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The first completely private mission to the International Space Station is set to launch from the Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday.
The mission is the result of a deal between NASA and Houston-based Axiom Space, a private company that is also building its own space station to eventually host more researchers and space tourists.
The international crew members of the Axiom-1 (Ax-1) mission are scheduled to launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule from pad 39A at KSC at 12:05 p.m. EDT on Wednesday, April 6.
Not the first, but an important first step
The AX-1 mission is not the first spaceflight mission to be funded completely privately. That distinction belongs to the SpaceX Inspiration4 three-day-long orbital journey that launched last year and was paid for by billionaire Jared Isaacman.
The AX-1 crew members are also not the first private citizens to ever board the ISS.
Since 2001, seven paying customers have previously visited the ISS flying with Russians aboard Soyuz rockets.
Ax-1 is, however, the first privately funded mission of private astronauts that will be conducted under an agreement between NASA and its commercial partners.
It is seen as a pivotal first step toward enabling the development of a commercial economy in space. A future where private companies can transport and host paying customers — be it NASA, private researchers, or even rich space tourists — on privately operated space stations.
“We are excited to see more people have access to spaceflight through this first private astronaut mission to the space station,” said Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations. “One of our original goals with the Commercial Crew Program, and again with our Commercial Low-Earth Orbit Development Program, is that our providers have customers other than NASA to grow a commercial economy in low-Earth orbit.”
A private mission led by a professional astronaut
For three paying customers and one former NASA astronaut, the Ax-1 mission will be a 10-day long venture to space with an eight-day stay aboard the space station to conduct research and outreach.
“The first private crew to visit the International Space Station is a watershed moment in humanity’s expansion off the planet and we are glad to partner with NASA in making it happen,” said Axiom President and CEO Michael Suffredini.
Former professional NASA astronaut and Commander of the Ax-1 mission, Michael López-Alegría, leads the crew of four. He was born in Madrid, Spain, and will represent both the United States and Spain during the Ax-1 mission.
He has flown to space four times, was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2021, and has extensive experience with various private space enterprises.
Currently, López-Alegría is a vice president of Axiom Space and serves as the company’s chief astronaut.
“The goal for the Ax-1 crew is to set a standard for all future private astronaut missions in terms of our preparation and professionalism,” López-Alegría said. “As the commander, I am proud of the work these crew members have put in to be ready to conduct meaningful work on the International Space Station and glad to see them meet the standards required of all astronauts flying to station since Expedition 1.”
Meet the first crew of private astronauts
Axiom has emphasized that their private-astronaut missions are more than just space vacations for wealthy tourists.
Each Ax-1 crew member has partnered with various institutes to carry out scientific research or outreach in some capacity.
“This mission is very different from what you may of heard of in some of the recent, especially sub-orbital, missions. We are not space tourists. I think there is an important role for space tourism, but it is not what Axiom is about,” said López-Alegría.
The men accompanying him on the Ax-1 mission — Mark Pathy, Larry Connor, and Eytan Stibbe — are all wealthy entrepreneurs and investors who reportedly paid $55 million each for the experience.
Pathy, Ax-1 mission specialist, is a CEO of a privately owned investment firm in Canada. He is also known for his philanthropy.
He will be the 12th Canadian in space and Canada’s second private citizen to journey beyond the planet.
During the Ax-1 mission, he will conduct a number of research investigations and Earth-observation activities. His plans also include educational activities to contribute to the STEM curriculum for more than a dozen high schools across Montreal.
“I’m especially pumped about about the on-orbit activities and research. I’ve got a full slate of activities in areas that I’m deeply passionate about — health sciences, innovation and technology, education, the environment,” he said.
In partnership with the Montreal Children’s Hospital Foundation and six Canadian universities, he will contribute to ongoing research that looks to understand chronic pain, sleep disturbances, and changes in sight during human spaceflight.
He will also test drive a new method of mixed-reality communication between Earth and space. It involves two-way holoportation, or 3D projections, and special lenses.
Speaking about the demonstration that will be conducted for the first time aboard the ISS, “you can’t beat I guess the sort of cool factor of the tech demo,” said Pathy.
Finally, he will contribute Earth-observation data to the Royal Canadian Geographical Society to contribute to the understanding of climate change, specifically the environmental health of the Great Lakes.
Larry Connor, Ax-1 mission pilot, is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and founder of a real estate investment firm.
He is also an adventure-seeker and private pilot who has climbed mountains and won multiple aerobatic and automotive competitions.
In April 2021 he completed another impressive feat, diving down nearly 36,000 feet in a submarine to explore the depths of the Mariana Trench.
According to Axiom Space, Connor will become the first private pilot not employed by NASA to board the ISS. He will also become the first person to reach space and the deepest depths of the ocean within 12 months.
Former NASA astronaut, Kathy Sullivan, the first American woman to conduct a spacewalk is the only person to have previously reached space and the deepest ocean depths. She, however, accomplished the feats 36 years apart.
In collaboration with the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic, Connor will help to conduct in-space cellular research and ground-based biomedical research by participating in “pre- and post-mission high-resolution MRIs to study the effects of the spaceflight environment on spinal and brain tissue.”
Eytan Stibbe, Ax-1 mission specialist, is also a philanthropist, investor, and entrepreneur. He lives in Israel with his wife and three children and enjoys spending time with his four grandchildren.
He spent more than 40 years with the Israeli Air Force, mostly as a reservist serving as a fighter pilot while also pursuing a business career. In 2010, he founded Vital Capital investment fund to aid underserved populations in developing countries.
He also helped establish the Ramon Foundation to honor Ilan Ramon, the Israeli astronaut who died in the space shuttle Columbia accident in 2003. Stibbe served under Ramon in the Israeli Air Force.
Honoring his friend and one-time commander, he plans to take some personal items representing him and, “will be continuing an experiment that he started 19 years ago, mainly focused on observation of thunderstorms,” Stibbe said.
His mission, “Raika,” is one that “wholly embraces peace, innovation, and social responsibility,” on behalf of the Ramon Foundation and in collaboration with the Israel Space Agency in the Israeli Ministry of Innovation, Science, and Technology, according to Axiom Space.
“One of the biggest obstacles of space development is the price, the cost, of bringing things up to space. So the idea of industrial production in space is exciting,” he said. “The experiments that I’m more prepared for, those where I’m more involved, they have to work inside the glove box or they have to deploy some equipment or produce things in space.”
Trained to work and interact in space
“My crewmates have worked very hard. I’ve been super impressed with their diligence and their commitment. They’re busy people, and they’ve taken a lot of time out of their lives to focus on this. And it’s definitely not a vacation for them,” explained López-Alegría.
“We have been the first crew to ever go through NASA’s private astronaut syllabus and we have checked all of the mandatory boxes. We did that here at the Johnson Space Center,” he added.
The training might not have been a vacation, but it has been rewarding the crew says.
“I’m sitting here with my crewmates. And I’ve become really close with over the past year or so preparation. This close to launch, it’s really exciting,” said Pathy about the training he and his crewmates have undergone. “It’s been really at times, a very intense year, but incredibly stimulating. And the best is yet to come.”
According to Suffredini, the private astronauts received “like eight weeks total training on the ISS. The other half of our training is done with our SpaceX friends and while we do endeavor to train to the same level as our NASA colleagues, I’m not sure that we do all the way up to that.”
SpaceX Vice President Bill Gerstenmaier said, “the training is very thorough. And in terms of what we train them, in terms of (Crew) Dragon, it’s basically the same as the training for our government astronauts.”
A big part of the training focused on what the crew can — and can’t — do while on the ISS.
“The crew has been trained on the systems they will need to interact with, including the research systems. So, they’re fully trained on that. They’re also trained on what not to interact with,” said Suffredini.
It still remains determined how much interaction the Ax-1 crew will have with the Russian cosmonauts and the Russian segment of the ISS.
“The crew actually does have access to the entire International Space Station. However, they primarily will operate in the U.S. segment and in by invitation, the rest of the segments they’ll be able to visit,” said Suffredini.
“Axiom doesn’t have specific agreements for activities on the Russian segment,” said NASA’s Dana Weigel, deputy manager of the International Space Station program. “The way we handle it onboard is by invitation. And so if the crews want to share a meal, they’ll invite each other over. It’s very much managed by the onboard crew and what activities they have going on.”
NASA has already selected Axiom for a second private astronaut mission to the ISS. Former NASA astronaut and Axiom’s current Director of Human Space Flight, Peggy Whitson, will command the second mission.
That one is targeted to launch sometime between fall 2022 and late spring 2023, depending on ISS availability.
Beyond its agreements with NASA, Axiom already has plans in the works to conduct a third mission and fourth private astronaut mission.
Suffredini expects that the fourth mission will host only paying customers, rather than three with the accompaniment of an Axiom employee and former NASA astronaut.
“We’re confident this mission will become not just a monumental moment in space travel, but the true beginning of making space’s potential for meaningful discovery available to private citizens and organizations for the first time,” said Suffredini.
Jamie Groh is a space reporter for Florida Today. You can contact her at JGroh@floridatoday.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AlteredJamie.
Occupation: Former NASA astronaut, Axiom Space VP & Chief Astronaut
Known for: Has flown to space four times and was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2021
From: Born in Spain, raised in the United States
Mission Designation: Axiom Space Ax-1 Commander
Occupation: Investment firm CEO and philanthropist
Mission Designation: Ax-1 Mission Specialist
Occupation: Entrepreneur, philanthropist, and founder of a real estate investment firm
From: United States
Mission Designation: Ax-1 Mission Pilot
Occupation: Philanthropist, investor, and entrepreneur
MIssion Designation: Ax-1 Mission Specialist