Axiom Space is going to send its first crew to the International Space Station — but it's been slightly delayed along the way.
The Houston-based company is gearing up for the first in a series of private crewed space missions, which will act as a stepping stone to a complete station.
But on Monday, NASA announced that it would delay the mission launch from April 3 to no earlier than April 6. A “wet dress rehearsal” check ahead of launch will take place from April 1 to 3.
The planned launch is a fascinating twist in the new space race, which includes private companies alongside national agencies. While most attention has gone to rocket launch companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin, Axiom Space is an example of a company in another area that’s also crafting an exciting vision of humanity’s future in space.
Comments from Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos in May 2019 demonstrate why this is valuable. He explained that a company like Amazon could only emerge after the previous infrastructure was established, like the postal service and credit cards. Blue Origin, he said, would help develop the infrastructure to reach space so an imaginative entrepreneur could venture further in the future.
With Axiom Space, which depends on rocket launch companies to power its space station, that vision could take a big step forward.
The end goal is to use the private space station for commercial purposes. It could offer such amenities as a luxury hotel, a factory floor, or even a media production facility. The company’s website argues that “microgravity is the most promising environment for innovation and problem-solving since the Internet.”
As NASA has only cleared the ISS for operations until 2030, it might even be a successor.
This is perhaps why Michael López-Alegría said during a press briefing on February 28 that the crew is not “space tourists,” before adding that it’s “definitely not a vacation” for the four-person team.
But the delay to the launch comes in the same week that Reuters reports SpaceX will stop manufacturing the Crew Dragon capsule. The capsule is expected to power the Ax-1 and subsequent missions, but the report explained that SpaceX is diverting its attention toward the upcoming Starship rocket that could take on future crewed missions.
Ax-1 will be a big step forward, but space is already set to look very different for future missions.
Want to find out more about Axiom Space’s plans to develop a new space station? Read our full interview with Christian Maender, director of in-space manufacturing and research at Axiom Space, only in MUSK READS+.
Who founded Axiom Space?
Axiom Space was founded by Michael Suffredini. He has experience in this area: from 2005 to 2015, Suffredini was NASA’s International Space Station program manager.
After completing the ISS and working through its transition to better supporting commercial partners, he got together with entrepreneur Kam Ghaffarian to answer the question of what comes next. Ghaffarian founded Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies, which in 2014 was described by SpaceNews as “NASA’s main space station support contractor.”
Suffredini and Ghaffarian co-founded Axiom Space in 2016. Suffredini announced the company on June 22 of that year at the NewSpace conference in Seattle.
“Our long-term mission is to make living and working in space commonplace for all, and to create a means to deep space exploration,” Suffredini told Inc at the time.
In February 2021, Suffredini indicated that the privately-owned company was now worth more than $1 billion.
What is the plan for Axiom Space’s first private mission?
The first mission is scheduled to launch on April 6, 2022. It will take off from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
There will be a “wet dress rehearsal” from April 1 to April 3. This involves fueling the rocket at the launch pad to make final checks. The rocket will then hold a static fire, where it fires the engines without lifting off, on April 4.
The mission will use a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. It will use the Crew Dragon Endeavour capsule, which flew on two previous missions:
- The Demo-2 mission, the first crewed Crew Dragon mission, which sent astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the ISS in May 2020
- The Crew-2 mission, the crewed mission that re-used an old capsule, which sent astronauts Shane Kimbrough, Megan McArthur, Akihiko Hoshide, and Thomas Pesquet to the ISS in April 2021
The 10-day mission will see the four-person crew spend eight days at the ISS.
The crew is:
- Larry Connor, pilot
- Michael López-Alegría, mission commander
- Mark Pathy, mission specialist
- Eytan Stibbe, mission specialist
“They’re planning on filling most of their time with science, believe it or not,” Christian Maender, director of in-space manufacturing and research at Axiom Space, told The Verge. The four will conduct a total of 25 research projects.
The crew started training for the Ax-1 mission back in August 2021. These training sessions will familiarize the crew with the station systems, scientific facilities, emergency procedures, and more.
What is the plan for future space station missions?
The goal is to send a mission to the space station every six months. Each of these missions could take anywhere from 10 days to 60 days.
“The goal of our precursor missions is not just to fly customers; it's really about demonstrating capabilities that we’ll ultimately need for our Axiom station,” Maender told Inverse in February 2021.
The missions will help Axiom Space practice skills, build relationships with necessary partners, and eventually help it to start building the station.
Axiom Space’s next mission to the International Space Station, dubbed “Ax-2,” will launch sometime in early 2023. That means it will take around a year for Axiom Space to complete its second mission.
While reports suggest SpaceX will stop manufacturing the Crew Dragon capsule in favor of Starship development, it is likely for the time being that these Axiom Space missions will continue to launch with the Crew Dragon capsule. SpaceX already has four capsules on rotation:
- Endeavour, flying on the Ax-1 mission
- Resilience, which last flew in September 2021 on the Inspiration4 mission
- Endurance, which flew on the Crew-3 mission that launched in November 2021
- Freedom, scheduled to launch with the Crew-4 mission on April 19, 2022
Axiom Space will have plenty of opportunities to meet its anticipated cadence.
What is the relationship between Axiom Space and SpaceX?
SpaceX is one of Axiom Space’s many third-party partners. Axiom Space has signed deals with Elon Musk’s spaceflight firm to complete its missions.
- In March 2020, the two companies agreed to send one professional and three civilians on a trip to the ISS.
- In June 2021, it reached a deal for three further ISS flights.
Where SpaceX uses its rockets and capsules to support these missions, it’s Axiom Space that hosts the missions.
Axiom has also signed deals with NASA to support the first private mission. This will mean Axiom purchases services from NASA like crew supplies. Its website also lists big names like Boeing and Airbus among its partners.
How much will it cost to fly on a private space mission?
The Verge reports that the four passengers on the first flight each paid $55 million to take part in the Ax-1 mission. That’s about the same as the price NASA pays for flights to the International Space Station.
By comparison, Blue Origin’s flight to a much lower destination was expected to cost around $200,000 to $300,000 back in 2018.
When will Axiom Space’s private space station be built?
Axiom documents indicate the timescale for the space station. It would attach these modules to the International Space Station before eventually detaching as an independent station at an as-yet undecided date.
- Axiom Hub 1, with living space for four crew members, would attach in 2024.
- Axiom Hub 2 in 2025 would double the size of those living quarters
- Axiom Hub 3 in 2026 would enable the Axiom Lab module designed for industrial research
- The Axiom Power Tower in 2027 would attach a solar array, enable spacewalks, and give the new station the chance to split away
Maender told Inverse in February 2021, however, that Axiom Space would detach from the ISS based on a number of factors. This includes commercial partnerships and when the partners want to retire the ISS.
What will people do in Axiom Space’s space station?
Maender explained to Inverse in February 2021 that the company envisions six revenue streams:
- Private citizens in space with the likes of a hotel
- Astronauts in space
- In-space manufacturing with technologies like 3D bioprinting
- Supporting space exploration to places like the Moon, Mars, and beyond
- Media and marketing through the likes of a media production studio
The company is not the only one looking to build its own space station. Orbital Reef, a proposal developed by Blue Origin and others, will launch in the latter part of the 2020s and act as a mixed-use business park.
Through these proposals and more, the idea of a business address in space looks closer than ever.
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Update 01/14 5 a.m. Eastern time: The article has been updated to better reflect the fact that Suffredini and Ghaffarian co-founded the company.
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