It’s not long as billionaires competed to get to the “edge of space.” Now the first group of private individuals are preparing to take a SpaceX shuttle to the International Space Station (ISS). Unlike Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos’ short “joyrides,” this mission will reach the approximately 400 km altitude required to dock with the ISS.
The mission by US commercial aerospace company Axiom Space is a major advance in private spaceflight and part of a plan to build a private space station. With Russia recently withdrawing from cooperation on the ISS, the world will be watching to see if the private sector can be trusted to provide reliable access to space for peaceful exploration.
The Ax-1 mission is scheduled to launch on April 6 with a SpaceX Dragon Endeavor spacecraft — the same as the one used by astronauts in 2020 — aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. The mission is scheduled to last 10 days, eight of which will be on the ISS.
Due to the high altitude and the long duration, the preparations were lengthy. The concept mission has been a plan since Axiom Space was founded in 2016 by Iranian-American businessman Kamal Ghaffarian (who also founded private nuclear reactor company X-Energy) and Michael T. Suffredini (who has had a long career at NASA) . And while NASA is funding part of the cost, each of the four participants will also reportedly have to make their own contribution of $55million (£42million).
The astronauts on board will feel weightless for most of the ten days and will be exposed to the dangers all astronauts face, including radiation exposure, muscle wasting and possible bone loss. However, for such a short mission, these risks are exceptionally small.
Unlike standard American trips to the ISS, mission control is located at Axiom headquarters in Houston and not on NASA’s premises. While this is the first time it has been used for a full mission, it has previously been used for research studying how elements on the ISS change over time. This resulted in the MCC-A (Mission Control Center – Axiom) being validated location for payload operations from NASA.
The Axiom 1 crew
The astronauts on board are all private individuals, with the mission commander Michael López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut. The other three members, Larry Connor, Eytan Stibbe and Mark Pathy, are described by the company as “entrepreneurs” and “investors”.
However, if you’re thinking of a stereotypically appropriate investor going into space, then think again. The backgrounds of these three men are very impressive and suggest that each of them may already have been selected as an astronaut for the space agency, including a private pilot and a military pilot.
Digging into their background, it’s clear that philanthropy is at the heart of those chosen for this mission, and each has a reputation for giving back to their communities. During their time on the ISS, the astronauts want to research how space travel affects the health of future astronauts – including vision, pain and sleep. Food growth experiments are also planned – all hot topics to be explored for future private space endeavors.
This is a very positive and welcome step forward. Typically, the data collected by the space agency is made available to researchers (usually after an embargo period). If private researchers are willing to do the same, it will herald an era of accelerated research and technology.
First private space station
The Ax-1 mission is the first part of Axiom Space’s plan to build the first private space station. This is no small thing; The ISS itself had to be built in parts and then sent up to be built in space. The total mass of a 420-ton space station is simply not feasible to take on a voyage into space. For comparison, that’s the same as launching 70 James Webb Space Telescopes at once.
It took over ten years and 30 launches to complete the ISS. Axiom’s plan is to actually build the space station onboard the ISS, initially building a habitation module (Axiom Hub One) with launch planned for 2024. Undoubtedly, once this module is up and running, it will take on more modules and connect to more modules as the funding comes in for the company.
With the ISS scheduled to be decommissioned sometime after 2030, an open and international space station is needed. While a space station is expensive to maintain, Nasa and Esa will likely at least pay a rental fee to use the facilities on such a private space station.
Many private companies will be monitoring the Ax-1 mission to make a decision on whether to pursue their own programs. Success would mean that investments and plans for future space station modules or entire stations could suddenly flow. If this is the case, space agencies will have to accept that they will not be able to compete with the private sector. Instead, it would be wise to focus on renting private space and conducting open access research.
I wish the first four private astronauts the best of luck on their mission and hope they bring back lots of data for both researchers and the general public to learn from.
This article was originally published on The conversation by Ian Whittaker at Nottingham Trent University. Read the original article here.