COLORADO SPRINGS – The first commercial mission by an American spacecraft to the International Space Station is poised for launch, paving the way for a new era of commercial human spaceflight in orbit.
At an April 7 briefing, officials from NASA, Axiom Space and SpaceX said the Falcon 9 launch vehicle and Crew Dragon spacecraft are ready for launch April 8 at 11:17 a.m. Eastern from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center. Meteorologists forecast a 90 percent chance of acceptable weather for launch.
One issue still under investigation is the weather at abort locations along the vehicle’s ascent to orbit off the East Coast and into the North Atlantic. Benji Reed, senior director of human spaceflight programs at SpaceX, said the weather at those locations “started getting a little better” after earlier concerns they might violate restrictions around conditions like wind and sea conditions. “A handful of those items that looked like a no-go have now trended towards a go,” he said.
If Ax-2 does not launch on April 8th, there are additional launch opportunities on April 9th or 10th. Should the launch be delayed further, NASA officials said they would negotiate with the Space Launch System program, which is preparing for another attempt at a refueling test and will begin countdown rehearsals as early as March 11.
Dubbed Ax-1, the mission will transport four private astronauts to the ISS for an eight-day stay. Michael López-Alegría, an Axiom employee and former NASA astronaut, will lead the mission with three customers on board: Larry Connor, Mark Pathy and Eytan Stibbe.
While non-professional astronauts have visited the station intermittently for more than two decades, all previous visits have involved Soyuz missions to the station. These missions also all had at least one government cosmonaut on board. In contrast, Ax-1 is the first to involve an American spacecraft and the first to be manned entirely by private individuals rather than government employees.
Derek Hassmann, operations director at Axiom, described Ax-1 as a “precursor mission” to the company’s long-term plans, which include installing a number of commercial modules on the ISS that would later serve as the core of a self-contained space station. “We will expand our relationships with both NASA and SpaceX. We will demonstrate the capabilities that NASA brings to the table,” he said.
The mission is also a game changer for NASA as it adjusts to having commercial astronauts on the US segment of the ISS, which they rarely visited on previous Russian missions. “They’ve moved into the US segment, but their interest is usually in two different things. One uses our dome so they can get great photos out the window and the other uses email,” said Dana Weigel, NASA ISS deputy program manager. “Our experience so far is really, really limited.”
Axiom and NASA worked closely together on various aspects of the mission, from required training of the Ax-1 crew on ISS systems to determining what consumables and other cargo they needed to bring to the station. Ax-1, for example, will use some station resources like oxygen and compensate NASA for it, rather than being fully self-sufficient as initially proposed.
“From our perspective, we’re really looking at this in terms of what commercial missions want to look like,” said Angela Hart, manager of NASA’s commercial LEO program. “What are the customer needs, which markets are interested. We will learn a lot there.”
Both Axiom and NASA said they are committed to working together on this mission and using the lessons learned to inform future missions. Axiom has a NASA agreement for its Ax-2 mission, another Crew Dragon flight to the ISS, in early 2023. NASA plans to solicit proposals for additional private astronaut missions after Ax-1 flies.
“The Space Station team is very excited about this unique mission and also to be at the forefront of the commercialization of low Earth orbit,” Weigel said, adding that interest also extended to the astronauts on the ISS itself. “They are extremely pleased to welcome the Axiom crew on board and excited to be a part of this first, historic mission.”
“They want to be the best possible private astronauts that you can imagine,” Hassmann said of the Ax-1 crew. “They want to be good houseguests, if you will.”