ISS photographed by Expedition 56 crew members from a Soyuz spacecraft after undocking

ISS to welcome first private astronauts

Image credit: NASA/Roscosmos/Handout via REUTERS

The International Space Station (ISS) will welcome aboard four new colleagues from Houston-based start-up Axiom Space, the first all-private astronaut team ever flown to the orbiting outpost.

Axiom, alongside Nasa and other industry players, has hailed the launch as a “turning point” in the latest expansion of commercial space ventures, collectively referred to by insiders as the low-Earth orbit economy: “LEO economy” for short.

Weather permitting, Axiom’s four-man team will lift off on Friday (8 April) at the earliest from Nasa’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. They will rise atop a Falcon 9 rocket furnished and flown by Elon Musk’s commercial space launch venture SpaceX.

“It is the beginning of many beginnings for commercialising low-Earth orbit,” Axiom’s co-founder and executive chairman, Kam Ghaffarian, told Reuters in an interview. “We’re like in the early days of the internet, and we haven’t even imagined all the possibilities, all the capabilities, that we’re going to be providing in space.”

The launch was initially scheduled for Wednesday 6 April, but an Axiom spokesperson said on Monday (4 April) that the delay will give SpaceX more time to complete pre-launch processing work.

If all goes to plan, the quartet, led by retired Nasa astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, will arrive at the space station about 28 hours later as their SpaceX-supplied Crew Dragon capsule docks at ISS some 400km above Earth.

Lopez-Alegria, a Spanish-born mission commander and Axiom’s vice president of business development, will be joined by Larry Connor, a real estate and technology entrepreneur and aerobatics aviator from Ohio designated as the mission pilot.

The rest of the team includes investor-philanthropist and former Israeli fighter pilot Eytan Stibbe, and Canadian businessman and philanthropist Mark Pathy, both serving as mission specialists.

The so-called Ax-1 team will carry equipment and supplies for 26 science and technology experiments to be conducted before they leave orbit and return to Earth 10 days after launch. These include research on brain health, cardiac stem cells, cancer and ageing and a technology demonstration to produce optics using the surface tension of fluids in microgravity, company executives said.

While the space station has hosted visits by civilian visitors from time to time, the Ax-1 mission will mark the first all-commercial team of astronauts to use ISS for its intended purpose as an orbiting laboratory.

They will also share workspace alongside seven regular crew members of the ISS: three US astronauts, one German astronaut, and three Russian cosmonauts.

Axiom said it has contracted with SpaceX to fly three more missions to orbit over the next two years. Nasa selected Axiom in 2020 to design and develop a new commercial wing to the space station. Flight hardware for the first Axiom module is currently undergoing fabrication, the company said.

Ghaffarian added their aim is to detach the Axiom modules from the rest of the outpost when ISS retires, around 2030, leaving the smaller Axion station in orbit as a commercial-only platform.

Once the collaborative space agencies decommission the ISS, they expect other operators to place their own stations in orbit.

Kathy Lueders, an associate Nasa administrator for space operations, described Axiom’s role as an “important partnership going forward”.

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles