NASA is about to send the first private citizens to the International Space Station — and it could lay the groundwork for our orbital outpost’s successor.
The agency announced Monday that it’s signed an agreement with Axiom Space, a Texas-based space firm, to send humans to the station no earlier than January 2022. The AX-1 mission will launch four astronauts from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, sending them to the space station in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule for eight days.
As part of Monday’s agreement, Axiom will purchase services from NASA for use in the mission, like crew supplies, cargo delivery, and other resources. NASA will also purchase from Axiom the ability to return scientific samples back to Earth. The current dollar value of the mission is $1.69 million.
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+.
“This really is the beginning of a number of flights that leads to the ultimate goal of having a commercially available low Earth orbit platform,” Michael Suffredini, CEO of Axiom Space, said in a Monday press conference. “It's a tremendous step forward.”
The mission marks another step forward for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, which flew the first NASA astronauts in May 2020. Ever since the end of NASA’s space shuttle project, the agency had used Soyuz rockets taking off from Kazakhstan to send its astronauts to the ISS. SpaceX’s capsule helped bring the flights closer to home.
This is not the only private spaceflight planned for SpaceX’s capsule. The Inspiration4 mission, scheduled to launch no earlier than September 2021, will send four civilians into orbit. But unlike Axiom Space’s mission, these astronauts won’t be going to the space station. They will instead return to Earth after their flight.
Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA, also highlighted efforts from Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic in Monday’s press conference.
“This truly is a renaissance in U.S. human spaceflight,” McAlsiter said.
Axiom Space mission: who will fly on AX-1?
Axiom Space announced in January 2021 the four crew members that will be traveling to the space station. They are:
- Michael López-Alegría, the mission commander. He’s a former NASA astronaut and now vice president of Axiom Space.
- Larry Connor, the pilot. He’s an entrepreneur from Dayton, Ohio, and has a history of racing, rafting, flying, and mountain climbing.
- Mark Pathy, who will be Canada’s 11th astronaut. He’s an investor, philanthropist, and CEO of Montreal-based investment firm Mavrik.
- Etyan Stibbe, who will be Israel’s second astronaut. He’s the director of the Vital Capital Fund, a private equity fund with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa.
The group is expected to being training for the mission this summer.
Axiom Space mission: what is the aim of the AX-1 mission?
The astronauts will be tasked with conducting various projects depending on their focus. Connor, for example, expects to work with the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic on research projects while also helping students back in Ohio.
But the AX-1 mission is just the beginning. Axiom Space also plans to use the missions, and subsequent missions, to build out a successor to the International Space Station. The aging station is internationally contracted until 2024, after which point its fate is unclear.
The new station will cover a variety of use cases. It will work as a luxury hotel, factory floor, laboratory environment, and even a film studio.
NASA selected Axiom Space in January 2020 to provide at least one habitable commercial module for the station, a contract worth $140 million. The first module is expected to attach to the ISS in 2024, gradually building out with further modules. The new station could detach from the old ISS as early as 2027.
Axiom Space mission: when will it launch?
The mission is currently expected to launch no earlier than January 2022. It will take off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
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