying station is scheduled to launch in 2024 to dock with the ISS.
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