Private astronauts dock and then crowd onto the space station

The largest orbiting laboratory in the sky just got a lot more crowded.

The Axiom Space mission, the first all-private astronaut expedition to the International Space Station, arrived Saturday morning. As the ISS flew 250 miles due over the Atlantic, private astronauts Michael Lopez-Alegria, Larry Connor, Eytan Stibbe and Mark Pathy successfully docked the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and opened the hatch at 10:13 a.m. ET.

Perhaps a new group photo – showing some space-delayed and cabin fever-weary faces – says it all.

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The Axiom crew will spend 10 days aboard the space station conducting scientific experiments in the lab’s unique microgravity environment and participating in other commercial activities.

The mission will earn its place in history by expanding the definition of “astronaut.” For decades, this title was reserved for government space pilots and crews. More recently, overabundant space tourists riding Blue Origin, SpaceX and Virgin Galactic have received the accolade of breaching Earth’s atmosphere.

With this new voyage comes a third possible description: someone who was privately trained and taken to space to conduct commercial scientific research.

“It’s important to address the difference between space tourists and private astronauts,” said Larry Connor, the mission’s pilot, during a news conference a week ago. “We think space tourists train 10 or 15 hours for five to 10 minutes in space — and that’s fine, by the way. In our case, depending on the role, we spent between 750 and 750 hours on over 1,000 hours of training.”

With the four Axiom astronauts on board, the space station now has a party of 11 people. That’s almost twice the capacity the space station was designed for: a crew of six, according to NASA (although the station can temporarily support other visitors as well). ). Now imagine that the space station is only about the size of a five bedroom house.

Before the official public broadcast began, the crew had to reposition the camera to fit all of the station’s residents in the frame, a commentator on the mission broadcast said.

But it’s not a record. Most of the people on the space station at any one time are a baker’s dozen. Occupancy increased to 13 people three times during the Space Shuttle program: STS-127 in July 2009, STS-128 in August 2009, and STS-131 in April 2010.

Other current residents are three NASA astronauts, Thomas Marshburn, Raja Chari and Kayla Barron; an astronaut from the European Space Agency, Matthias Maurer; and three Roscosmos cosmonauts, Oleg Artemyev, Sergey Korsokov and Denis Matveev.

What were the reactions of the newcomers to the prospect of their new digs?

“I could hear them one by one saying ‘expletive words deleted’ as soon as they looked out the window, literally every one of them, and I just smiled a little bit,” said Lopez-Alegria, the commander of the Axiom mission. “And then, when it was my turn to look at it, the same expression. It’s just an amazing experience.”

I guess you just have to use your imagination.

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