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Axiom Space plans for a string of orbital tours

Axiom Space has firmed up its plans with NASA for the first all-civilian mission to the International Space Station — and says it has three more such tours lined up for the next couple of years.

But those next tours are going to be more costly, thanks to the law of supply and demand.

“There’s still not much in the way of supply,” Axiom Space CEO Michael Suffredini told reporters today during a teleconference. “The spacecrafts are awesome, but there’s just not a lot of flights available yet, and the demand is still growing.”

In that regard, Axiom Space is a trailblazer. Last year, it struck a deal with NASA to have its own habitat attached to the ISS in the 2024 time frame, in preparation for building its own orbital outpost. This year, it announced plans to send three customers to the station under the command of former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria.

Today, Houston-based Axiom and NASA announced that they’ve signed an order clearing the way for the space station mission known as Ax-1 to take place by as early as next January.

“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,” Suffredini said.

An initial agreement with NASA lays out mutual provision of services for a mission that’s expected to last for 10 days, including eight days on the station. Axiom will purchase services from NASA such as crew supplies, cargo delivery to space, storage and other in-orbit resources. In turn, NASA will pay Axiom for the capability to bring scientific samples back to Earth in cold-temperature stowage.

The terms of the trade call for NASA to transfer a net payment of $1.69 million to Axiom Space, Suffredini said. But that’s just one of the agreements relating to the arrangements. Other agreements will govern such things as ground support and training services.

Astronaut training will be provided by KBR, the same company that’s in charge of getting NASA’s astronauts ready for spaceflight. KBR has another connection to Axiom Space: Axiom’s co-founder and executive chairman,  Kam Ghaffarian, was also the founder of SGT, an engineering services company that was acquired by KBR in 2018.

And then there’s the matter of the ride to orbit and back: Axiom has contracted with SpaceX for a Falcon 9 rocket launch and the use of a Crew Dragon spacecraft.

So how much does the total come to? “We don’t generally talk about the specific payments that our customers make,” Suffredini said. However, he noted that the fare has been widely reported to be “in the tens of millions, which I wouldn’t argue with.” Past news accounts have pegged the price tag at $55 million per person.

Suffredini said the customers — Ohio real-estate investor Larry Connor, Montreal businessman-philanthropist Mark Pathy or Israeli venture capitalist Eytan Stibbe — don’t think of themselves as tourists.

All three are planning orbital research programs as well as educational outreach activities: Connor is working with Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic, and Pathy is working with Montreal Children’s Hospital and the Canadian Space Agency. Stibbe will bring up experiments for the Israel Space Agency and the Ramon Foundation — which is named after the family of Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, who died when the space shuttle Columbia broke up during its descent in 2003.

“The individuals are very focused on their philanthropic efforts and have worked closely in their countries to help develop research and other activities to further causes that are good for the countries, and really good for humanity as a whole,” Suffredini said.

Lopez-Alegria said training activities will begin in July, and ramp up to full-time training in October. “Then we’ll want to quarantine two weeks before launch, and off we go,” he said.

Ax-1 is just the start: “We’ve got things lined up for our next three flights, Ax-2, 3 and 4,” Suffredini said. One of those missions could well be Tom Cruise’s flight to film a movie in space. (Russian space officials have also been talking about having a movie filmed on the space station, but that’s a strictly Russian affair.)

Suffredini said Axiom Space was prepared to do a mission to the space station every six or seven months. However, it’s not clear whether NASA can accommodate all of Axiom’s missions on that schedule.

Angela Hart, program manager for NASA’s Commercial Low Earth Orbit Office at Johnson Space Center in Texas, said the space agency currently plans to support two private astronaut missions per year.

“We are seeing a lot of interest in private astronaut missions, even outside of Axiom,” Hart said. “So, at this point, the demand exceeds what we actually believe the opportunities on station will be.”

Under newly revised NASA guidelines, those opportunities will be awarded in a competitive process, during which Axiom and other would-be space station tour operators will be asked to show how their proposals would further NASA’s vision for commercialization.

NASA also has updated its price list for private astronaut missions beyond Ax-1, reflecting big increases. According to Space News, the cost of life support and crew supplies for a four-person, one-week mission to the space station would be $945,000 under the old policy. Comparable charges for cargo, food and supplies under the new policy would be at least $2.5 million, plus $10 million in fees per mission.

Suffredini said he doesn’t expect prices to come down in the near term, but that could change once Axiom has its own space station platform up and running.

“We hope to have about four crewed flights to our platform a year, later in the decade,” he said. “So we’re expecting a pretty good traffic pattern just to our space station, and we hope there are more over time that come to orbit. We expect, over time, prices will go down as demand goes up and supply becomes available. But I don’t see that in the next couple or three years. We’re probably almost a decade away before it really gets dramatically cheaper.”

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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