TThe food on board the International Space Station (ISS) will be good for the next week. Flying 408 km (254 miles) above the earth and gliding at a brisk 28,000 km/h (17,500 mph), the crew will feast on Arroz Estelle Valencia, a Spanish rice dish; Secreto de Cerdo with Pisto – Ibérico pork with tomatoes, onions, eggplant and peppers; and paella with chicken and mushrooms.
That, at least, will be what four of the 11 crew members aboard the ISS will be eating — the four who will arrive at the station tomorrow morning with their pantry full, having lifted off from Cape Canaverals Pad 39A this morning aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft, at 11:17 am EDT, on the first fully private station mission. Sponsored by Houston-based Axiom Space, the flight, known as Ax-1, will be commanded by Axiom Vice President and former astronaut Michael López-Alegría. Also on board are three entrepreneurs and philanthropists: American Larry Connor, Canadian Mark Pathy and Israeli Eytan Stibbe, who each paid an estimated $55 million per seat for their 20-hour journey to the station and the eight days that they will be at the station board will spend have paid .
Space tourists have flown to the ISS before – eleven of them in the last two decades; but they were all solo adventurers who paid to fly aboard publicly funded ships crewed by professional astronauts. AX-1 is the first fully private mission to the station – but it won’t be the last. Axiom has at least three more such missions planned in the coming years. Additionally, as I reported last week, Axiom plans to launch four separate modules to dock with the ISS — the first in 2024 and the others at nine-month intervals thereafter — that will separate and become their own private station before the ISS will be decommissioned and removed from orbit in 2030. Three other companies — Nanoracks, Blue Origin, and Northrop Grumman — also plan to launch their own private space stations this decade. (All of these launches, exciting as they may be to many, come with environmental costs. According to a fuel economy and emissions calculation conducted by website Champion Traveler, one Falcon 9 launch produces the CO2 equivalent of 395 transatlantic passengers flights.)
But all that is for later. Today, the AX-1 crew prepares for the mission ahead, and apart from their $55 million first-class seats and gourmet meal, they’ll be working hard. In a pre-launch press conference, Connor told reporters, “We’ve spent anywhere from 750 to over 1,000 hours of training. In addition, we will conduct about 25 different experiments with all the astronauts here, totaling over 100 hours of research [while] we’re on the ISS.” One such experiment will include a brain headset that will generate real-time electroencephalograms (EEGs) of the crew during flight. The astronauts will also conduct experiments using in vitro stem cells.
In addition to work, there is time for a moving commemoration. Stibbe, the second Israeli to go into space, once piloted military jets commanded by Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut to die in the 2003 disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia. Several pages from Ramon’s diary survived the crash and Stibbe will carry them into the air with him, along with a song written by Ramon’s son and a painting by his daughter showing the diary pages falling from the sky.
Space travel is a tough business, a dangerous business and an expensive business. But it’s also an emotional one. “[Ramon] was a good friend,” Stibbe told CBS News, then respectfully added, “He was my commander.”
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