WASHINGTON — The first private mission by an American vehicle to the International Space Station is slated to launch this week to serve as the first step in a company’s plans to build a commercial space station.
Axiom Space is targeting April 6 for the launch of its Ax-1 mission on a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft from Kennedy Space Center, with a Falcon 9 rocket static fire test scheduled for April 4. The Crew Dragon spacecraft, Endeavor, will spend 10 days in space, eight of which will be docked with the ISS. There are additional starting opportunities every day until at least April 9th.
Endeavor is commanded by Michael López-Alegría, an Axiom employee and former NASA astronaut who spent six months on the ISS in 2006-2007. The other three are Axiom clients: Larry Connor, Mark Pathy and Eytan Stibbe.
Preparations for the mission, delayed from late February first by spacecraft readiness and then to avoid conflicts with the wet dress rehearsal of the Space Launch System at KSC, are going well, Ax-1 crew and company officials said a briefing on April 1st. “I can say without hesitation that we are ready to fly,” said López-Alegría.
In both this briefing and previous events, the company and its customers have gone to great lengths to emphasize that they do not consider themselves tourists. All four plan to conduct a series of experiments and studies for organizations in Canada, Israel and the United States.
“I think it’s important to address the difference between space tourists and private astronauts,” said Connor, who will also be the spacecraft’s pilot. Space tourists, he argued, would receive 10 to 15 hours of training for 5 to 10 minutes in space, an obvious reference to suborbital vehicles operated by Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.
He viewed the Ax-1 crew as private astronauts. “In our case, we spent anywhere from 750 to over 1,000 hours of training, depending on the role,” he said. “Also, we’ll be doing about 25 different experiments with all the astronauts here over the eight days we’re on the ISS, encompassing 100 hours of research.”
The Ax-1 crew will live and work primarily in the station’s US operational segment, which includes NASA, European and Japanese modules. Michael Suffredini, President and Chief Executive of Axiom Space and former NASA ISS program manager, said the crew can visit the Russian segment “by invitation” by Roscosmos cosmonauts.
The mission is a major milestone for Axiom Space, which is preparing to fly a series of missions like Ax-1 to the ISS before installing a commercial module there as early as 2024. This module and others added will allow the company to have a larger, possibly permanent, presence on the ISS and serve as the core for a standalone commercial space station when the ISS is retired.
“What is unique about this mission is that it is fully commercially funded,” Suffredini said. Axiom will compensate NASA for using ISS resources, but will also be paid by NASA for providing services such as returning equipment and experimenting with the Crew Dragon.
However, Axiom has provided few financial details about the mission, such as: B. the price paid by its three clients, each reportedly worth about $55 million. Suffredini declined to say whether the Ax-1 mission was profitable for Axiom Space.
“We are a commercial company. Our goal is to make money throughout the life of the company, or we’re not a big company,” he said. “Suffice it to say that this is in line with our original vision for the mission.”
“Ultimately, these will grow to a point where if we fly to our own space station, we’ll have significantly more access,” he continued. “We will continue to develop these flights to conduct more and more commercial research leading to in-space manufacturing.”
Axiom will follow Ax-1 with Ax-2, scheduled for launch in early 2023 and commanded by former NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson. Axiom has named a customer, John Shoffner, who will be the pilot of the vehicle, but has not specified who else will go on the mission. The company has reached an agreement with SpaceX for two more Crew Dragon missions to the ISS. With Ax-4, Suffredini said, Axiom expects to fly four customers on the mission without a professional astronaut as commander.
All four Ax-1 crew members said they looked forward to doing research on the station. “I hope to be able to highlight the value and importance and the sheer volume of Canadian research available,” said Pathy, a Canadian entrepreneur. “I’m happy to offer this opportunity.”
However, it will not all be work. Stibbe noted that the launch delay means they will be on the ISS for Passover. He said he’s looking forward to celebrating the holiday at the station, but with some changes in tradition, like wine drinking. “I took a wine glass with me, but I don’t think I’ll find wine in the train station, and I don’t think I need a glass to drink wine.”