On Friday, a retired NASA astronaut and three paying customers made their way to the International Space Station.
The mission is the first to go to the space station where all passengers are private individuals, and it marks the first time NASA has worked together to organize a space tourism visit. The flight marked a pivotal moment in efforts to advance space travel by commercial companies, NASA officials said.
“This is a really, really big milestone for us in our entire campaign to try to foster a commercial economy in low Earth orbit,” said Dana Weigel, NASA’s assistant program manager for the space station, during a press conference following the launch.
However, the mission also emphasized that most customers for trips to orbit will be very wealthy in the near future. Houston-based Axiom Space acted as the tour operator, selling seats for the 10-day trip, including eight days aboard the station, for $55 million each. Axiom hired SpaceX to provide the transportation — a Falcon 9 rocket with a Crew Dragon capsule, the same system that carries NASA astronauts to and from the station.
At 11:17 a.m. EST, the mission, named Axiom-1, took off into clear blue skies from Kennedy Space Center in Florida after a smooth countdown.
“Welcome to space,” a SpaceX official told the Axiom-1 crew shortly after the capsule separated from the rocket’s second stage. “Thank you for flying Falcon 9. You are enjoying your journey to this wonderful space station in the sky.”
The clients of the Axiom-1 mission are Larry Connor, managing partner of the Connor Group, a Dayton, Ohio company that owns and operates luxury condominiums; Mark Pathy, CEO of Mavrik Corporation, a Canadian investment company; and Eytan Stibbe, an investor and former Israeli Air Force pilot.
You will be guided to the space station by Michael López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut who is now a vice president at Axiom and commander of the Ax-1 mission.
“What a ride!” Mr. López-Alegría reported on Twitter from orbit.
They are scheduled to dock with the space station early Saturday.
Although Kennedy Space Center is part of NASA, NASA had almost no role in launch or orbiting. Agency officials are excited, as they envision a future where they can easily purchase services like a room on board a space station from commercial providers.
The International Space Station, about the length of a soccer field, is a technological marvel, but it costs NASA about $1.3 billion a year to operate. Though NASA wants to extend the lifespan of the current station to 2030, it hopes to have significantly cheaper commercial space stations in orbit by then.
For NASA, that means learning how to work with private companies in orbit, including hosting space tourists, while Axiom and other companies must figure out how to build a profitable off-planet business.
Axiom plans four or five such missions to the space station, and then has an agreement with NASA to attach several modules it builds to the space station. When the International Space Station is finally retired, these modules will be separated to form the core of an Axiom Station.
“This is truly the first mission in our quest to build a commercial space station,” said Michael T. Suffredini, Axiom’s president and chief executive officer, formerly at NASA as manager of the ISS
Space tourism has increased significantly over the past year. Blue Origin, the company founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, began ferrying paying customers to the edge of space on short suborbital journeys. Virgin Galactic flew its founder Richard Branson on a short flight and began selling tickets for future flights.
In September, a SpaceX Crew Dragon launch chartered by Jared Isaacman, a billionaire entrepreneur, was the first voyage to orbit in which none of the passengers were professional astronauts. For this mission, called Inspiration4, Mr. Isaacman decided to give a chance to three people who could never have afforded the trip. This trip did not lead to the space station, and the four spent three days in orbit before returning to Earth.
In contrast, each of Axiom’s space travelers pays their own way, and the experience is different. Previous private travelers to the space station — most recently Yusaku Maezwa, a Japanese billionaire — have traveled on Russian Soyuz rockets and been escorted by professional Russian astronauts. For this flight, Axiom and SpaceX are responsible for the mission from launch to the capsule’s arrival near the space station.
During a press conference last month, Mr. Connor contradicted the label as a space tourist.
“The space tourists spend 10 or 15 hours of training, five to 10 minutes in space,” he said. “And by the way, that’s fine. In our case, we spent anywhere from 750 to over 1,000 hours of training, depending on the role.”
In theory, at least, this is the future NASA has been working toward for decades.
In 1984, during the Reagan administration, the law establishing NASA was amended to encourage private enterprise off Earth. However, plans to privatize NASA space shuttle operations were shelved after the loss of Challenger in 1986.
Instead, it was the Soviet space program in the fading years of Communism that was ahead of NASA in selling access to space. When the International Space Station opened, Dennis Tito, an American entrepreneur, was the first tourist hosted by Russia in 2001. Russia stopped hosting private travelers after 2009; With the impending retirement of the space shuttles, NASA had to purchase available seats on Russian rockets to allow its astronauts to get to and from the space station.
In recent years, NASA has opened up to the idea of space tourism. Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator during the Trump administration, often spoke of NASA being one customer among many and that this would significantly reduce NASA’s costs.
But for NASA to be one customer among many, there must be other customers. Finally, other applications such as pharmaceutical research or zero-gravity manufacturing could finally come to fruition.
The most promising market right now is wealthy people who pay to visit space themselves.
While Axiom Space now declines to comment when asked how much it costs to get people to the International Space Station, a few years ago the company quoted a ticket price: $55 million per passenger.
Much of the prize is tied to the rocket and spacecraft needed to get into orbit. And there, customers also have to pay for accommodations and amenities.
In 2019, NASA created a price list for the use of the space station by private companies. For space tourists, NASA said it would charge companies like Axiom Space $35,000 per night per person for use of sleeping quarters and amenities like air, water, internet and the toilet. Last year, NASA announced it would increase prices for future trips to the station.
In some areas, Axiom-1 crew members underwent much of the same training as NASA astronauts, particularly for safety procedures and daily life in orbit. Ms. Weigel gave the toilet as an example. They had to learn how the space station’s toilets worked, but as guests, they didn’t have to train how to fix the toilet when it wasn’t working.
Upon boarding the space station, Axiom visitors receive instruction on what to do in various emergencies and how to use the facilities. “That actually looks pretty similar to what our crews are doing for the first day and a half,” Ms. Weigel said.
After that, the Axiom astronauts will go and conduct their own activities, including 25 science experiments, that they plan to conduct during the eight days on the space station. The experiments include medical work planned with institutions such as the Mayo Clinic, the Cleveland Clinic and the Montreal Children’s Hospital. The Axiom astronauts will also conduct some technology demonstrations, such as self-assembling robots that could be used to build future spacecraft in space.
The activities of Axiom visitors are coordinated with those of the other crew members on the space station so that they do not attempt to use the same facility at the same time.
“It’s more than a 1,000-piece puzzle, let’s put it that way, putting it all together,” Ms. Weigel said.
Due to the larger than usual population on the US segment, some of the sleeping quarters in different parts of the station are temporary. One person will sleep in the Crew Dragon, Ms Weigel said.
But the Axiom passengers said they were careful not to get in the way of other crew members.
“We are very aware that we will be guests on board the ISS,” Mr. López-Alegría said last month.